As Cyclone Amphan barrels down on India’s eastern coast packing ferocious winds in excess of 160 kilometres per hour, authorities are warning of extensive damage that the storm classified as a Super Cyclone is likely to leave in its trail. They say the last time a Super Cyclone hit India was in 1999 when a terrifying storm scooped up the sea and triggered tidal waves that swept away some 10,000 people to death in Orissa.
Ruben Banerjee, editor-in-chief, Outlook, lived through the 1999 Super Cyclone as a reporter based in Bhubaneswar. He extensively covered the disaster and later authored a book on it, The Orissa Tragedy – A Cyclone’s Year of Calamity.
As another super cyclone approaches us, we reproduce sections from the book on the previous one.
By 11 in the morning, the wind was blowing at a threatening velocity and the rain was lashing down so heavily that visibility was nearly nil. The nervous weatherman’s warning now made sense. The wind whistled with greater intensity, as if to mark the storm’s arrival. Thick clouds hung overhead, the rain whipped the city and a typhoon simply swept everything in sight. Within an hour the phone lines were disrupted. Bhubaneswar’s ordeal had only just begun. Bureaucrats reached their offices relatively early in the hope of receiving the news that the course of the cyclone had changed and Orissa had been spared. Wishful thinking was playing out its last act. Through the night the cyclone had moved straight towards Orissa. It made its landfall somewhere near Paradip. The state officials kept hoping the cyclone would pass in an hour or so. A majority expected to be home for lunch and the customary siesta. Their hopes were shattered as the cyclone did not simply “go away”. By noon, the streets had become unmotorable. As the storm raged, electric poles were twisted, trees uprooted, advertisement hoardings wrenched from their iron scaffoldings, window panes broke and glass shreds flew almost missile-like. Bhubaneswar resembled a war zone – a very wet one. Going home for lunch was no longer an option. Nor was survival.
…The storm was unforgiving. At every lull, Bhubaneswar tended to collectively heave a sigh of relief. But it was not to be. As afternoon gave way to evening and then evening dissipated into the night, the roar and the momentary lull kept following each other so regularly that Bhubaneswar’s hapless residents simply lost count. It was a night when even atheists prayed.
The civil servants felt silly. The secretariat had not been secured by generator sets the previous night, neither was there any stock of diesel and kerosene. With window panes gone, many rooms were flooded and bureaucrats in little groups sat in hushed silence on the dark staircase. The chief secretary together with some other top officials sat in his partially lit chambers. He could have done little. He had been given no mobile phone and the landlines were dead. The police wireless system was also collapsing. The crucial wireless transmission tower at Badchana in Cuttack district, which relays messages across Cuttack, Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur, Khurdah and Puri, had been felled. The last time the wireless sets had crackled was sometime in the evening when a terrified policeman somewhere in Raghunathpur reported in a quivering voice that the roof of his police outpost had been blown off and the walls were threatening to. His voice petered off and the sets went dead.
…But Bhubaneswar was not even in the eye of the storm – it was at least 100 km away, just at the periphery of the cyclone’s customary cloud wall. What must have it been like deeper into the cyclone? The world learnt how it was only weeks later, long after the cyclone had blown over, the sea tides had receded and Orissa had regained its connectivity with civilisation.
…The government, of course, claimed millions had been evacuated to safety. Even if Operation Evacuation was near perfect and everybody among the vulnerable millions in the 10 districts agreed to seek refuge in pucca houses, where could they have been accommodated? Compared to 2,400 cyclone shelters in storm-prone Bangladesh and over 200 in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, Orissa had no more than 23 cyclone shelters along its long coastline. Each could take in no more than 2,000 people – that too in the standing position, one pressed against the other. A few more could be accommodated in pucca structures like primary schools and panchayat offices available in the villages, but this still left a sizeable majority high and dry.
Turned back from an already overpacked cyclone shelter near Astarang, a young man and his grandmother were seeking to cross the field and get to the safety of a primary school that was – even if they didn’t know it – already packed. The two never made that journey through. It was only 200 metres but the strong gale would not allow them that luxury. Struggling against the wind and lashed by blinding rain, the man held on to a tree with one hand and his infirm grandmother with the other. The tug of war continued while the water from the nearby river swelled and rose steadily to engulf the field. Finally, the man’s grip slackened and the matriarch slid to her death. Soon after, the tree the young man was clutching to for his existence fell. Both refuge and refugee were claimed by the waters. The people in the cyclone shelter and the school could only watch. To try and help would have been suicidal.
Those cowering in their hutments in the lush green fields of Ersama, Jagatsinghpur, in coastal Orissa were courting deaths even indoors. Beyond Bhubaneswar’s knowledge and proving the predictions wrong, the worst cyclone in decades was making its landfall over an unsuspecting Ersama. Its victims were marginal and small farmers – many of them Bengali migrants who had come all the way from Midnapore in West Bengal, or, perhaps Bangladesh. Life was hard and back-breaking anyway. The soil was fertile but few had enough capital. Landholdings were tiny and yields not enough to feed the ever hungry mouths. Many farmers were deep in debt and lived on handouts. An equal number steered tiny boats into the rough seas for a catch of fish – and a living.
But not one of life’s hardships had prepared them for what they were about to confront. From the previous evening, it had been raining heavily and the villages scattered across the lush green fields, some nestling almost in the lap of the sea, were getting marooned one after the other. Daybreak brought more of the same. It rained incessantly and houses got submerged. The nightmare came later that morning.
Around 11 in the morning -the time when distant Bhubaneswar began to be violently rocked – Ersama was turned upside down. Without much notice, the gale scooped up the sea and the wrath of the water gods came rushing as far as 20kms into the land. Some like PrabhakarHazra of village Sarabapatha, having climbed up his thatched roof to stay ahead of the already rising water, actually saw destruction approach “like a huge wall invading the Earth”. The sea attacked in three waves, within a span of just about five minutes. The first wave washed away the mud walls and set the thatched roofs, onto which thousands had climbed, free and dangling. The second wave overturned the roofs. The third simply swept the inhabitants away.
A handful had a providential escape. The rest were not as fortunate. Over 9,000 died in Ersama. Among the dead were the family members of Gandhi Das of Saraba. Sitting on the thatched roof of his hut, he noticed the waves closing in and quickly thought of an ingenious method to save himself and his family. He brought out a long rope and hurriedly tied himself, his wife and two children to the trunk of a nearby tree. He guessed that the waves would sweep away his village, but expected that by anchoring itself to the tree, his family would hold its ground. It did, but only as a group of lifeless corpses. A week later, long after the cyclone had calmed down and the sea tides had receded, Gandhi Das and his family still lay tied to the tree with the single rope. The waves did not sweep them away. The waves just drowned them.