CYCLONE Aila hit West Bengal on May 25 with a fury unprecedented in recent history.
It took at least 94 lives, seven of them in Kolkata, and affected over 40 lakh people. More than six lakh houses were destroyed completely or damaged partially. The cyclone originated in the Bay of Bengal around 750 kilometres away from Kolkata on May 23 and started making its way towards land. Its northern tip touched Kolkata on the afternoon of May 25 with a wind velocity of 120 km an hour.
Kolkata was battered by the cyclone. After Aila skirted past the city, uprooted trees lay scattered all over, many with vehicles crushed under them. More than 30 main roads were blocked by fallen trees and traffic movement was badly affected. As many as 1,800 trees are said to have been uprooted in the four hours of lashing that the city received from the edge of the cyclone. The closest Aila got to Kolkata was between 3-30 p.m. and 4 p.m. when the wind speed was clocked at 120 kmph. At least four people in the city were crushed to death under falling trees.
By around 6 p.m. Kolkata had faced the worst, as the cyclone started heading northwards. The city had come to a standstill as schools, offices and shops remained closed, air and rail traffic came to a halt, and large areas were rendered without electricity.
Two districts that bore the brunt of Ailas fury were South 24 Parganas and Medinipur East. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee rushed to the affected spots in South 24 Parganas, while State Finance Minister Asim Dasgupta tended to the problems in North 24 Parganas and Medinipur East. In fact, Asim Dasgupta sanctioned Rs.1.8 crore for relief and rehabilitation in Medinipur East during his visit.
In the Sunderbans, the tributaries of the Ganga began flowing over the danger mark, inundating many villages. Giant waves destroyed embankments and flooded the surrounding regions. According to State Irrigation and Waterways Minister Subhas Naskar, in the Sunderbans and Medinipur East alone more than 400 km of embankment was breached and the estimated loss from this was Rs.113 crore.
With the Sunderbans facing the brunt of the storm, heavy loss of animal life is feared. N.C. Bahuguna, Director, Sunderbans Forest Reserve, told Frontline on May 28: So far we have hardly managed to get any proper information from the interior parts of the forest. All communication networks are still down, there is no electricity and our generators are not working, but we can assume that the damage will be sizable.
As of May 28, of the 20 crocodiles that comprise the parent stock of the Bhagwatpur Crocodile Centre, 18 were missing. The total crocodile population at the centre is 50; Crocodiles that are at least 20 feet in length are considered parent stock. There was no news of the tiger population either, except that one tiger was rescued from an inundated village in Sajnakhali near the Sunderbans.
Trinamool Congress supremo and Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee called off her trip to New Delhi and opted instead to take charge of her Ministry at the Eastern Railway headquarters in Kolkata. The Centre mobilised 1,000 personnel of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the Army was deployed in rescue and relief operations.
As Aila turned northwards on May 25, it waned but maintained its cyclonic intensity until it reached Malda district in North Bengal, after which it took the form of a deep depression. The total duration of the cyclone over West Bengal was from 2-30 p.m. on May 25 to 5-30 a.m. on May 26, during which time it had covered the entire length of the State.
However, even in its weakened form it created havoc in North Bengal, particularly in the Darjeeling Hills. Heavy rain which caused landslides, practically cut off the hills from the plains. As of May 28, at least 28 people were reported to have lost their lives in the hills, but it was feared that more bodies would surface as the debris of landslides were cleared. At the Chief Ministers direction, the NDRF team moved to Darjeeling.
With the roads leading up to Kurseong and Darjeeling blocked, sending relief materials became a problem. As of May 28, only a small gap on an otherwise blocked Hill Cart Road made it possible to carry dry foods, drinking water, tarpaulin and other relief materials.
The State government had already sanctioned Rs.40 crore for relief and rehabilitation work. It also promised free rice and dal for all the affected people. As of May 27, as much as 1,000 tonnes of rice had been dispatched to the affected regions and 1,000 more tonnes was sanctioned. More than 100 relief camps were set up in the affected regions, in which more than 50,000 people took shelter.
By May 28, more than 2.5 lakh tarpaulins had been distributed among the victims. An early estimate is that loss in terms of agricultural production is over Rs.100 crore.
The State government immediately sent across 211 medical teams including 84 medical officers, 54 nursing staff and 705 paramedical staff. State Health Minister Surya Kanta Mishra told Frontline: We are disinfecting tubewells and sending medicines, oral rehydration salts [ORS], halogen tablets, bleaching powder, and so on to all the affected places.
Though there have been no deaths owing to diseases accompanying such natural disasters, Mishra is apprehensive of the possibility of an outbreak of diarrhoea. Generally that happens a few days after a natural disaster. Preventing such an outbreak is what I am most concerned about, he said. As of May 28, as many as 1,144 cases of diarrhoea most of them in the South 24 Parganas were recorded.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led ruling Left Front also initiated a massive programme of collecting funds and relief materials from all over the State. Left Front chairman and CPI(M) State secretary Biman Bose visited several affected areas in and around Kolkata and called upon all Left Front units to be by the side of the victims and extend support and sympathy at their time of need and actively take part in the rebuilding of their lives.
Kolkata has been lucky to narrowly miss major cyclones, most of which would, in the last minute, turn eastward into Bangladesh. But this time the city was not so lucky, though it received only a peripheral lashing.
G.C. Debnath, Director of the Regional Meteorological Centre in Kolkata, said, Normally a cyclone is determined by the wind flow pattern of the upper atmosphere, and following that pattern most of the cyclones bypass Kolkata. However, this time, Aila was at the outer periphery of an anti-cyclonic circulation formed over the east-central Bay of Bengal and adjoining Myanmar. It is the interaction between Aila and the anti-cyclonic circulation that determined the new direction it took.