It was a quiet, damp Tuesday morning in Chennai. Cyclone Vardah had blown through Chennai on Monday, leaving behind a trail of destruction, including 10 dead and massive damage to property. By the next morning, the calm after the storm had settled over the city. Residents slowly began to trickle out of their homes to examine the damage the storm had caused the previous night.
“In all my 50 years in Chennai, I have seen nothing like this storm,” said P Raman, a tea shop owner in south Chennai Thoraipakkam. “It really shook us by the roots.”
Cyclone Vardah had made landfall near Pulicat in North Chennai, with the wind speeds reaching up to 110-120 kmph. Although warnings of a very severe cyclone had been signalled across the city, residents were still shocked at the sheer intensity of the storm.
By Tuesday morning, however, they were facing another problem: Being powerless.
Authorities had stopped supply of electricity through much of the city on Monday as a precautionary measure. The following morning, as the city started to come back online, it was clear that much of it would continue to have a black out.
The winds had uprooted or toppled thousands of trees across the city, many of which fell on power lines and caused outages. As many as 200 transformers were believed to have been damaged. Communication signals were also erratic.
At 8am on Tuesday, C Vageshwaran was standing outside his villa in Thoraipakkam, looking at five trees fallen across the road blocking the pathway of cars and vehicles. “We cannot lift these trees ourselves, and the municipal corporation will probably not help us right away,” he said. “We will have to now employ 6-7 men.”
Vageshwaran said there was an additional problem of paying the labourers. “We will have to give them a Rs2,000 note and ask them to split it between them.”
The government’s currency replacement exercise, withdrawing older Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes and creating a massive cash crunch in the process, added to the worries in the aftermath of the massive storm.
“We were not able to access any ATMs whole of yesterday. None had cash,” said G Paramasivam, a former government employee. “We are told today is a public holiday. I have visited four ATMs in the morning. This is atrocious. I am 71 and retired. My son is in Singapore. How do they expect senior citizens to function? The supermarkets don’t open early. And all networks are down so I don’t know if cards will work. I gave Rs 400 in 100s and one Rs 2000 note. If we don’t get cash soon I am not too sure how to manage.”
ATMs were somewhat unreliable even before the cyclone rolled in, as government mints have struggled to print and distribute the new currency notes meant to replace older ones. It initially sold the move as an attack on black money, or unaccounted wealth, but has since pivoted to claim this as an effort to create a cashless economy where people use digital transactions or swipe their cards for all their needs.
A disaster like Cyclone Vardah, however, shows how much of a mirage that cashless hope may be, especially when there is no power or mobile connectivity.
Mayank Tiwari, an employee at an IT company in south Chennai stepped outside the Canara Bank ATM in Thoraipakkam wearing a dejected look. There was no cash being dispensed. His flatmates Shantanu Das, who was waiting outside, also looked disappointed. “It’s just a myth that these ATMs ever have cash,” said Das. “For the past two weeks there hasn’t been cash in even one of them. But today of all days, it’s all the more difficult.”
Das and Tiwari had arrived in the city only weeks ago. On Tuesday, the mess in their paying guest accommodation was shut since none of the cooks showed up after the cyclone.
“We are now looking to see if we can find Maggi packets anywhere, because that’s all we know to cook,” said Das. “We have very little money in cash now. We cannot even pay for anything by card because there is no power.”
The pain here might just be temporary because the worst of the storm seems to have passed and the city will now have to pull itself back together. But the cyclone also dredged up memories of last year’s floods when Chennai was paralysed for days without power or connectivity. A repeat would have been disastrous.
For now, residents are trying to cope with what they hope will be short-term worries.
Visalakshi, a senior citizen, decided not to go to the bank on Monday to withdraw cash for her husband’s death anniversary ceremony. “We need cash to organise the rituals. We don’t have any cash now. I have Rs 600,” she said. “I was supposed to go to the bank yesterday. But chose not to since there was heavy rain and wind. My daughter advised me against it. If we don’t get cash today I may either have to borrow or postpone the rituals.”
For those who don’t even have the option of digital payments, however, the future looks dire.
“We have not had any work in the last three days since it was a weekend,” said SS Venkatesan, a mason. “We surely won’t have any work today. No one has cash to pay. And after a cyclone no one will be interested in any construction work for a while. God is my only hope.”