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Death toll climbs to 269 from torrential rain and flooding in southern India

Death toll climbs to 269 from torrential rain and flooding in southern India
Indian soldiers rescue a man from floodwaters in Chennai on Dec. 3. (R Senthil Kumar / Associated Press)

Torrential rain continued to lash southern India on Thursday, with floodwaters closing down a major airport in the capital of Tamil Nadu state and driving many residents in the coast region from their homes.

The death toll caused by flooding reached 269, Home Minister Rajnath Singh told Indian lawmakers.

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Tamil Nadu's capital, Chennai, and surrounding areas have received more than 11 inches of rainfall in recent days -- about 75% of the average for the entire monsoon season -- with about one-third of the rainfall coming over a 24-hour period leading into Thursday. The downpour was one of the heaviest in the area in a century.

Late Wednesday, authorities announced the Chennai airport would remain closed until Sunday as the Meteorological Department predicted more rain in the next 72 hours.

The floods have displaced about 1 million people in the Chennai area, local reporter Aloysis Lopez said.

"The southern part of the city has been most affected," he said. "More than 35 lakes have been breached and all the neighborhoods have been inundated."

Prime Minister Narendra Modi left for Chennai to view the damage. J. Jayalalithaa, chief minister of Tamil Nadu state, wrote to Modi seeking $1.2 billion in aid from the National Disaster Response Fund.

The central government announced it would provide about $150 million to help recovery efforts, in addition to $140 million previously promised.

Rescue operations were underway, led by the National Disaster Response Force and civic groups. The Indian air force evacuated hundreds of passengers stranded at the Chennai airport.

Jayalalithaa said police, fire and rescue, national and state disaster forces and Coast Guard were on standby as needed to carry out evacuations.

"I have ordered officials to take precautionary measures before releasing surplus water from reservoirs and evacuate people living in low-lying areas," she told reporters.

Tamil Nadu was also hit by heavy rain last month after a storm made landfall in Cuddalore. "Losses are unavoidable when there's very heavy rain," Jayalalithaa said then.

However, experts believe poor city planning has magnified the devastation caused by a natural disaster. Many have gone a step further and called it a man-made disaster.

The head of Indian Meteorological Department, Laxman Singh Rathore, said Wednesday that the flooding occurs because there is not enough space for the water to drain out, catchnews.com reported. In recent years, Chennai's network of lakes, rivers, canals, wetlands and marshlands that previously absorbed rainwater or diverted it to the sea have been replaced by housing, malls, universities and businesses.

Experts believe urban planning agencies in India have not taken the issue of water flow as seriously as they should and that authorities have not learned the lessons of similar flooding in Mumbai, Kashmir and Uttarakhand.

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"This not only deprives the city of having its own water resources, it instead creates disasters like the one in Chennai," Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asian Network for Dams, Rivers, and People told catchnews.com.

"Chennai has destroyed its water bodies the same way Mumbai had. Now Mumbai's disaster from a decade ago is repeating in Chennai," he said, referring to the 2005 deluge in India's booming financial capital, which left more than 1,000 people dead.

Parth M.N. is a special correspondent.

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