Cyclone fury

Published : Jan 27, 2012 00:00 IST

Cyclone Thane takes a heavy toll on the lives and livelihoods of people on the Tamil Nadu coast.

in Cuddalore and Puducherry

VEERAMPATTINAM, a fishing village on the edge of the Bay of Bengal, situated about 10 km from Puducherry town, bears witness to the havoc wrought by cyclone Thane in the Union Territory of Puducherry and the neighbouring State of Tamil Nadu on December 30. About 150 metres from the beach, hundreds of coconut trees were lying flat on the ground. Those left standing in what were once coconut groves four days ago had their broken fronds drooping. Fibre-reinforced plastic (FRP) fishing boats lay smashed amid them. Furious waves, whipped up by winds gusting up to 120 km per hour, had hurled them there. Concrete had chipped off a pillar against which the wind had flung another boat. Engine parts ripped apart were strewn around. The wind had bent a tall mast, with a halogen lamp on top, to form a square; the lamp was now wedged inside the square. A heavy anchor, which the wind prised out of a boat, had sunk into the sand. One half of a boat lay immersed in the sand. The other half had been thrown some distance away.

Fishermen M. Thangeswaran and S. Mani were scooping out sand from an engine they had dug out from the shore. It was a 10 HP engine, which can take a boat 15 km into the sea.

In the village, the asbestos roofs of every house had been blown away by the devastating storm. Two big sheds erected in front of the Senkazhuneer Amman temple looked bare, their roofs torn asunder.

It was worse than the [December] 2004 tsunami, which struck these parts, said C. Sethumadhavan, a young fisherman, who had just discovered an engine buried in sand, which he said had become dysfunctional.

The waves caused destruction in the tsunami and we lost our folk, boats and nets. But this time, with the wind and the waves coming together, the damage to infrastructure and agriculture is incalculable. We could not run anywhere because of toppled trees and electricity poles lying across roads. Ambulances could not reach our village to take the injured to hospital and we could not use our motorbikes either. So we carried the injured to hospital on makeshift stretchers made out of bedsheets, he said.

The scene was eerily similar at Panithittu, another fishing village 13 km from Puducherry town. The waves had travelled more than 200 metres inland and brought down the walls of the verandah of a house. Fishermen said the waves had ingressed 40 metres permanently. During the tsunami, waves came in several hundred metres but receded fast.

K. Perumal, a fisherman, pointed to a heap of mangled fishing nets on the beach and said, This is all we could retrieve. Hundreds of different kinds of expensive nets were washed away.

In South Street at Panithittu, V. Vaanpriya, an engineering student, was collecting the damp books that were strewn about on the floor of her house. The cyclone had blown away the thatched roof of a room of the house. The cyclone struck us like a rocket, Vallathan, her father, said. Wind and waves came from nowhere in huge eddies. All of us spent the night crouched in the small puja room. All the streets in the villages had roofless huts and electricity poles made of cement concrete broken in two as if they were pencils.

Damage to crops

Life could be really hard for the villagers in the coming weeks. As the Frontline team turned off from the Puducherry-Cuddalore highway past Reddipatty, Eechankadu and Pillayarkuppam, the enormity of the damage to crops came into full view. On either side of the road, banana plants and coconut trees on hundreds of acres had fallen to the ground, sugarcane had started withering, palmyra trees looked bare and casuarina trees leaned dangerously in the groves. Dozens of tamarind trees had fallen on the 23-km stretch from Puducherry to Cuddalore.

At Eechankadu, the winds toppled several electricity transformers erected opposite Elfo Tech Electro Chemicals, whose roof had been blown away. Elsewhere, poultry farm sheds had collapsed, killing the birds. The havoc at Panithittu was so extensive that women broke down in front of Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram when he visited the village on January 3. I thought the world had come to an end when furious winds shook up the trees and the roofs of our homes, Chinna Ponnu said. The damage to infrastructure in Puducherry and Cuddalore towns, which fell directly in the path of the cyclone, was indeed high. It was as if the two towns were caught in an aerial bombardment. Eve Herman, general secretary of the French Institute of Pondicherry (FIP), would normally take five to eight minutes to foot the distance from her home to office. But the cyclone has stretched her trek to 40 minutes; she now has to cross the roads blocked by trees and electricity poles, with their cables sprawled out on the ground. The SIPCOT industrial complex, about 6 km from Cuddalore town, was a sorry sight, with the asbestos roofs of chemical and pharmaceutical industries missing and the chimneys bent.

It was a surreal scene on Bharathi Road, Lawrence Road and Seematti intersection in Cuddalore town, with electricity poles, lamp posts, traffic signal posts and hoardings in a mangled heap on the ground. The town simply shut itself up as if a curfew had been imposed on it. Business establishments and restaurants did not open for a couple of days. When they did, people crowded shops and restaurants and there was a mad rush for milk, water, candles, kerosene and petrol. Water ran out because there was no electricity to pump water to overhead tanks. There was total blackout in the entire district.

All this seemed to be a mere trailer for the scenes along Cuddalore town and Ummapet, Kannarapettai, Sedapalayam, Kullanchavadi, Vazhisothanai Palayam, Ramapuram, Vadakkuthu, Vadalur and Kurinchipadi villages on the road to Neyveli from Puducherry. Only the skeletons of huts remained and vast stretches of coconut, banana, cashew, sugarcane, mango and casuarina plantations and paddy and groundnut fields were badly damaged.

The cyclone destroyed thousands of acres of paddy which would have been ready for harvest in a month. M. Umasankar, a farmer and a social worker at Eechankadu, said there was no way the farmers could hope to harvest them now.

G. Veerappan, a farmer from Kannarapettai, picked up a dry twig from the ground, and said, The cyclone stripped the cashew trees of their leaves and the trees look as barren as this twig now. At Karaikadu village, thousands of coconut trees appeared headless as their crowns had been ripped off.

Ramesh A., councillor of the third ward in Ramapuram panchayat, which has 18 villages under it, said, The vegetation here was so dense that you could not see half a kilometre away even if you stood on the terrace of a house. But everything is so bare now that you can see up to the Cuddalore beach, 7 km away.

In addition to the damage to crops, Vadakkuthu panchayat has another big problem on hand: access to drinking water. There is no electricity to pump water from borewells to overhead tanks.

Residents quickly organised themselves to remove the poles and trees that had fallen across the roads and restore traffic, said A.L.S. Anthony Dass, first ward councillor of the panchayat. K. Jagan, president of the Vadakkuthu panchayat, said he had collected money from the villagers and supplied water in tankers in 48 hours after the cyclone had struck. But he knows that restoring the economy of this agrarian region will not be that easy. It will take at least 10 years for the coconut, cashew, mango, jackfruit, tamarind and casuarina trees that are replanted to start yielding again. Workers in cashew processing units will have no jobs until then. The prices of all these items are bound to soar immediately, farmers said.

In Neyveli's Lignite Corporation's township and its cashew plantations, an estimated five lakh trees collapsed, denuding the township's green cover.

Puducherry's dark days

Puducherry, an erstwhile French settlement, was preparing to celebrate New Year's Day with usual its gusto when the cyclone struck. Groups of French tourists and visitors from Bangalore and Chennai had checked into hotels in the town to celebrate the dawn of 2012 on the boulevard fronting the sea in the town.

The India Meteorological Department (IMD), Chennai, had predicted by December 20 itself that a low pressure zone might build up in the Bay of Bengal just after Christmas. Resource models it had built for the past 15 years and the surface observations helped it issue the warning. Every three hours, we get charts of surface observations, an official of the department said.

True to prediction, just after Christmas, a trough of low pressure intensified rapidly into a well-marked low-pressure system, which galvanised itself into a cyclonic storm. By December 28, the cyclone, christened Thane on a suggestion from Myanmar, centred itself about 500 km east-south-east of Chennai. The IMD predicted that the system would move westwards and cross Tamil Nadu coast between Nagapattinam and Chennai, close to the Puducherry-Cuddalore coastal stretch on December 30 morning.

Kannan M., a researcher in Contemporary Tamil in FIP, said he felt fear in his bones as Thane pounded Puducherry. I have lived here for the past 21 years. We have lived through four cyclones, he said. But on Thursday night [December 29], my wife and I were really scared.

He remembers a similar wind-cyclone which brought no rains with it that pounded Puducherry in 2000. People living on the Puducherry-Cuddalore-Nagapattinam coast, used to threats of frequent cyclones, seemed to be a bit indifferent to Thane, perhaps thinking that the cyclonic storm would veer towards Andhra Pradesh or Orissa.

The situation was deceptive on December 29 evening. There was no rain, just mild snatches of wind and drizzle. By 9-30 p.m., the Puducherry Electricity Department cut off the power supply to the town and the neighbouring region.

The wind started picking up steady speed from about 11-45 p.m. and it began raining. The winds pounded the coast at 120 kmph. The winds were so strong that they flung open the latched, colonial-style doors on the first floor of the FIP building, situated close to the beachhead.

With the wind and the rains acting in unison, it was like a monstrous animal whirling around with an ur, ur' noise, said Kannan. The wind gained speed, but the rain was feeble. Between gusts of wind, it would be calm. After a calm gap of about five minutes, the winds would blow again, he said.

This situation prevailed from 6-30 a.m. to 8 a.m. on December 30, when Thane crossed the coast between Puducherry and Cuddalore. The gusts of wind continued up to 10 a.m. and started dying from then on. It rained steadily from about 11-30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and then everything became normal again.

Very intense storm'

Y.E.A. Raj, Deputy Director General of Meteorology, Regional Meteorological Centre, Chennai, called Thane a very intense storm. It was not a rainstorm but a windstorm, with winds reaching 65 nautical miles an hour, or 115 kmph.

We were able to track its path. All our predictions turned out to be accurate, he said. Most often, such intense storms caused a good amount of rainfall but it is disappointing that it did not rain hard today, Dr Raj said a couple of hours after the cyclone had passed. Cuddalore received about 9 cm of rainfall, Puducherry 15 cm, coastal Kalpakkam 10 cm and Nungambakkam and Meenambakkam in Chennai 6 cm and 7 cm respectively. A similar situation prevailed in 2000 when a severe cyclonic storm crossed the Nagapattinam coast with little rain.

Puducherry and Cuddalore residents who stepped out after the cyclonic storm had passed were shocked by the scale of destruction. Puducherry isn't the same when you litter, reads a board erected near the pillared War Memorial on the tidy boulevard. It seemed ironical that the storm-surged waves had lifted up the rocks kept on the shore to prevent sea erosion and littered the boulevard.

The 179-year-old Le Jardin Botanique (the Botanical Garden), the pride of Puducherry, was a wreck. Established in 1826, it is one of the oldest botanical gardens in India. Situated on 12 hectares, it is home to a mixture of species belonging to the Western Ghats, the Eastern Ghats, tropical dry evergreen species, deciduous species, and very rare and endangered species. An official of the Botanical Garden estimated that 90 per cent of its vegetation was destroyed. He was heartbroken that four out of eight Khaya senegalensis, a monstrous tree native to central Africa, had suffered damage.

The images of destruction and havoc kept repeating at Sembanar Kovil, Poompuhar, Seerkazhi, Thethi, Tirupayathaankudi, Tiruchattankudi, Pillazhi, Mayiladuthurai, Tiruvelvikudi and Kadalankudi, all in Nagapattinam district.

People everywhere said that Thane had caused much more damage than the tsunami of December 2004. While the tsunami affected only the coastal areas, damaging boats and nets and causing loss of life, Thane destroyed the entire agricultural economy of villages and disrupted its infrastructure, including electricity distribution.

The tsunami did not affect any trees. It affected only those living on the coast, said R. Rajendran, who lives near Panithittu. Thane not only destroyed boats and fishing nets but ruined the entire agricultural economy. Besides, it has damaged thousands of tiled houses and thatched huts.

Puducherry Chief Minister N. Rangasamy said on December 31 that 75 per cent of the trees in Puducherry town had collapsed, and paddy on 17,012 hectares in Puducherry and Karaikaal regions alone had been affected.

K. Balakrishnan, Communist Party of India (Marxist) legislator, who represents the Chidambaram Assembly constituency in Cuddalore district, estimated a loss of Rs.2,000 crore in the district. About 6.75 lakh houses, or 95 per cent of all the dwellings in the district, were damaged. Cash crops and vegetables on two lakh hectares in the district had been totally ruined, Balakrishnan said. This was besides the loss of poultry and cattle.

Balakrishnan wanted an immediate survey of the damage to crops in the district and asked the Tamil Nadu government to pay farmers a compensation of Rs.20,000 for an acre of paddy damaged, Rs.35,000 for an acre of sugarcane, Rs.75,000 for an acre of plantains, Rs.40,000 for an acre of coconut trees and Rs.10,000 for cashew cultivated on an acre. He wanted full compensation to the owners of boats and nets, whether they were lost or damaged.

D. Ravikumar, who belongs to the Viduthalai Siruthaigal Katchi (Dalit Panthers) and a former legislator from Kattumannarkovil constituency in Cuddalore district, said the forest cover in the district was only 5 per cent while the National Forest Policy mandated that all over India it should be at least 33 per cent. He, therefore, wanted Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa to implement an afforestation programme to compensate for the loss of green cover in Cuddalore from cyclone Thane. At least 50 lakh trees should be planted in the district, he said. Ravikumar wanted the State government also to reserve 50 per cent of the work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme for the tree-planting programme in the different districts affected in Tamil Nadu.

On January 3, Jayalalithaa announced a Rs.700-crore package to provide relief to those affected by the cyclone in various districts in Tamil Nadu. This was in addition to the relief package of Rs.150 crore she had announced on December 30. The cyclone fully or partially damaged about 3.5 lakh huts and tiled houses in Cuddalore and Villupuram districts.

Crops, including paddy, sugarcane, cashew and oilseeds, on about two lakh hectares were damaged in Cuddalore, Villupuram, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts. In Cuddalore district alone, paddy on 58,000 hectares, cashew on 23,500 hectares, sugarcane on 5,752 hectares and banana, pulses, oilseeds and cotton cultivated on 3,600 hectares were damaged. About 27 high-tension electricity pylons, 4,500 distribution transformers, 36,000 electricity poles and cables running to 350 km were damaged, Jayalalithaa said.

It is hard to say how long it will take to rebuild the lives wrecked by the cyclone.

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