A TALE OF TWO CYCLONES

29th October 1999

The strongest recorded tropical cyclone in the North Indian Ocean struck Odisha – a state in the eastern part of India. It was a Category 5 tropical cyclone – extremely dangerous causing widespread destruction. Later designated as BOB 06 by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and as 05B by the Joint Typhoon Warning Centre (JTWC), it continues to be referred to as ‘the supercyclone’ to this day.

I was in Grade 9 that time. Incessant rains started from the morning of 28th October. A cyclone alert had been sounded over various forms of media and so people hurried to finish errands and pending works so that they could quickly shut themselves indoors. By 29th morning, the wind had gathered considerable speed. I could see the rains blowing in sheets, before the windows were shut to prevent the rainwater from entering into the house.

The winds kept on getting fiercer with every passing hour. Needless to mention, electricity connections had been snapped off since morning. The noon sky resembled the sky at dusk. Curious to know what was happening outside, I tried to find some crevices or cracks somewhere in the house to peek through. I found one near the kitchen window. We were in the second floor and that gave quite a bit of a view. By then, the rain and wind speed were intense. There weren’t any big and strong trees near the place where we were staying. Whatever trees were there, had fallen flat to the ground by afternoon.

As evening approached, the wind gained a maddening speed and we were told that the wind speed would be maximum around midnight. Suddenly my mother saw water entering our house through the open grills. One wall of the visitors’ room had open grills with no covering. On other days, it gave a good view and let cool breeze into the house. But that day, there was no way to cover the huge area that could counter the wind speed. We left it as such even as rainwater continued to enter through that space and seep into the adjoining rooms.

My sister was quite small and my mother and sister sat cuddled in one corner of the bed – crying and praying alternatively. My father and I were the bravehearts – looking for weak window latches which needed to be fastened with ropes or plugging in some holes where there was a chance for water to trickle in. In the silence of the evening, all that one could hear was flying off of some asbestos roofs, crashing of walls or pillars or trees in the distance and the sound of the wind!

Just then, we heard a continuous banging sound. It was almost 9 in the night and all of us in the family were huddled in a room. My father and I stepped out of the room to find out what the noise was – only to discover that our main door’s latch had broken by the wind pressure and the door was flying open and banging shut constantly. It had to be fixed because the wind was still gaining speed. Nothing that we did could help keep the door shut. Eventually, we left it as it was.

11 PM – 2 AM was the time when the wind gained the maximum momentum. The uncanny whistling sound of the wind was terrifying, so much so that none expected to see the next day. Rains continued the next day but, the wind speed had reduced. No one dared step out of the house. From the windows, we could see the road branches, straws from thatched houses somewhere, mangled wires all strewn along the road. Few flats adjacent to ours had their parapets broken.

Electricity was restored in my area after 15-20 days. Kerosene oil, candles, dry food stuffs were distributed by Government officials and NGOs. Water tankers plied across the city to provide water as water pipe connections were ruptured. It seemed as if we were living in the days of the early man. No communication possible with anyone, except one’s neighbours because the roads were obstructed with big fallen trees and mangled wires.

Radio broadcasting services were the first to be restored and so news started trickling in. With each announcement the death toll went up. Certain places along the pathway of the landfall were devastated beyond imagination – so much so that today even after 20 years a couple of places haven’t been able to return to the earlier stage. Relief poured in from all quarters. Everyone who went in to the places that were severely affected came back with tears in their eyes and deep heartache. The sight of dead bodies all over and the stench that greeted the nostrils from kilometres afar were unbearable.

Government reports sum up the death toll at 9,000-10,000 though some other reports put them at 15,000. If I go on writing about further details, I could write for a whole week. I can only say that it was a ghastly experience. Surviving wind speeds of 250-260 km/hr is God’s grace indeed!

3rd May 2019

Twenty years after the super cyclone, the cyclone Fani struck Odisha. It was being forecasted from a week. But, none expected it to be anything more than a deep depression, especially because it was scorching summertime. The repeated forecasts and news bulletins did alarm people and shopkeepers had a hard time managing customers who thronged all shops for hoarding essentials.

I was out for some routine work in the evening of 1st May and was amazed to see the serpentine queues in all the multipurpose stores and grocery shops, so much so that the roads were jammed. Honestly speaking, the sight amused me to an extent. Come 2nd May, the same scorching summer heat. No sign of an approaching cyclone. Meanwhile, the Government was carrying out massive evacuation drives in the area where the cyclone was expected to make its landfall. Fishermen were prohibited to venture anywhere near the sea. Trains and flights were cancelled as precautionary measures.

And then it came – whammmm – on the 3rd morning. It had started drizzling the previous night, but again no indication (except to meteorologists) of an impending cyclone. News started trickling in of the rampage that the cyclone was causing in Puri, the place where the cyclone had made its landfall. Photos and videos from Puri flurried across social media sites, and then silence. Communication to and from Puri was cut off, only to be restored several days later. As of today, Puri is still in darkness. Water supply has been restored to about 50 per cent. But, the city is in utter devastation.

Two hours after making its landfall, the cyclone left Puri for other places. My city was the third in line to be hit. I won’t go on to describe the details except for stating that it was a strong reminder of the super cyclone of twenty years before. By evening, things had calmed down. All that remained was silence in the darkness.

The next morning was a sad one, especially the sight of big strong trees uprooted and lying flat on the roads, having smashed parts of buildings that were on their way. Electricity was restored on the sixth day in the area where I stay and work is still underway.

The intensity of devastation caused in Odisha has taken the state back to twenty years. Much of the developmental work of the state is now back to point one. However, the major difference between the super cyclone of 1999 and the cyclone Fani of 2019 (of the same wind speed) is the level of alertness and preparedness of the government which has learnt its lessons well. The death toll lies around 40 as of today. Considering the extent of devastation to land, property and buildings, without timely evacuation from potentially dangerous areas, thousands would have lost their lives. This has been recognized and applauded by the national and international media. Read the article – How do you save 1 million people from a cyclone? Ask a poor state in India to know for yourself.

Natural disasters are not preventable. Every part of the world is susceptible to some form of a natural disaster – be it cyclones, hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes, blizzards, avalanches, landslides, volcanic eruptions or tsunamis. However, with modern technology that helps predict and caution people beforehand, alertness and preparedness help save lives, if not property.

Today many people in Odisha have lost their houses, livelihoods and property. It would take a few years for those people to return to normal lives again. The scorching summer heat of over 40 degrees Celsius is adding to the misery for those still without electricity, leave alone air conditioning.

Conditions such as these bring us back to the roots of basics and create a level playing field for people of all classes without any discrimination. Read my poem by clicking it –Apoplectic Fani.

It has been a long article, but much has been left unsaid. The thing that kept echoing in my mind all through is the love of God for all people that is a constant even in the midst of challenging conditions. Only let us not measure His love in terms of the losses we suffer or the grim situations we face, because He promises to save our souls. 

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