August 01, 2020
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The Day Disaster Struck

The devastating tragedy raises familiar questions about India’s crisis management skills

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The Day Disaster Struck

What can be done when the elements that sus -tain life—air and water—turn to destroy?—Dasarathi

WHEN Vijayawada-based industrialist M.V.V. Shankar made his regular 5 pm call to his PVC cable-making unit at Yanam, 200 km away, on November 6, he got the stock reply: "Everything under control, sir." So he didn’t suspect a thing when he read about the havoc wreaked by the cyclone in the next morning’s newspapers. It was only late that night—24 hours after a macabre dance of death and destruction had been enacted on the east coast—that an employee could reach a phone and tell his boss: "Sir, anni pade poyindi (it’s all gone)."

 The impact of Cyclone Kakinada 0.7b was sudden and devasting. One moment it was travelling a near-straight line and was to cross the coast in Krishna district, the target of the 1977 cyclone in which 20,000 died. Within hours, it was grazing past neighbouring East and West Godavari districts, hitting the heartland of Konaseema over Amalapuram as if to quell the ONGC blowout that had raged for 51 days last year. The toll: 810 dead; 369,614 houses damaged. "Science may have made progress, but not enough to halt nature," said Shankar G., a Rajahmundry theatre personality.

Nature’s night strike ensured Diwali was washed away. D. Satyanarayana of Pedavalli village had bought firecrackers worth Rs 10,000. He covered them with sheets as winds of up to 220 kmph raged and rain between 21 and 28 cm fell across a 40-km stretch for three hours. (In contrast, neigh bouring Machilipatnam received 1 cm; Visakhapatnam nil.) But as day broke, the damage was not just to the festivities.

Hundreds of electric and phone poles stood like scarecrows; cables hung like straggly cloth-lines; satellite dishes like punctured kites. Acres of coconut trees drooped down like touch-me-nots waiting for a kiss of life. And even more acres of banana orchards stood like used tooth picks after a heavy meal. "Vultures hovered over bloated cattle carcasses in canals swollen by flood waters," wrote Dev Varam of Reuters.

 "What use is the collective wisdom of the ages—the meteorological data culled over a 100 years, sophisticated storm detection equipment, expert contingency plans, if all they result in is unacceptably high tolls?" asked The Indian Express . But there was an air of inevitability. There were six port warnings, non-stop cyclone warnings on radio all day. Roads to East Godavari had been closed at 1 pm. schools at 2 pm.

But fishermen, who comprise most of the dead, had paid scant regard. "We never do. When we do, nothing happens," said a villager in Balusutippa where 600 perished. In Jagannaick Pura, on the outskirts of Kakinada, the warnings were flashed over cable TV. "Tell us, how many of us watch cable TV?" asked rickshaw puller K. Satyababu.

 This was Kakinada’s first cyclone since 1969 so the nonchalance was understandable. Last month a cyclone was expected to strike Amalapuram—the eye of the storm—but it struck Bangladesh instead. Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu’s office which was monitoring the cyclone on the Internet was stunned when the cyclone changed course again and hit East and West Godavari. One collector had been holding a review meeting and another felt the worst was over when the cyclone struck Kakinada.

THE strong fishermen community has long spurned rehabilitation efforts. Former minister B. Subba Rao, for instance, had offered pucca houses to 2,500 families living in Balusutippa and Masanitippa. But he was turned away. There were cyclone shelters in most villages. In Balusut-ippa, for instance, there were three. But the residents didn’t take refuge in them, afraid that the disused structures would collapse.

There were contingency plans, too, after the 1977 experience. But according to former MLA Indrasena Reddy, they had not been implemented since 1986. The then chief minister Chenna Reddy had used the help of the police to forcibly evacuate the endangered. This time they were engaged in clearing road blockades. Says DIG D.T. Naik: "Relief measures were made possible because we ensured smooth traffic quickly."

As the cyclone struck, sea water entered Kakinada and Peddapuram, drowning them under 8 ft of water for six hours. Yanam was marooned. Pesingi Gangaraju, 40, had pitched his tent on the sand dune of the estuary. "When the hurricane came, my wife and four children clung on to me," he recalled. I dug my feet in as deep as possible. But I didn’t have the power to hold on and one by one, they were carried away."

A Russian ship Gnatiyey Sergeyey anchored in the Bay of Bengal crashed into the berths of Kakinada’s soon-to-be-opened deep sea port. Only 10 per cent of the boats of village Bhairavapalem were intact. The stench of dead bodies in hamlet after hamlet still greets visitors. One fisherman, Nageswar Rao, turned over 40 bodies to see if they belonged to his family. They didn’t.

Relief has been slow in coming. Nearly half the roads in the region are not all-weather; 20 per cent of the villages are not connected by roads. There is a scarcity of drinking water in affected villages. Stagnant puddles have not been sprayed with disinfectants. Says former minister G.B. Choudhary: "Nothing has been done to prevent killer diseases from breaking out."

 One reason why Naidu has done most of his damage surveys from a helicopter, is the condition of the roads. Every vehicle that enters an affected village is greeted with hordes of ration-card carrying people looking for rice and kerosene. The latter, not just to keep hearths burning, but to dispose of dead bodies that pile up. But Revenue Minister Devender Goud says: "The government is doing its best." 

Governments and corporates have donated a little. Tickers asking for funds run constantly on Telugu satellite TV channels. But donors are wary due to past experience. "We’ve raised $400 for the cyclone. Advise me of non-chors who could be potential beneficiaries," says a Massachusetts student in an e-mail.

L.K. Advani may not have felt it four Decembers ago; but last week as he toured affected areas, he must have seen what it takes to rebuild destroyed lives. M.V.V. Shankar was lucky. At least there was liquor in Yanam, an area controlled by Pondiche-rry, to drown his sorrow. He laughs as he says: "But that’s because I can’t weep." 

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