A day after Cyclone Fani left a trail of destruction in Puri, Madhumita Mohapatra of the Red Cross International Volunteers rode her scooty around the devastated temple town, talking to people who were trying to get a measure of their losses.
Mohapatra was among the 400-odd people who spent Friday night at the Cyclone Shelter behind the Sechhan Bihar Upper Primary School in Puri’s Penthakata some 300 metres from the sea, as Fani raged.
As the sky cleared Saturday, most of these people started to leave. About the previous day, Mohapatra said in Odia, “Even the Earth wept”. She had braved the winds and rain as Fani started to make landfall, guiding to the shelter stragglers who arrived only after the cyclone began to blow away their homes around 8.30 am on Friday.
The death toll from the cyclone rose to 16 in Odisha Saturday as the government mounted massive restoration work across 10,000 villages and 52 urban areas ravaged by the storm that affected nearly 1 crore people in the coastal areas of the state.
Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said the cyclone had destroyed critical infrastructure, including power, telecom, and water supply. “Lakhs of trees were uprooted… in Puri district and parts of Khurda where power infrastructure has been totally devastated, we face the challenge of having to set up the entire electrification afresh,” PTI quoted Patnaik as saying.
In Bhubaneswar city, over 10,000 electricity poles have been uprooted or broken, officials said. Efforts were on to restore power supply to crucial establishments like the airport, railway station and hospitals by Saturday night.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted on Twitter that he had spoken to Patnaik and “assured continuous support from the central government”, and that he would be travelling to Odisha on May 6.
The human loss of lives due to Fani, considered the severest cyclone to hit Odisha since the 1999 supercyclone, was however, tiny as compared to 20 years ago, when nearly 10,000 people had died.
The creation of shelters like the one in Penthakata in Puri, and the setting up of an elaborate early warning system, have been at the heart of India’s preparedness to deal with cyclones.
Thanks to years of efforts, hundreds of such cyclone shelters have been built in the coastal states, especially in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, which are among the most vulnerable to tropical cyclones.
In Odisha, 316 multipurpose cyclone shelters have been built under the centrally-funded National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project, which is aimed at building resilience against cyclones. The state government has built a similar number of shelters; some have been built by international agencies like the Red Cross.
These new shelters have come up in areas which were earlier devoid of any pucca structures, such as schools or community halls, which could have acted as cyclone shelters.
In addition, over the last five years, more than 380 km of new all-weather roads have been constructed in Odisha, and over 700 km in Andhra Pradesh, connecting these shelters to coastal villages and habitations.
The multipurpose shelters are designed to withstand at least 1.3 times the maximum windspeeds expected in the area, and are built on high stilts to ensure that these can be used even if the area is inundated. Most of these are equipped with ramps. The stilt area also doubles as shelter for cattle and other animals.
Also, over the past several years, weather agencies have put up hundreds of pieces of equipment — automatic weather stations, rain gauges, doppler radars, storm detection radars, wind profilers — in the coastal areas to improve the quality of their forecasts.
The predictive capability has been buttressed by multiple means of communication to disseminate information to the people. Local authorities have even been equipped with satellite phones. Alerts and warnings are delivered through multiple channels — radio, mobile, television and specially set up public communication systems.
All of these efforts helped evacuate about 12 lakh people from their homes to avoid Cyclone Fani. In Puri, a large number of people, especially the Nolia fisherfolk who live on the beach, were reluctant to come into the shelter — in many such cases, the courage and efficiency of volunteers like the 52-year-old Mohapatra helped save lives.
“Me and other volunteers at this centre dragged people in as they moved around aimlessly in the storm,” Mohapatra said. Helping her were 10 team members, a health assistant of the district administration, and three youths from the Biju Yuva Vahini.
At the Penthakata shelter, four rooms measuring 20 feet by 25 feet housed 80-90 people each on the first floor of the building. While the children were allowed to lie down along the walls, for most people there was place only to stand. “Seven pregnant ladies also turned up. Thankfully, none of them was in an advanced stage. We kept them in a separate room lest there be a complication”, ASHA worker Netramani, who was part of the protection unit, said.
The Akshay Patra Foundation provided people with rice and dal, and some local people brought buns. “The queue in front of the toilet had nearly 200 people”, Netramani said.
Inside the shelter, fear ruled. “An old woman would not let me stitch her cut foot,” health assistant U Rajesh said. “The fear made people irrational.”
(With PTI, Bhubaneswar)