TOPICS > World

Cyclone in Orissa, India

March 22, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Looking at the placid Bay of Bengal, it’s hard to picture the intense storm that came through here last October. The soggy river deltas of eastern India are used to plenty of monsoon rain, but nothing prepared the state of Orissa for what the locals here called a super cyclone. Army helicopters couldn’t even get into the area for several days to check on the enormous devastation. The storm packed 200-mile-an-hour winds. Waves surged 25 feet high and up to 100 miles inland. The receding waters left behind only some victims, both human and livestock. Most were washed out to sea. Officially, the death toll from the super cyclone was put at around 10,000. But many relief workers here say the number is likely many times that number, as many as 50,000. Migrant workers from surrounding states, for example, were not counted among the casualties, because they’re not registered as voters in the state of Orissa. Cleaning up and rebuilding after a storm like October’s would be daunting anywhere, but it’s particularly difficult in India. University of Minnesota geographer Joseph Schwartzberg specializes in the Indian subcontinent.

JOSEPH SCHWARTZBERG, University of Minnesota: Well, about 1.3 million homes were completely destroyed, most of them washed off the map, not even a trace of them remaining. So the magnitude of the task is just so phenomenal, that a country which is poor in resources and capital resources, as is India, or Bangladesh to an even greater extent, just would not have the means of coping, at least in the short run.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Twisted devastation still lies across coastal Orissa. The economy, always subsistence at best, also is in ruins. Programs to replant trees and restore jobs have been announced by government and private relief agencies. In a few fishing villages, people have actually begun to nail and sew back their livelihoods. But the move from relief to rehabilitation has been a slow one. For the village of Ambiki, it means rebuilding the dirt road that was the only link to the nearby highway and the outside world. Hundreds of men hauled fill recently in a project sponsored by the charity CARE.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: How many people lost a relative, or somebody close to them in their family during this flood? (Speaking in local dialect) Niwas Phandakar lost his parents, brother, nephews, and niece, in all ten out of 16 members in an extended family. The storm destroyed his own livelihood and that of many subsistence farmers here, not only drowning crops but contaminating the land with salt that will take up to four years to wash away. Like his neighbors, Phandakar must scrape by with odd jobs like this food-for-work project. For a day’s labor under a blazing sun, these men received a 50-pound bag of grain. Precarious food supplies remain a worry everywhere, because of damaged crops, inefficient transportation, and bureaucracy. We followed a CARE team to a neighboring village, where this group of schoolchildren said they’re down to two meals a day. The school snacks they used to have went out with the floods, as did most of their textbooks and notebooks — as well as any fun and merriment. Instead, there is guilt and sadness, like that suffered by 11-year-old Sauvaga Panigraha, even though he and his immediate family survived the ordeal.

SAUVAGA PANIGRAHA: (Translated): I’m very unhappy because I am alive and others are dead. It would have been better if the cyclone had lasted another two hours, and we all would have been washed away.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Kasturi Mohatra, an activist on women’s issues, says that with all the need for physical rebuilding, no one has had time to work on the emotional devastation.

KASTURI MOHATRA: The children and the adolescent girls, even the aged population, the trauma they have gone through, and it’s just beyond imagination, it’s just beyond tolerance, like the sheer helplessness,, the death of their near and dear ones, the crying, hunger, and thirst that followed. I am sure this will leave indelible marks and will adversely affect the children and adolescent girls.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Although the government has tried to set up makeshift orphanages, many villages have devised a social order of their own, matching childless adults with children, like this divorced woman and orphaned infant. The storm brought down caste and class barriers that have existed here for centuries. Left in a kind of limbo and grief are older children, like adolescent sisters, Conso and Malini. Their parents sent them away to a shelter, but stayed behind to guard their meager mud home. The parents were never heard from again. Like most girls in India’s lower socioeconomic classes, neither child has ever attended school, and they’re not hopeful of marriage, traditionally the only economic salvation for many women, and a costly ritual their parents would have would have handled.

MAN: This is the man who rescued them.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The girls owe their survival to Jeevan Lal Behra, who, along with other volunteers, took people to a concrete building during the storm. Amid all the devastation, he remains optimistic about his community’s future.

JEEVAN LAL BEHRA: (Translated): We are very hopeful that the future is not bleak and this gloom is transitory, only for the reason that this disaster has brought all the people together. They have forgotten all differences of caste, creed, and color, and have all come together.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Despite his upbeat note, the future does not seem bright and Orissa remains vulnerable to cyclones, which sweep through here twice yearly. Although there are plans to construct more concrete shelters, Professor Schwartzberg says they won’t come close to meeting the need. An emergency evacuation system, he adds, would take decades, if at all, to build.

JOSEPH SCHWARTZBERG: Even if they did get early warning, the roads wouldn’t have the capacity, if there are roads at all, to handle them. In the case of Orissa, there are 21 shelters. They each have a capacity to hold 2,000 people. So we’re talking about 42,000 people. Whereas the number of people who were displaced was on the order of ten million, so 21 shelters are the merest drop in the bucket in terms of the magnitude of the need.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And that need in the future will likely grow. Even without cyclones, water levels in the Delta rivers have risen because of deforestation caused by population pressures. One encouraging note is that so far, Orissa has been spared any major outbreaks of gastrointestinal disease, and the much-feared cholera has been held at bay.