Thursday, 2 May 2019

Odisha SuperCyclone 1999

Another day another cyclone. October 29th 1999.

I was at XIMB. There was Xpressions (the Annual Fest) scheduled over the next few days. A perfect opportunity for me to go home to my toddler and spend a few days with him. Little did we guess the events of the next few days. Those were the days without mobile phones or constant weather reports, and analytics that have gone through 1000s of iterations to find the exact flow of a cyclone that is still 750 kms away.

The wind started in the night. The rain started heavy. And it went on and on and on and some more. Over a period of 18 hours the winds over 150 km/hr, howling and the constant downpour didn't stop. The electricity was first to go, with the TV channels. Then, of course, the telephone lines and all communication. Our well-made terrace drainpipes weren't enough to keep off the rain. The stairs became a water cascade and we had a 2 storey waterfall running through the house middle of the day. At first, it was impossible to go out. Then it became impossible to even think about it. Slum dwellers from low lying areas moved into the nearest pucca dwellings, finding refuge in stairwells and porticos. The elegant British era judges' bungalows had their asbestos roofs ripped off. Everyone was equal because everyone was trying to just survive. There were sightings of all kinds of debris including bikes, branches, animals flying about. I remember sitting through some of the day on the leeward side on a balcony for some time wondering when the mango tree on the opposite side of the road would fall. It was way beyond scary.

Two mornings later, things cleared. It brought some scary reports. The city had been in the "eye" of the storm for about 24 hours. A trip out on a scooter saw walls of houses ripped off and trees everywhere. One particularly poignant sight for me was a whole field of headless coconut trees. The horror stories for the two days came trickling in. Reports of half the deer in the deer park near our house having been just thrown about for many metres by the wind. About people washed away by flash floods on the NH, of Paradip being neck deep in water. The stories of mass burials and pyres were to follow a few days later when communication was possible for Jagatsingpur, Paradip, etc. I later heard the stories of my friends from XIMB. The canteen operated for the first day. The next day everyone knew this was not a run of the mill storm. The slum dwellers across the road from our beautiful campus trickled in. They were provided shelter at one of the halls. The students all huddled in the common room since it was impossible to make the trips back and forth from the hostels and the light also had to be shared. Food was rationed and prepared for everyone, including the 100 odd guests from the slums.

On the 4th or 5th day when weather was kind of settled, I made the trip back to the hostel, from Cuttack to Bhubaneswar, with my husband on his scooter. The institute was closed for 15 days, we found out, but the trip was an eye opener on the destruction. The fallen trees, the broken roads, the flash floods, the destroyed fields, the dead cattle. Only one word came to mind. This is what “pralay” looks like.

Things limped back to normal. Water tankers went around the city carrying fresh water. And thankfully those days one used simple candle based water filters so one got drinking water. The electricity was down for about 15 days, if one was lucky. It came back after a month at many places. The Govt was clueless. The effort of everyone apparently was to bring the coastal areas, where the real loss of lives took place, to order. People were homeless, kids orphaned, flood water was everywhere, dead bodies were uncountable. A friend who had gone into the interiors to volunteer said bodies were being piled up and burnt to ward off stench and diseases. Identification was not a priority. And there were hundreds of such funeral pyres happening. CM Chandrababu Naidu chipped in. The volunteers of Andhra came and chopped away trees, cleared debris, put up the bent electric poles and brought some semblance of normalcy to Cuttack. As normal as it can be for a place stripped off most trees and the horrors and helplessness still on the mind.

If this latest cyclone "Fani" actually strikes at 180-200 km/ hr, be safe, stay indoors, keep a bucket of fresh water and a flashlight handy. Don't count on anything else. Life goes on, or not. And help thy neighbor.