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Month after Cyclone Phailin,Odisha looking at devastation on the scale of 1999

Odisha withstood the Oct 12 cyclone saving many lives,but the flood that followed proved too much.

It withstood the October 12 cyclone saving many lives,but the flood that followed has proved too much. A month after Phailin,Orissa is looking at devastation and rehabilitation on the scale of 1999. Report and photographs by Debabrata Mohanty

It’s been a month since Cyclone Phailin swept Orissa. A month in which the original euphoria over a state known to keel under disasters standing up resolutely to one has given way to the realisation of the long and slow process ahead in picking up the pieces. Just as the people were congratulating themselves for surviving the cyclone,they were hit by a wave of flooding that few had bargained for. It isn’t the supercyclone,but the 2013 storm now looks to have left a larger area devastated in the state,putting people’s lives back by at least 5-10 years. Almost to 1999,that is,for some.

Estimated losses: Rs 21,770 crore; more than Orissa’s Plan outlay for 2013-14

Phailin cut a neat arc of calamity through the districts of Ganjam,Puri and Balasore,dumping huge amounts of rain in 18 of the 30 districts of the state on the night of October 12. But while Phailin and the accompanying rain were bad enough,it was the second round of flooding a week later that hit these districts the hardest.

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In most of the villages,the tree cover is gone,even as thousands of acres of paddy fields lie covered in mud or sand. Inside homes or what remains of them,furniture and clothing are yet to lose their moisture completely,and a dank smell hangs in the air.

“The devastation may not be as intense as the 1999 supercyclone,but it’s widespread,” admits Orissa Chief Secretary Jugal Kishore Mohapatra,who was Revenue Secretary at the time of the 1999 supercyclone that saw close to 10,000 deaths.

“Unlike the 1999 cyclone,where people suffered the wrath of nature for a few days,2013 has been one long ordeal,” adds Debabrata Patra,a senior official of voluntary agency Action Aid,working in the cyclone-affected areas.

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Haunted by the failures of 1999,Orissa had moved more than a million people out of harm’s way before Phailin bore down. As a result,the death toll this time,from the affected 18 districts,stands at just 59. In the second round of flooding though,Ganjam alone saw 800 mm of rain instead of its usual 170-odd mm in October,swelling the rivers Rushikulya and Bahuda beyond levels hardly ever seen before.

“The evacuation was the easier part. Providing relief was far more difficult. But it’s the rehabilitation that is proving to be the most difficult. What we have done so far is provide basic succour,” admits Ganjam District Collector Krishan Kumar.

Though a large proportion of the 37 lakh population of Ganjam district has received the food relief package of 50 kg rice and Rs 500,the cyclone and the flood have broken their backs.

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Population affected: More than 2 crore (Half of the state’s 4.2 crore people); Houses damaged: 9.4 lakh (Half of them severely)

Suchitra Behera’s house in Handighara village of Purushottampur block in Ganjam doesn’t have a roof anymore,the supporting bamboo poles evocative of the skeleton that remains of it. Any day,the 42-year-old knows,the rest of the structure could collapse. Kailash Chandra Nayak (39),who lives a little distance away,had a concrete roof over his head. But it now lies broken in the middle.

More than a 100 km away in Sanapatna village,of Puri district’s Krushnaprasad block,fisherman Raghunath Chelberi’s thatched-roof house has caved in,burying his almirah,his television set and other valuables. At least 300 km north of Chelberi’s house,72-year-old farmer Baidhar Jena in Ambulakuda village of coastal Balasore district walks mournfully around the debris of his house. “There used to be my cot… there my TV set,my fan,my rice bags,” Jena rambles,trying to salvage any remaining valuables. “Don’t,” cautions a neighbour. “There may be snakes inside.”

For many,polythene sheets are their only cover; those luckier have found shelter in school buildings. Katibudha Dalei,a 55-year-old Dalit farmer from Shankarpur village of Balasore,has been living in one such building with his five-member family since October 14. “I had sold my bullocks to put tiles on my roof,” he shakes his head,trying to retrieve a mudslicked DVD player from under the rubble.

The government will give Rs 15,000 for a fully-damaged kutcha house like Dalei’s,but the amount is meagre. “This year the paddy is all gone. Where will I get the straw (to build it)? From where will we get the bricks?”

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Just a few days before the cyclone,20-something Jagannath Behera of Handighara village had come home from Surat in Gujarat,where he works in a spinning mill. The day after the storm,his 55-year-old father Kanda ventured out to clear the debris of their destroyed home. A wooden beam fell over his chest and left him injured. “That night,I cycled to a local doctor through waist-deep water,but he refused to come. When I came back,my father was dead,” says Jagannath. He is uncertain about going back to Surat leaving his mother and sister back in the village.

Power situation: 1,756 feeders,42,753 substations,36,885 km of low-tension lines,4,074 km of extra high-tension lines,4.08 lakh electric poles and 93 extra-high tension towers down; Population affected: 3.39 million

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Before Phailin struck,Garrampeta village looked forward to evenings. In 2004,the government settled the fishermen of this village in Rangeilunda block of Ganjam in pucca houses numbering over a hundred. Night time meant dinner together watching Telugu sitcoms on TV. With the lone electrical substation in the village now a mangled metal heap,Garrampeta feels the silence as the dark sets in. “It’s as if there is a mass funeral,” says school teacher Ch Krishnamurti. Adding to the spookiness are the kilometres of screwpine bushes leading to the village that now rot in the floodwaters.

In Antirigram village of Ganjam,youths have cut short cellphone use. “For charging mobiles,we have to travel to Berhampur and pay Rs 30-40 an hour. It’s better to conserve the battery,” says Bishnu Prasad Bhukta.

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With power supply yet to be restored to more than 65 per cent of the affected population in Ganjam,people are managing with portable generators or kerosene lamps. Energy officials had promised that partial supply would be restored to all of Ganjam by November 5,but villages don’t think anything will happen till the end of this month.

Food relief: 8.3 lakh quintals of rice,Rs 73 crore for pulses given to 24.4 lakh families

As Phailin stormed in on October 12,widower Adha Behera trooped to the local temple with his two sons,their wives,three grandchildren and an unmarried daughter in Handighara village. Though his thatched roof was blown away,the 70-year-old who catches fish for a living thought he could recoup the losses. But then the flood came and Rushikulya river ran over his mudhouse. “I had borrowed Rs 15,000 to buy a fishing net last year. The rice and paddy that I had stored have started fermenting. My clothes and blankets are stinking. My house may collapse anytime. Where do I go now?” wonders Behera.

Next door,Dali Behera’s family of 14,including five daughers and foster son Govinda,shared a two-room mudhouse till the cyclone and flood broke through the walls and the thatched roof. After the floodwaters receded,Dali came back to her house,to find the one and a half bags of rice she had stocked soggy. “I used to work in people’s fields. The rice was my only savings,” cries Dali.

As special food relief,the government had announced 50 kg rice and

Rs 500 for buying pulses or 25 kg rice and Rs 300 for the affected population,depending on the severity of the disaster in the region. But in several villages,people complained they had not got the rice. “I’ve got neither rice nor any money,” laments Mahargi Behera,a 65-year-old widow of Antirigam village.

In Shankarpur village of Balasore,Dalit labourer Anadi Jena is among those who says they didn’t get any relief. “The revenue inspector did not come to see me saying there was too much water around my home,” he claims.

Crop area damaged: 12.4 lakh hectares (In 7.18 lakh hectares,more than 50 per cent damage); Horticulture: 63,000-odd hectares damaged

While mudhouses and asbestos-roofed homes were being ripped apart,Kailash Chandra Nayak in Handighara thought his concrete-roof house made by his late father Dandapani,under the Indira Awaas Yojana,would survive. He was wrong. The winds first neatly broke the roof from the middle and then the rushing water from Rushikulya stormed in,leading to its collapse. A substation near his home was smashed to the ground.

Kailash,who occasionally worked as a driver as well as a field hand for a living,managed to save himself by climbing atop the nearby Handighara High School with his wife. “Even inside the school building I was afraid the structure may give in,” says Nayak,now living under a polythene cover next to his collapsed house.

He is unsure whether government help will be enough to rebuild even a mudhouse. “There would be no straw available this year as the floods have damaged the paddy crop. I may not even get work as a daily labourer,” he says.

Neighbours Santosh Behera and Babu were “prosperous” in comparison. Behera had started a poultry firm last year with 3,500 birds. The winds ripped through the asbestos roofs,killing all his birds and his dreams of being a successful entrepreneur. Mohanty’s finances too took a massive beating after Phailin tore through his rice and paddy stocks in the rice mill. “The rice now is not fit to be even eaten by birds. My machines have become all wet. I must have suffered at least Rs 2 crore damage,” laments Mohanty.

In relatively prosperous Antirigam village in the same block,Prafulla Swain’s eight-acre field is now under mud and sand swept up from Rushikulya river. Swain had got a loan of Rs 1 lakh from a local bank pledging his wife’s gold jewellery for growing vegetables. “My vegetables used to make it to Bhubaneswar markets. Now my family will starve,” he rues.

Director of Agriculture R Sant Gopalan says while it is difficult to estimate the loss at this stage,“the damage to agriculture is as bad as the 1999 supercyclone when crop over 17.3 lakh hectares area was affected. This time the intensity of winds may have been lesser and the death toll negligible,but the havoc is the same. Whatever we give to the farmer would not be enough”.

Embankments damaged: 874.4 km of river embankments,765.81 km of canal embankments

Built around a decade ago,the pucca house next to Baidhar Jena’s thatched roof home in Ambulakuda village of Balasore’s Remuna block stands as a reminder of the gulf between government promises and reality. Though HUDCO was supposed to give Rs 25,000 as housing loan,only half of it was advanced. The pucca house,now gathering mildew,thus stood there without a roof till Jena strung a polythene over it last week to give it a semblance of home.

Soon after Phailin hit,it rained copiously in Balasore,swelling Budhabalanga river. Jena was taken by surprise as water gushed through a breached embankment and slowly rose up to his ankle. “I had never seen the river so full. By October 14 night,water was chest deep. We swam to the school building with much difficulty,” recounts Jena.

Till almost three weeks after that,the 72-year-old farmer and his seven family members stayed in the school as the three-room mudhouse in which he had lived for 30 years collapsed. “I must have lost around Rs 1 lakh. I had saved some money for my daughter’s marriage,but could not retrieve anything. My paddy is all gone. I am now no better than a destitute,” cries Jena. He had to leave the school building after the schools reopened.

Jena’s neighbour Nini Mahalik’s fate is worse. Since her house collapsed about a week ago,Mahalik,a widow,and her family are living under a polythene cover on the road. “In daytime,it heats up. At night it gets chillier as dew sets in. I wake up drenched every night,” she says.

In neighbouring Sankarpur village,Dalit housewife Mithu Majhi thinks only providence saved her 45-day-old son Rahul. Born two weeks before Phailin’s landfall,the infant looked set to drown as floodwater from Budhabalanga swirled around their thatched-roof home. While Mithu’s ageing father-in-law somehow swam to safety,Mithu struggled to her neighbour’s pucca house stumbling several times as she held Rahul aloft. She would spend two days on the roof of that house,without food or water,and worrying constantly for her son,who remained drenched as it poured. Rahul is still running a fever,though doctors say he is safe.

Budhabalanga has now receded,but not before eating away the embankment and depositing all its sand over the vegetable fields. “The fields have become useless. We somehow saved ourselves,but for what?” asks Budhiram Mahalik,whose house is among the 1.3 lakh damaged in Balasore.

Fishermen hit: Around 12,000; 40,000 fishing nets,12,000 boats damaged,900 hectares of aquaculture ponds submerged

Fishermen were probably the worst hit group,with over 12,000 left without a boat,net or both.

With his mechanised fibre boat and half-a-dozen fishing nets,Raghunath Chelberi,51,used to bring in rich hauls of fish daily as he forayed into Chilika,India’s largest brackishwater lake. To add to his income,he had a couple of acres of cashew plantation.

When officials of Puri district raised alarm over Phailin hitting villages along the coast of Chilika,Chelberi left his village Sanapatna under Krushnaprasad block in Puri district for Puri town with his four-member family,locking his thatched-roof house. “I thought a locked house would be safe,” he says. He returned to see his house under knee-deep water,his TV set and other valuables gone.

“The water from Chilika rose almost 10 feet and touched the first floor of the cyclone shelter,” recalls fisherman Babu Behera,whose aluminium trunk containing his clothes,his photo ID cards,his BPL card and other valuables were washed away.

In Sanapatna village,Kalia Behera found his mechanised boat thrown several feet away from his house and under heaps of mud. In neighbouring Sipakuda village,where the villagers make a living by taking tourists to Chilika,more than 150 boats were damaged as waves battered them against each other.

“The tourist season starts during Dussehra. But this year,it ended before it could start,” says Bichitra Jali,whose eight-year-old boat lies in pieces.

Fund crunch: Low casualties mean less aid

Unlike the 1999 supercyclone,when a large number of corpses and carcasses raised the danger of an epidemic,this fear has been largely absent this time. The phalanx of politicians and NGOs who otherwise make a beeline to Ground Zero is also missing due to the low casualties. A senior official of a leading NGO said he was finding it difficult to convince funding agencies for an assistance of Rs 2 crore.

Acutely aware of the rehabilitation process impacting him in next year’s Assembly and Lok Sabha polls,Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has put forth a huge wishlist,seeking Rs 13,601.41 crore from the Centre. Of this,the state government has sought Rs 7,769 crore for medium-term reconstruction.

While other officials point to the 1999 cyclone when Orissa received

Rs 800-odd crore against a demand of

Rs 6,200-odd crore from the Centre,Chief Secretary Mohapatra isn’t disheartened. “Unlike 1999 when we had empty coffers,this time we can carry out rehabilitation work even before the Centre sends help. I am confident we can rebuild the affected areas in the next two years.”

Sceptics are worried that despite the initial good work,the whole rehabilitation process may slow down as administrative tardiness takes over. “It’s difficult to maintain the tempo among subordinate officials over a long time,” says Dharmendra Pradhan,BJP general secretary. “Once Phailin becomes a distant memory,official apathy may become the norm.”

First published on: 10-11-2013 at 03:06 IST
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