Breaking up is hard to do

During the last week the air has been full of the mellifluous song of chain saws, hacking away at the trees and branches felled by the storm of August 5, 2020. I looked out of the window to see two men wrestling large pieces of wood while another held on to the saw. A supervisor sat on a chair near them, hacking away at smaller smaller branches, reducing the bushy growth to something that the saw could more easily get at. Chopping the branches, breaking them up, is a hard job. Across the city, people are still at it.

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Ever since the Mumbai cloudburst of 2005, when parts of the city got a meter of rain in half a day, the media treats every climate story from Mumbai as a story of a flooded city. This time was no exception. This story is not totally false, because there was a fourth of a meter of rain in the day. But this kind of rain happens once in the season without so much destruction. By slapping a label on the story before investigating, the media, and, because of it, the rest of the country missed what really happened.

This year’s story was of a storm. The wind speeds were high enough that this could have been a named tropical storm. Property was damaged, extensively, by the wind. The 200 trees felled by the storm, and the numerous damaged trees also destroyed more property. Recovery will take time. In the rainy days that followed, our window sills have been crowded by mynas, pigeons, and crows, more than usual. We know this because they have been singing, cooing, and cawing outside our windows and waking us up very early in the past week. They are the refugees whose habitats were destroyed in the storm.

Like the media, I could just put a convenient label on it, perhaps “man-animal conflict”. This is not be totally false because it is annoying to be woken up by crows, but it would be misleading. The real story is that they, and we, will suffer as a result of the storm. The correct label for this story could well be “anthropogenic climate change”.

Dance with me

On Wednesday, I went for a walk in the rain at 11 in the morning. It was not pleasant. The blustery wind pushed the rain through my poncho. At the end of half an hour I realized that it would have been easier to walk without rain gear; at least it would have presented a smaller surface for the wind to push against.

By noon, the wind had picked up further. The remnants of our cyclone preparation for June served us well. The windows rattled, and only a little water seeped in from the balcony. Outside was a scene from a nightmare. Trees swayed crazily in the wind (between 80 and 100 Km/h, as we found later, double that when channeled between buildings). I could hear cracks of branches breaking off, so close that it sounded like thunder. You can hear it once in the video above. The next day I would see the extent of the damage when I went for a walk; the featured photo is one from that walk.

Grainy photos kept coming in all day from friends: flood waters and destroyed traffic lights on Marine Drive, the roof over the DY Patil stadium (where some IPL cricket matches are held) destroyed, the iconic sign atop the stock exchange tumbled by the winds, knee deep water in one of the largest hospitals in the city, even the unloading facilities at the port damaged.

TV is pretty bad at reporting anything unexpected. Coverage started late in the evening, and talked only about flooding of roads. The rain was no worse than the extreme rain that we get once in the season. The “editorial oversight” that TV channels are so proud of completely missed the real story: the wind. Google News reflects perforce the editorial biases of media, so until now there is no overview of what happened. I had to mark every photo I got on a map to see where the winds had hit hardest: it was everywhere in the city. I suppose the surrounding areas were not spared either.

If the photos above don’t tell you enough, this last video should tell you how bad the storm was. No individual event can be attributed to climate change. But when events like Wednesday’s become more common, uncommitted thinking cannot blame anything else. The seas are hotter than they ever were in human memory. By heating the air above them, they are bound to create deadly storms.

Even now I can hear gardeners cleaning up the remnants of the trees (two hundred were uprooted in the storm, most trees lost branches). One of our neighbouring buildings lost electrical power until its basement could be drained of water; this took twenty four hours. The high density houses along the sea were completely flooded for a day. If the people who live there move away they will lose their livelihood. But when they do, the middle class will lose their maids and cooks. This is what climate change looks like: a mounting burden of problems, unequally borne by different people.