The Gods must be angry, locals say, as nothing else other than climate change can explain the fury with which nature burst forth from the Tirumala Hills on to the temple town of Tirupati on Thursday after a torrential rain of 12-14 cm over a few hours.
It was unprecedented rain that caused the flooding, says Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam chief executive Jawahar Reddy. “We had almost 20 cm rain on Tirumala Hills because of which there was heavy floodwater from Tirumala to Tirupati, so low-lying areas in Tirumala and Tirupati were flooded.”
The flood in Tirupati and other districts in south Andhra Pradesh shocked everyone, who saw viral videos on not just torrential flooding never seen before in Tirupati but also because one of the worst drought-prone districts in the country, Anantapur, came under water.
One of the most striking visuals was from Kapila Theertham, by whose side the Kapileshwaraswamy temple stands. A waterfall burst forth dramatically with ferocity never seen before and the entire area came under a torrent of water at one go. Four pillars of the temple were damaged.
The ghat (hilly) roads that allow traffic to go up and down between Tirupati town and Tirumala hills – the most visited place of worship in the world – took the brunt. The rush of water was frightening. There were landslides with boulders falling on the road.
“We have two ghat roads. The up ghat road and the down ghat road. There were huge challenges in up ghat road because of landslides and boulders. There were problems at more than 10 locations. The staff worked round the clock and it is repaired now,” says Mr Reddy.
The walkway, Srivari Metlu or “God’s Stairway”, which pilgrims use to climb from Tirupati to Tirumala, was badly damaged; it hasn’t been reopened yet.
Tirupati town bore the brunt. Suddenly roads disappeared and turned into ferocious rivers where water flowed at high speed, carrying with it cars, auto, bikes, cycles, a freezer box, whatever came in the way.
People were seen desperately holding on to their hard-earned assets like bikes, and some clung on to their friends, loved ones and sometimes strangers, unable to fathom what could happen next. This was something they had never ever seen.
Among several videos on how the town got flooded was one shot by a man who stood atop his house, water running in a strong current around his house. He is heard crying in fear while capturing the environment around him.
“Seeing such a fierce flow, we have to conclude it is the fury of nature against which we are helpless. In 30 years, I have never seen anything like this. Only God could save us,” says Yadagiri, who was born and grew up in Tirupati.
Even before the arrival of the National Disaster Response Force, or NDRF, and its state counterpart SDRF, people were helping each other to stay safe and be rescued from flooded areas. It was public effort that teamed up to save schoolchildren in a bus that went into the waters.
In Tiruchanur, which has the temple of Goddess Padmavati, consort of Lord Venkateswara Swamy, the video of a double-storey house that fell dramatically into water, unable to withstand its pressure, had everyone worried, fearful about how long the buildings they call homes could withstand the onslaught.
Cows in a gaushala in Tiruchanur getting washed away in the rain was a frightening and traumatic visual that gave people nightmares.
But what caused the massive flooding?
Officials say for 10 days before Thursday’s downpour, it had been raining continually. So water bodies were full, Swarnamukhi river was in spate, and the soil was hypersaturated.
“The torrential rain of 12-14 cm turned into a torrential flood for Tirupati town. There was the problem of encroachments that blocked the natural flow of water,” Tirupati Urban SP Ramesh Reddy told NDTV.
Not just Tirupati in Chittoor district, all the Rayalaseema districts were affected by rains and flooding. Andhra Pradesh got its highest ever northeast monsoon this season, some 39 per cent above normal. But it is unprecedented rains in the usually drought-prone Rayalaseema districts of Anantpur and Kadapa that caused the maximum damage, in human lives lost, breaking road links, cutting off several towns and villages.
Andhra Pradesh got 139 per cent its usual rains this northeast monsoon, between November 1 and 21, out of which Anantapur got 273 per cent (173 per cent excess), YSR Kadapa district got 265 per cent, Chittoor got 200 per cent and Nellore got 138 per cent.
Neighbouring Kadapa received 165 per excess rain. Damage to Pencha project brought in huge inflows from upstream like from the Annamayya project and it led to a sudden deluge on the national highway and marooned people on three buses. As many as 20 people on the buses could not be rescued alive.
Several roads got cut off, like the one from Chandragiri to Srinivasa Mangapuram, which showed a deep 20-feet cut. Many roads got washed away, so did a few bridges, like the one across Papagni river in Kadapa.
B Rajsekhar, special officer appointed for Nellore, said the Central Water Commission had informed them that Nellore barrage had got a record 140-year high inflow from the Penna river, “which has never been flooded like this”.
The force of the water broke National Highway 16 that connects Chennai and Kolkata near Kovvuru. The link has been temporarily restored. Some 35,000 people had to be evacuated to 90 relief camps as flood waters took time to recede.
What explains this erratic and excessive monsoon?
Urban flooding has been called a manmade disaster, caused by illegal construction, overcrowding, poor and irresponsible planning, an archaic and overburdened drainage system, ignoring natural topography and to top it all, corruption.
“Tirupati is supposed to be a smart city, but you can see the condition here. No one has bothered about the city. There are irresponsible constructions everywhere. This is a world tourist centre and yet no one has bothered about it,” complains a resident, Mahesh Rao.
Experts also say it is the impact of irresponsible development that climate change is now inside our homes. Research has established that for every degree Celsius of warming, monsoon rain will increase by five per cent.
Climate scientists say the Indian Ocean has been warming faster than the rest of the oceans and this will intensify cyclones, extreme rains, and sea level rise along the Indian coast. There is already 50 per cent increase in Arabian sea cyclone and three-fold rise in extreme rain, causing floods.
The danger of so much excess water flow is not yet over. Just abutting Tirupati is Rayala Cheruvu, one of the oldest and biggest reservoirs, built by Krishnadeva Raya of Vijayanagaram empire, more than 500 years ago. A leak from a bund after the water body got full forced an emergency evacuation on Sunday of over 18 villages that could get flooded if the bund breaks.
“The bund is in danger of breaking. Please leave as soon as possible. Please leave the village. Please co-operate. Take your valuables and documents and leave. Inform your relatives. The bund is in danger of breaking. Please leave,” was the message on loudspeakers asking people to evacuate.
Pradyumna, special officer to oversee flood rescue and relief in Chittoor district, says since the focus was on saving lives, they had to move people, as they could not take any chances.
“There is 0.9 TMC water in the reservoir. There is overflow. We have to be careful as so much water has never come into this water body and it was not built to take this much. So downstream villages have been asked to vacate by the district administration,” says Mr Reddy.
Sandbags were used to fortify portions of the bund that looked vulnerable. There was also an attempt to open gateways to release water and lessen pressure on the water body.
The danger is still not over and at least 30,000 people are still staying away from their homes and villages. Relief material like food and water were being reached to the villagers by road and through choppers.
“What is to happen if the bund breaks? This government will blame the previous one and vice-versa. But someone must be accountable for why things have gone so wrong that are houses are submerged and there is illegal construction, blocking of waterway… From the field official to the Chief Minister, everyone is answerable,” says an angry villager Yellaiah.
Where the waters have receded, like in Tirupati town, people are slowly returning to their homes to count their losses and try to make a fresh start. The worry is there is prediction of more rain till December 2 and people are praying to the Gods to show some kindness.