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The Angels Rushed In

They were harbingers of hope. People who boldly stepped in when survival was at stake.

The Angels Rushed In

The quality of mercy itself is strained. In a world gone mad, the parameters of humanity no longer hold good. "How can one think of one’s neighbor when one’s own life is torn apart by a cataclysm? The only thing that occupies the mind at the time is to survive," says 67-year-old Sudarshan Giri of Dahibara village in Ersama. Giri is the sole survivor of a family of 10. But even in this wasteland of death and destruction, hope survives. This is a story of survivors. It is also a tale of those who helped others survive. Ordinary men and women who rose to the occasion and performed extraordinarily under pressure.

Ochinda, 12 km from Machagaon was one of the villages to face the brunt of the storm in the devastated Jagatsinghpur district. Miraculously, the 150-strong village escaped death and injury. The miracle was worked by a sprightly 75-year-old widow. Annapurna Biswal, ‘mausi’ to the village and the owner of one of its three pucca houses. Having some prior knowledge about the fury of the cyclone, Annapurna, on the evening of October 28, rounded up the villagers and brought them home. The eight-roomed house is set high on an embankment. Organising the people, she kept the women occupied with cooking and cleaning, while the men took care of sanitation and protection of the house against the storm. When the first relief van reached Ochinda on November 6, officials were surprised to find a well-knit, organised community. In contrast to the battered population around, the people of this village were on their feet, ready to extend a helping hand to the less fortunate and eager to rebuild their lives.

Dillip Kumar Basu is the senior projects officer of B.E. Engineers and Builders at Paradip. Called back to the head office the day before the cyclone struck, he refused to go. He felt that as the head of the project he was responsible for the safety of the employees. He stocked up the guest house which was on the top floor of a three-storied building at Madhuban. On Thursday evening, Basu’s ‘boys’, as he calls them, were already on the job building the loco shed at Paradip Port Trust. "By next morning, I realised things were going to be bad. So I brought our 35 employees to the guest house. For the next 48 hours, we had a ringside view of the devastation." Fortunately, he had kept stocks of water and food. When the storm subsided, Basu felt somebody had to get back to headquarters to let them know of the damage. "We loaded our Sumo with clearing and cutting appliances and completed the nightmarish journey to Bhubaneshwar in 12 hours." On the way, they encountered fallen trees and breached roads, were mobbed by hungry villagers and looted. "We distributed the supplies and money we’d managed to take." Basu was back in Paradip in two days to rush aid to those who were left behind and to resume work.

When INS Rajput reached Paradip from Chilka, the entrance to the port was blocked. Says Lt Negi of the Rajput, "We could see that the town needed our help but were helpless to reach the port with all channels closed." So Negi and his team of naval divers began the dangerous and difficult task of cleaning the clogged creeks. The water was full of corpses, stranded small fishing craft and around five tons of fishing nets. It was slow and back-breaking work. Frustrating too. "We had over a hundred tons of relief material and we could not distribute them until the port was accessible." Negi’s team cleared the mess and made way for Operation Sahajya of the Indian Navy which provided succour to the marooned villagers along the coast of Paradip. If people are alive and safe in the area up to River Debi and Dhamra port, it is because of the efforts of Negi’s divers.

Gangadhar Sahu is a wholesale dealer in groceries in Baramunda on the outskirts of Bhubaneshwar. While others hoarded after the cyclone, Sahu was busy distributing his stock among the needy. About two quintals of rice, six sacks of pounded rice, 50 kilos of jaggery and kerosene were distributed among the affected of Siripur and Baramunda. With the help of the Baramunda Youth Association, Sahu has been active in relief measures for the migrant labourers who live in Saara Sahi and the Siripur hamlets. Asked about how he will make good the loss, Sahu’s only reply is, "If you give with an open hand, God will double your returns."

Sanjukta Patnaik lives in the Bhimtangi area of Bhubaneshwar. Sanjukta is the MD of an electronics unit in Mancheswar here. Her neighbours, the residents of the adjacent basti, had no inkling of the intensity of the impending storm and when it struck, panic-stricken people ran for shelter as thatches blew off and water gushed into homes. Sanjukta along with her driver Qadir began looking for survivors. "I just had a torch but it was useless as visibility was very poor. We managed to round up almost everybody and herded them into my house." But six people were still missing, among them a baby boy and a blind couple. "We searched for hours and had nearly given up when I stumbled into what seemed to be a plastic toy." The child was almost totally buried in mud, nearly-frozen and barely alive. He was carried home, soaked in warm water, given hot milk and revived almost an hour later. It was Qadir who saved the blind couple who had blundered into an overflowing well. They had somehow managed to stay afloat. Sanjukta and her family saved six people that night and gave succour to 150 more. Her maid cooked almost continuously for two days till they ran out of food. The Patnaiks’ young son and daughter shared the meagre rations as they bedded down with their neighbours from the basti. The survivors are now rebuilding their homes with help from Sanjukta and fellow Rotarians.

For Lt Col E.J. Sanchis and his band of nine engineers, it was just another day in their lives. The unit of 14 was on its way to Cuttack from Kancharapada, West Bengal, when they had to stop en route at Radhaballabhpur to repair the 90-metre bridge on NH5. The officers worked neck-deep in snake-infested waters with a strong current for almost three days. Working in three shifts, sleeping in the open, they had the road motorable in record time. Their task also included rescuing stranded villagers and ferrying them to safety. "All in a day’s work, nothing special," comments Sanchis, brushing aside the district collector’s praise.

There were others as well. Even people from other states who rushed in to try and help out. In face of the complete communication breakdown, a dedicated band of Ham operators from Bangalore and Andhra Pradesh stepped in to save the day. These volunteers were on the job as soon as they could set up the station on November 4. Symbolically, the first call that came through was news of the birth of a baby in the midst of all-pervasive death in Jambu.


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