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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Finding Fani

64 dead, 18,388 villages affected across 14 dists, fields flattened, livelihoods lost. While Odisha has been lauded for evacuation that avoided a high death toll, as Cyclone Fani barrelled its way through at 205 kmph, it left death, destruction and a state staring at a long haul.

Written by Sourav Roy Barman | Updated: May 19, 2019 6:55:51 am
Ramchandra Naik, a labourer, carries his grandson towards a multipurpose cyclone shelter built by the Red Cross at Jagannathpatna village in Brahmagiri block of Puri. Express Photo by Partha Paul.

The trees seem frozen in time. Shorn of leaves, their bare trunks hold up the sky, still stunned by the wind that blew on the morning of May 3. Around them, other trees lie motionless, uprooted, their branches intertwined with high-tension wires, mangled utility poles and heaps of rubble.

Two weeks after the onslaught of Fani, classified by meteorologists as an ‘extremely severe cyclonic storm’, the landscape of Central Odisha, pummelled by gusts of wind reaching up to 205 km per hour, stands ravaged beyond recognition.

Puri district, along with its temple town, took the worst hit, recording 39 of the total 64 deaths. The state government has declared Puri, along with Khordha, which saw nine deaths, among the ‘extremely severely affected’ districts. Kendrapara and Jajpur districts recorded three deaths each while Mayurbhanj and Cuttack four and six deaths respectively.

Puri District Magistrate Balwant Singh, who took charge on May 6, says that in the days after the cyclone, the immediate priority of the administration was to restore road connectivity. With the telecommunication network completely snapped, officials used VHF (Very High Frequency) sets to maintain contact.

Singh says 200 tankers have been pressed into service across the district to supply water while an exercise to assess the damage to housing will be completed in 10 days. Restoring electricity, however, he says, is emerging as the biggest challenge. “We have to go in for complete re-electrification of the district. All this electrification work that took years to be done will now have to be wrapped up in a few days,” Singh says. The administration has, as a temporary measure, provided over 200 diesel generator sets and put up 400 light towers.

The police are also running ‘Karuna Camps’ to assist people in need. “The damage is far higher than what we had anticipated,” says IG (Central) S K Priyadarshi. “But the fact that there are so few casualties reflects a very successful evacuation exercise. Even the deaths that have taken place are freak ones.”

While the administration is being lauded for its swift evacuation that helped minimise the death toll, despair and hunger stalk the region. The Odisha government has pegged the total losses in the state at over Rs 11,900 crore, with the storm having flattened homes and wrecked lives.

Restoring electricity remains the biggest challenge, say officials. Express Photo by Partha Paul.

That day, on the morning of May 3, a little before 8 am, the angry swirl of wind had hurtled in from the Bay of Bengal towards the Odisha coast, making landfall at Satapada, a cluster of seven villages in Krushna Prasad block on the banks of Chilika lake, before moving on to Brahmagiri, Puri, Pipili and Bhubaneswar.

Krushna Prasad block, Puri

Homes razed, social fissures emerge

On May 15, two relief trucks carrying 18 quintals rice, dal and bottles of drinking water — “enough to feed the entire village for at least a week” — reached Alupatna, a fishing village with around 450 families near Satapada town, where the cyclone had made landfall. The trucks had been sent by Birla Tyres through a tie-up with the local administration.

The women of the village talk of how, a day earlier, with the men caught up with tracing their missing dongas (fishing boats), repairing motors and fishing nets, they had taken the lead in getting the relief trucks.
“We left home at 6 am on May 14 and returned only after midnight. For how long could we have survived on rice, chura and gur? So we rented autos and went from one office to another,” says Payal Dalai, a mother of two, talking of how they went knocking on the doors of the District Magistrate, the Additional District Magistrate, the Block Development Officer and the local MLA.

For the last two weeks, Payal, along with the others in the village, have been forced to take shelter in the Alupatna secondary school, where a community kitchen has come up.

At the school, the men, when not setting out into the sea and the Chilika lake to look for their boats, kill time playing cards, women help out in the community kitchen and children play cricket. While the schools are now shut for the summer break, officials say there could be challenges this academic session since several school buildings — 2,134 in Puri and around 6,500 schools across Odisha — have suffered damage in the cyclone.

As people sit around talking of the storm that swept their lives aside, fisherman Bhimsen Behera, 40, says he lost his boat, the only source of income for his family of four. “One boat comes for around Rs 3 lakh. I also lost most of my fishing net. On an average, each marginal fisherman owns around 50 kg net and 1 kg of net costs
Rs 750. Then you add labour cost. I don’t know if I will be able to revive my business,” says Behera, adding that even the fishermen who hadn’t lost their boats will now have to spend a lot on repair.

Behera wishes he had left before the storm struck. “We stayed back despite announcements by the administration to evacuate. Frankly, we didn’t realise the damage would be so much. We thought since nothing happened during Phailin (October 2013), this will also blow over,” he says.

Even senior officials of the state administration — which undertook a massive evacuation exercise involving around 12 lakh people by official estimates — admitted that the damage caused by Fani, the first tropical cyclonic storm to hit India in April since 1956, was “much more than what was anticipated”.

Shuffling a deck of cards at Alupatna, Chandrakant Jali says Fani set Odisha back by at least 10 years. “Just as the state was making some progress, comes this. Cyclones have been Odisha’s bane,” says the 22-year-old fisherman.
Jishnu Prasad Behra, 22, doing his post-graduation in history from Cuttack’s Ravenshaw University, says that as soon as the roads cleared, he came home to Alupatna to help his parents at the relief camp.

He says he dreads the damage that a post-monsoon cyclone like Phailin or Hudhud could cause to the already reeling district. “After so much destruction, what if there is a cyclone after the rains? It’s scary. Already, our fields are useless with all the saline water that came in from the sea.”

He then walks around to a portion of the school that lies damaged. “You see that building? Those were the primary sections. Even I studied there. It’s terrible to find it in this state,” says Behera, pointing at the structure that may have to be razed to make way for a new building.

Down the road from Alupatna is Gorapur Sanabalabhadrapur, another fishing village where nearly every hut has collapsed and close to 80 boats have been washed away.

Jagannath Gadei, 18, shows the destruction Fani caused to his one-room house at Gorapur village in Puri. Express Photo by Partha Paul.

“The winds started howling at 6 am. I took shelter in a concrete room at one end of the village and put my children on the ceiling as water from the Chilika was gushing in. Mun bhabuthili mun banchi na thaanti (I thought I will not survive),” says Minati Behra, 26, a mother of two.

By 8.30 am, she says, the storm had blown away most of the thatched and asbestos roofs in the village and ransacked homes and belongings.

Like in Alupatna, most people are sheltered in the village school building, where NGOs run community kitchens, but there is still no steady supply of cooked food.

According to official records, the Puri administration has roped in 64 NGOs for running free kitchens, providing dry ration, polythene, solar lights and water bottles. As of now, NGOs are running 37,850 free kitchens in the district.

A control centre has been set up at the Collectorate for real-time monitoring of the situation while a separate cell has been established to coordinate with NGOs engaged in relief and rehabilitation.

Around 4 km from Alupatna is Baghamunda, a village dominated by Scheduled Castes. Here, under a shed along NH-316 sit a group of women — the village has almost run out of rations and they hope to flag down relief trucks that come that way.

They mistake this newspaper’s team for government representatives and come rushing, pleading for assistance and food.

As part of an emergency relief measure after the cyclone, the Odisha government had announced 50 kg rice to every PDS card holder family, apart from Rs 2,000 in cash. Puri district officials claim that by May 16, 93 per cent eligible beneficiaries were given Rs 2,000 cash while 96 per cent got their quota of rice.

Later, the state government decided to cover all families, irrespective of whether they are covered under the Food Security Act or not, under the rice and cash scheme.

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik also announced that sanitary napkins would be distributed free of cost across cyclone-hit areas over the next two months, apart from 2.5 litres kerosene per family every 10 days.
Yet, challenges remain. With most people having run out of cash, several villages in the region have been struggling to survive on just rice, chura and gur. Cooked food isn’t available at many places as NGOs have not been able to cover all the villages.

“Look at us. We have been reduced to beggars. We do not even have spare clothes,” says Mina Das, who is among the women from Baghamunda sitting on the highway.

The calamity has also laid bare social fissures in the region. At Gopinathpur village, a group of Dalit men blocked the highway leading to Puri, claiming that upper-caste communities had “looted relief” sent by SC communities in Berhampur, situated along the eastern coastline of the state.

“Our community members had sent relief meant for us and two other SC villages in the region. After we unloaded our share, the vehicles were on their way to Mirzapur and Golla villages when upper-caste people looted the trucks and took everything away,” says Sushant Das, 25.

In most of these villages, Dalit families were the worst hit mostly because their kuchha homes could not withstand the ferocity of the storm.

Administration officials, however, insisted that while caste-based discrimination has been reported from a few areas, it was not “large scale”. “This particular area is known for such issues. But a disaster is always secular,” says Priyadarshi, the Central Odisha division IG.

Brahmagiri block, Puri
The long wait for relief

Payal Nayak, 9, was among those who lost their lives in Brahmagiri. A resident of Dharanikudi Kuapada village, Payal, who had a speech impairment since birth, was eating with her father when a brick wall of their house collapsed, fatally injuring her.

Payal’s house took the direct hit of the storm, primarily because it is the last structure in the village, beyond which is the vast expanse of the Chilika.

Days after her daughter’s death, Mamata is alone at home. Her husband is undergoing treatment at the district hospital for the injuries he suffered. “We didn’t know the storm would come so early. We were told it would come at 5 in the evening, Payal was eating… the wall just fell on her,” says Mamata, grief stricken and bewildered at how swiftly her daughter had been snatched away. There is a gaping hole where the wall once stood.

Mamata rummages through a wooden cupboard for a photograph of Payal, taken a few years ago at a local studio. Her clothes and other belongings have been pulled out from the rubble, packed, and kept in a corner. The cyclone spared Payal’s ‘Chhota Bheem’ school bag, which still hangs from one of the doors.

According to a report prepared by the Brahmagiri Block Development Office, around 156 villages in the block, with 1.46 lakh people, were affected by Fani. There were eight casualties here, while 11,056 cattle perished.
On May 14, around 8 pm, the residents of Bododandi, a village of around 220 families in Brahmagiri, eat their first proper meal of rice and dalma after around a week, courtesy former Dhenkanal MLA Sudhir Shyamal.

The path that Cyclone Fani took as it hit the Odisha coast.

As the region remains plunged in darkness, the headlights of auto-rickshaws are turned on as men and children sit down to eat in two rows on a lane cutting through the village. “It’s my first big meal in four days,” smiles Anshuman, a six-year-old. The turn of the women comes at the end, after batches of men have had their share.
On May 16, a team of the NGO Plan International reaches Jagannathpatna village, nearly 10 km off the Satapada-Brahmagiri highway, close to the Bay of Bengal, with food and other essentials, hours after the villagers wrote a letter to the Brahmagiri BDO seeking urgent assistance.

Tushar Kanti Das, a senior executive with the NGO, says each family in the village will be given 10 kg polished rice, 5 kg wheat flour, 2 kg sugar, daal and chura, 1 litre mustard oil and 100 gm turmeric.

“All this while, they were forced to eat rice with locally available greens. We have told the villagers that they will have to reciprocate by assisting us in cleaning up the village. Otherwise, with the onset of monsoon, things may spiral out of control and children may be severely hit,” he says.

Puri Sadar block, Puri
Getting back on track

At Puri, Odisha’s temple town which usually attracts hordes of tourists during this time of the year, hotel owners and tour operators rue “a lost season”. Yet, the pace of recovery has been the swiftest here.

On May 16, 35 of the 150 rooms at Puri Hotel in the heart of the town were occupied, mostly by tourists from neighbouring West Bengal. “Some had their tickets booked and didn’t cancel. Some are coming just to see what the cyclone has done. While power has not been restored, we are running generator sets. Yesterday, power was restored at Jagannath temple and the Grand Road. We will have to follow the Kerala model and send out a message that Puri is safe,” says Yugabrata, a tour operator.

The road along the coast, which had disappeared under mounds of sand washed ashore during the storm, has been cleared. Among the severely damaged structures are the District Magistrate residence, the roof of which was blown away. DM Balwant Singh now occupies a room on the ground floor of the building.

The Balukhand-Konark wildlife sanctuary, located a few km away from the main Puri town, has almost turned barren, with officials at a loss on how to revive the forest. Harshvardhan Udgata, the Divisional Forest Officer of the area, says the district has lost not less than 50 lakh trees to the storm.

Pipli Block, Puri
Coordinating relief

On May 16, Nivedita Sharaf, food procurement officer at the godown of the Odisha State Civil Supplies Corporation in Pipili, has a problem on her hands. A convoy of around 50 relief trucks — each carrying around 650 sacks of rice — has stayed queued up outside the godown for the last four days.

Residents of Bododandi village in Brahmagiri block eat their first proper meal after a week, in light provided by auto-rickshaws. Express Photo by Partha Paul.

The trucks were to offload the supplies at a godown at Sakhigopal along the Bhubaneswar-Puri highway, but the authorities of the OSCSC had to turn them away as the godown, with a capacity of 25,000 quintals, had suffered extensive damage in the cyclone. Subsequently, the trucks were diverted to the 500 MT capacity godown at Pipili. But Sharaf says the godown is already stocked to the brim.

“For the last four days, the officers at our head office have been telling me that the trucks will be diverted. But as long as I don’t get official instructions, I cannot do much. The trucks have come here by mistake. I can at best accommodate the stock of five trucks. What will I do with the others?” says an exasperated Sharaf.

Outside the gates of the godown, patience runs thin among the truckers who are now threatening to block the highway.

After hectic negotiations, the trucks are directed to the Brahmagiri godown. But as they reach the godown around 1 pm, officials tell them that it will be another four more days before the trucks are unloaded.

“There are 49 trucks on the waiting list. And not more than 17-18 trucks can be unloaded in a day. We have already unloaded 15 today. How much more can we do?” says Saras Kumar Swain, procurement officer at Brahmagiri.

While Odisha counts its losses, the scale of the havoc has made many wonder if things will ever be the same again.
Back at the Balukhand forest range office in Puri, Nirmal Patra, 22, one of the seven forest guards of the range, is despondent. “It’s almost as if a monster has ravaged my beautiful garden in a fit of rage,” he says.

Around him are tell-tale signs of the destruction — a collapsed BSNL tower, a roof that caved in and a flattened patch of forest.

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