Frontline Volume 16 - Issue 24, Nov. 13 - 26, 1999
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU

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A 'super cyclone' leaves death and destruction in its trail over large parts of coastal Orissa.

in Orissa

NEVER before had Orissa experienced such a violent churning. The "super cyclonic storm" tore through the coastal districts on the morning of October 29 with a wind velocity of between 260 and 300 km an hour, and within hours the region was under several feet of water.

Within 48 hours, it was death and devastation all over the districts of Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Jajpur, Cuttack, Bhadrak, Balasore, Puri, Bhubaneswar and Khurda. The casualties included thousands of human lives and tens of thousands of head of cattle. All forms of communications were disrupted, and Orissa remained largely cut off from the rest of the country.

Paradeep township.

The storm, which slammed the Paradeep coast at 3 a.m. after ferociously swirling over the Bay of Bengal, was the second one to hit the State in a span of two weeks. Ganjam district was battered by a storm with a wind speed of 180 km an hour on October 17.

Paradeep Port Trust officials and the Jagatsinghpur district administration had sounded a red alert on October 28, warning of an impending cyclone of great intensity, which at that time lay centred 180 km southeast of Paradeep. Warnings were issued also to the administrations of the districts of Ganjam, Gajapati, Nayagarh, Puri, Khurda, Cuttack, Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur, Bhadrak and Balasore. The State government had instructed the administrations to evacuate people and stock relief materials. The Army's 120 Infantry Battalion had also been put on alert.

Despite all these, the government had no idea of the enormity of the crisis on hand. The authorities were aware that a cyclone had struck Paradeep but did not immediately know that tidal waves, rising up to 12 metres, had submerged several areas in Jagatsinghpur and Kendrapara districts. The storm lasted 34 hours.

The earlier devastation caused to Ganjam district appeared negligible in comparison to the blow the "super cyclone" dealt. According to unofficial reports, at least 5,000 people have been killed in Paradeep alone. Whereas the Divisional Commissioner's office estimated the property loss in Ganjam at Rs.1,000 crores. Chief Minister Giridhar Gamang put the damage caused by the "super cyclone" at Rs.1,000,000 crores. In Ganjam, the cyclone and the rain that accompanied it paralysed the Gopalpur port, affected two million people in 18 blocks and damaged 1,500 villages. The "super cyclone" destroyed 25,000 houses in Gajapati, Khurda, Puri, Cuttack, Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Bhadrak and Balasore districts.

GIRIDHAR GAMANG and Revenue Minister Jagannath Patnaik undertook an aerial survey of the affected areas. Patnaik, who personally oversaw the relief operations in some areas, told Frontline: "Such large-scale devastation has never been witnessed before in the whole of India. The cyclone has affected over two crore people and destroyed 30 lakh kutcha houses, rendering millions of people homeless. Roofs made of asbestos, tin sheets and tiles have been blown off. All agricultural land has gone under water, and saline water has entered the fields in many areas. In the marine belt, the prawn and fishing industry has collapsed."

Gamang told Frontline: "The loss of cattle has been enormous. I saw the devastation from the helicopter." The State government on November 5, submitted a report to the Centre seeking a preliminary assistance of Rs.2,500 crores for rebuilding the socio-economic and administrative infrastructure. The total cost of this is projected at Rs.10,000 crores.

TENS of thousands of people camped on highways (two National Highways had breached, affecting road traffic) and rail bridges. Railway tracks in several places had been uprooted or washed away. Uprooted trees blocked all land approaches to the affected areas. Road links to Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Jajpur and Bhadrak districts were cut off. Only wireless communication was possible to Kendrapara and Jagatsinghpur. Jagatsinghpur suffered extensive damage as sea water overwhelmed vast areas. The spectre of epidemics loomed over the district, as five lakh people lived in the marooned villages amidst decomposed bodies and carcasses.

Paradeep port, which bore the brunt of the cyclone that slammed the coast on October 29 with a wind velocity of 260 to 300 km per hour.

In Paradeep, villagers and also Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) jawans posted in Paradeep Phosphate Ltd claimed that the human toll in the region would be not less than 8,000. (Unofficial reports have put the toll in Paradeep at 15,000. The official figure, however, stands at 1,381.)

Several tugs and trawlers sank off the Paradeep port. Tiny villages along the coast have been turned into lakes, blotting out all signs of human inhabitation. The entire Paradeep region was under water. Debris of houses were found floating in the water. Bodies were found trapped under the debris. As the waters began to recede, the stench of putrefied bodies and carcasses pervaded the air. The Paradeep creek reeked with bloated bodies. Earthmovers and dumpers scooped them up, while Port Trust workers cremated them. The survivors, meanwhile, looked around frantically for food.

The PPL itself is facing a crisis. R.C. Mota, Plant Manager, told Frontline that at least Rs.100 crores would be required to cover the cost of damage caused to property and machinery. Power supply to the affected areas was disconnected. R.K. Das, PPL's Regional Director, said: "The Air Force provided two generators that served only 10 per cent of the premises. We need an 11-kv generator of 1.2 to 2 MW capacity to control the pressure in the ammonia tank in normal conditions. In view of the atmospheric condition, we release small amounts of ammonia into the air."

Das said that the situation at PPL was grim. "Our hospital is filled with outsiders who have sought shelter. I am fighting an epidemic here. As it is we have to feed 2,700 people (PPL workers and their families) and on top of that 5,000 outsiders have entered the premises. They snatch whatever food is brought for us. If food is brought via road, villagers rob the vehicles."

Railway tracks twisted out of shape by the impact of the cyclone and the torrential rain that accompanied it. Many passengers were stranded after rail links were cut off.

Along the 150-km stretch between Paradeep and Bhubaneswar, hundreds of people waited for an occasional vehicle coming that way with food. Uprooted trees and electricity and telegraph poles lined the entire stretch.

The silver city of Cuttack, which was under knee-deep water, suffered because of its basin-like topography. The city could not discharge the run-off rain water as the two rivers that flanked it had reached the danger level. It was plunged into darkness, with the electricity supply disrupted. Large areas of Cuttack district remained inaccessible even seven days after the storm crossed the coast, with blocks such as Niali-Kantapara, Govindpur, Baranga, Banki, Yigiria, Athgarh, Mahanga, Salepur and Nischintkoli still flooded. The toll in the district is expected to be around 300. An epidemic broke out in Govindpur.

Cuttack was luckier than Kendrapara district. From 500 metres above ground level, it appeared like a cluster of islands. What were land routes until October 29 are now navigated by boats. Hungry people scampered on sighting an Air Force chopper, hoping to receive some relief.

The picture was no better in the Chandheli region in Bhadrak district: access to the survivors was only by boats. With their rooftops torn off, the victims lived amidst floating carcasses, exposed to disease. While food was air-dropped, drinking water was unavailable.

An aerial view of a village which was destroyed completely near Berhampur.

The situation in Balasore, Bhadrak, Jajpur, Kendrapara and Jagatsinghpur districts worsened as a result of flash floods in the Baitarani, the Brahmani, the Subernarekha and several other rivers. In Bhadrak district, the Kansa Bansa and Salandi rivers washed away more than 50 villages. Bijayshree Routray, who represents Basudevpur in the State Assembly, told Frontline: "Thousands of people and over 30,000 head of cattle have been killed."

Balasore district was cut off owing to the breaching of National Highway Number 5 and the railway line. However, the missile launching pad at Chandipore-on-sea was not affected.

More than 2.5 lakh families in Jagatsinghpur district were rendered homeless and 1.5 lakh head of cattle affected. With relief not reaching all parts of the district, it is reported that the starving people are eating cattle fodder. In Erasma, at least 30 people are reported to have died of starvation. In Jajpur district, 15.5 lakh families were affected. In Puri, the number of deaths was officially estimated at 151. More than 5,000 tourists were reported to be stranded in the district.

In Keonjhar district, 40 villages were marooned. More than 10,000 people sought shelter in relief camps. Bridges over the Singhei and Kusei rivers in the district collapsed. The State highway between Keonjhar and Cuttack was cut off, with the Kusei changing course near Anandpur.

A body being loaded on to a dumper near Paradeep.

Bhubaneswar, considered one of the greenest cities in the country, was a shambles. It appeared the city was in the middle of a war zone - trees were uprooted, buildings damaged, lamp posts broken, houses smashed, hoardings torn off, fences broken, cars wrecked and parks destroyed.

Seven days after the cyclone hit the State, rail communication had not been restored completely and inundated roads not cleared for traffic. Indeed, Orissa appears to have a long haul ahead.

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