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Cyclone Phailin: reviving memories

A personal account of the 1999 super-cyclone that tore through India's eastern coast, killing about 10,000.
Last modified: 12 Oct 2013 12:43
A supercyclone tore through Odisha in 1999 leaving a trail of devastation [AP]

Man is once again pitted against nature, this time along India's eastern seaboard.

As Cyclone Phailin, packing winds up to 315km per hour, bears down on the coast, the face-off has revived memories of another powerful storm that pummelled the same coast years ago.

It was a walkover then, with nature winning hands down.

The state of Odisha was battered and bruised as an exceptionally fearsome super cyclone tore through the region over an excruciatingly long two days in October of 1999.

As a journalist based in Odisha's provincial capital of Bhubaneswar, I had found myself in the eye of the storm and totally at the mercy of nature's fury.

The entire state cowered as the cyclone passed overhead. Buildings came down, trees were uprooted and even railway tracks were wrenched off the ground.

The gusts of winds were so strong that even coconuts flew through the air like bullets.

The super cyclone laid bare our vulnerabilities and collective unpreparedness. The cyclone whipped up huge sea waves that obliterated scores of villages in and around Esamma of Odisha's Jagatsinghpur district. Once the waves receded, they left behind bloated corpses.

An estimated 10,000 people are known to have perished in the disaster.

Basic human instincts

For days on end, the state was plunged into darkness and cut off from the rest of the country as both electricity and communication lines were snapped.

The calamity also laid bare all the basic human instincts: from cowardice and valour, to generosity and greed.

I, for one, fed off the resultant human misery for the next year or so to earn my paycheque by cataloguing the tragedy - reports that culminated in a book.

There were many to be found easily in the sea of despair that had engulfed Odisha.

I still remember some: Aarti Kandi, a teenaged girl who hung from a tree for her dear life as she helplessly watched the lifeless bodies of her mother and siblings being washed away by the waves.

And a new born who earned the moniker Cyclone, after being born in a storm shelter amid the death and destruction that swept his village.

As the sea finally receded, some inspirational stories emerged from the ruins of the tragedy.

An unnamed railway guard who stood his ground and refused to give up his vigil of a rickety bridge over which a train was supposed to pass, until he was swept off his feet by the gale and killed.

A sex worker who opened up her doors to shelter the homeless, and a young man who jumped off a small boat and eventually drowned so that the overcrowded vessel could accommodate two orphaned children.

But overwhelmingly, what followed the disaster was no less disastrous.

Rescue and relief was tardy and much of the aid that trickled in was cornered by those who didn’t need them. For those greedy among the dominantly farming community, it was yet another season for quick personal enrichment.

Joke in circulation

A joke that soon gained circulation was that there were now three harvesting seasons in Odisha: Rabi, Kharif and Relief.

As millions went hungry, the state's politicians shamelessly organised lavish feasts to drum up support for their own factions and turn the tables on the then chief minister, Odisha's highest elected official.

A clueless Giridhar Gomango became a subject of derision and soon enough his own partymen were clamouring for "Go-Man-To-Go".

His detractors won the battle and Gomango was sacked a week after the storm struck.

Though imperfect, some important lessons were learnt. Scores of storm shelters were built along the coastline in the aftermath of disaster. There was increased awareness of the dangers that natural disasters pose.

It is unlikely that the likes of Benoy Panda, a resident of Ersamma, would repeat their mistake of 1999.

The last time round, he and his family had returned to their hut at the height of the storm to retrieve some valuables. His family was swept away and only Panda survived.

The fear is still fresh and hopefully, it has made it easier this time for the authorities to evacuate areas.

The world is watching as Cyclone Phailin makes its progress. I am watching as well, with bated breath, as many friends of mine, while not immediately in harm's way, are nevertheless still in Phailin's path.

Read more on our India coverage here