#ChennaiFloods: Who needs mainstream media when you have social media?

The internet was flooded with photos and offers of help that spoke volumes of the resilience of a battered city.

 |  3-minute read |   02-12-2015
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A lot of people from Chennai have been complaining about the initial lack of coverage from traditional media about the Tamil Nadu floods. In fact, many have asked if mainstream media can even be called "national media" as their focus was pinned on North India.

North Indians may complain that it is Delhi-centric and those from Delhi may have their own grouse. However, the true story is how new media and social media seemed to have leapfrogged traditional media in terms, especially during calamities like floods.

What is the most important thing when a riot breaks out? When an earthquake strikes? During a flood?

In one word, it is "information".

It's not money. It's not even goods. It's information about where safety lies and where help can come from. Everything else comes later. That's where a smartphone with an internet connection trumps everything else.

In the case of the Chennai floods at least, mobile internet proved to be a life saver.Information crisscrossed the city of Chennai at record speed. While the Lok Sabha was busy with a silly intolerance debate, the people of Chennai offered an amazing show of solidarity and decided to help each other as never before.

Facebook was full of posts of people offering to help house the stranded! While anonymity is much sought-after nowadays, these good samaritans were willing to put up their addresses in cyberspace and invite people.

In one instance, one of the citizens was willing to accommodate 50 people in his home! Nobody knew how he would do that, but social media was full of such invitations.One tweet even mentioned that a cinema hall had opened its doors to let in stranded citizens. Now that means hundreds of people would get shelter before the water levels receded.

Twitter is a powerful medium and trends like #ICanAccommodate, #ICUNeeds (for medical emergencies) and #ChennaiRainsHelp gave concrete information to people about which area they could expect help from, along with hashtags like #VolunteerForChennai to urge others to help.

There were even appeals from people to stop tweeting about politics so that only information about Chennai floods would appear on everyone's timeline. This would be a real help. Now that's a new one!

One doctor said that he was stranded, but shared his number so that people could seek free medical advice in case of an emergency. Information also filtered in about helplines, boats and the movements of the Army.

In times of such natural calamities, the Indian defence services are extremely helpful, and people shared information on where all defence rescue personnel were posted so that help could be sought where they were active.

Detailed information was shared about roads that were still operational and those that had collapsed due to potholes. There was similar news about bridges, railway tracks and large buildings along with details of the availability of food packets in some locations.

One man set up a helpline for animals. Such was the absolute outpouring of empathy throughout the state.

People offered to recharge phones of those stranded in the floods and run out of talktime. And there were people giving out their mobile numbers requesting for a recharge. One report also talked of Paytm offering a free recharge of a token amount.

You also may remember Ola Cabs, which had replaced their cab service with Ola Boats. This got them a lot of goodwill and helped out a lot of people.

The internet was flooded with photos that spoke volumes of the resilience of a battered city. One poignant picture showed a woman in a raincoat walking in a flooded road with nothing but a milk can in her hands. The caption read that she had delivered milk even in such conditions and had been doing so for 25 years!

In another development, The Hindu newspaper wasn't published for the first time in 100 years. Is this a sign of the future?

Either way, the way social media is channelling relief efforts is definitely a template for future disasters!

Chennai, India is proud of you!

Writer

Sunil Rajguru Sunil Rajguru @sunilrajguru

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist and blogger.

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