The heaviest rainfall in more than 100 years has devastated swaths of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, leaving over 250 people dead and forcing thousands to leave their submerged homes as schools, offices and an airport remained shut for a second day Thursday.
Chennai, the state capital, received more than 13 inches of rain over 24 hours, significantly higher than the average for the entire month of December, said Home Minister Rajnath Singh.
At least 269 people have been killed in the state since heavy rains began in early November, according to Singh. The Wall Street Journal, citing authorities, said 40 people had been killed in the past 48 hours.
The downpour eased early Thursday, but the Indian Meteorological Department predicted more heavy rain in several parts of the state through the rest of the week.
The state government cut power to several parts of Chennai as a safety measure to prevent electrocutions. Most deaths have occurred due to drowning, electrocution and wall collapses.
The floods have also cut off more than 3 million people from basic services and hampered rescue efforts by the army, which has so far evacuated 18,000 people from rooftops and outlying villages.
“I can't even believe that this much water is possible in Chennai,” a woman told NDTV television as she stood in waist-deep water.
“We don't have any food. We don't have any milk,” she said, adding that she was searching for a shop selling food, “but I'm scared to walk down this road.”
City authorities were deploying bulldozers and bags of concrete to repair collapsed roads and bridges. Train services and flights to Chennai were washed out, and the navy has pressed fishing boats into service to evacuate people from the worst-hit suburbs to temples, schools and wedding halls.
Low-lying neighborhoods and the city's airport were almost completely submerged. The Airport Authority of India said the airport is likely to remain closed until Sunday. The main train station was so heavily flooded Thursday that it had to halt operations.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has blamed climate change for the deluge, traveled to Chennai to get a first-hand view of a rescue effort that has so far been halting.
“The government will stand by the people of Tamil Nadu in their hour of need,” Modi told reporters, promising $150 million for rehabilitation and reconstruction.
India's main monsoon season runs from June through September, but the period from October to December — also called the retreating monsoon — brings the most rainfall to India's southeastern coastal areas.
The extreme weather in Chennai comes as heads of state are meeting in Paris to discuss a new treaty to limit global warming. Experts say the floods in the city are most directly linked to the El Niño weather pattern, when the waters of the Pacific Ocean get warmer than usual.
“This year saw the strongest El Niño ever recorded,” said G.P. Sharma, vice president of meteorology at Skymet, a private weather forecaster. He said that was indicative of an extremely heavy retreating monsoon.
This year, India had a weaker than usual summer monsoon, as it usually does in an El Niño year.
Experts at the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi said the floods were “a reminder of increasing frequency of such freak weather events across the Indian subcontinent.”
But they said poor urban planning had likely exacerbated the scale of the disaster.
“We have forgotten the art of drainage. We only see land for buildings, not for water,” said CSE director general Sunita Narain.
Al Jazeera and wire services