Cyclone Fani is gone. The reporters are gone. The politicians are gone. Odisha's disaster has just begun

How do hundreds of thousands of poor people lift themselves from the debris of devastation after the last reporter has left? To find out, Gaon Connection travels to Odisha to the homes destroyed by Cyclone Fani

Nidhi Jamwal

Nidhi Jamwal   24 May 2019 1:14 PM GMT

Puri, Odisha

Coconuts trees were flying in the air.

It was eight in the morning, and totally dark. In a small first-floor room in a government building, three terrified young children clung to their mother as the cyclone tore down the door of their room and sea water seeped in. Five hundred metres away, the father — ice-cream seller Kapila Behera — sat guarding his bamboo-mud-thatch home, moments after Cyclone Fani lashed Odisha's coast on May 3.

"Within a second, my house was gone and I was out in the open, ready to be carried away by the cyclone. I was sure I would die," Behera, 35, told Gaon Connection as he stood by his new home — put together by bamboo and plastic sheets — in the Harchandi Basti shanty in the worst affected town of Puri. "I had to somehow survive and found a concrete wall at a distance. With great difficulty, not being able to see anything, I reached that wall and clung to it for my life."

But the disaster didn't happen when Cyclone Fani battered Odisha and affected, according to the government, 15 million people. The disaster is unfolding now.

The state government informed the visiting inter-ministerial Central team that the losses were Rs 11,942 crore. But Bishnupada Sethi, the state's special relief commissioner, told Gaon Connection that clubbing all losses together — power sector, horticulture and agriculture, fisheries, water supply systems, forest cover, livelihoods, etc — the state has suffered a loss of over Rs 100,000 crores.

At least 64 people were killed by Fani — a death toll that ironically brought relief, as a much larger loss of human life was feared. That brought a false sense of normalcy to those watching Odisha from far away, and the disaster vanished from national attention in two days.

But on the ground, the devastation is unprecedented. The cyclone made mincemeat of large swathes of the coastline in the eastern state of Odisha, that has been pulverised by angry waters far too often — the super cyclone of 1999, the Phailin cyclone in 2013, followed by Hudhud in 2014, all of which came from the Bay of Bengal and hit India's east coast causing massive destruction and loss of lives.

That fateful morning, three hours later, the cyclone had passed. Behera walked over fallen coconuts trees, broken walls of houses and debris to reach the cyclone shelter, thrilled to be reunited with his family.

But when they returned May 3 evening, all they could call their home was debris. Bedding, utensils, grains, clothes, school books — everything had been swept away.

His wife Sanjukta Behera didn't know where to start rebuilding her house.

"For two nights, we lived under the open sky. There was no food to eat except some chuda (flattened rice)," she said. "Then a local NGO started a community kitchen in our basti and we got rice and dalma [lentil cooked with vegetables] to eat."

Her husband's hand cart — on which he used to sell ice-cream and earn his living of up to Rs 200 a day — had vanished in the waters. It seemed as if their shanty had been bulldozed — of the 146 houses it had, not even a single home is intact.

Bishnupada Sethi, special relief commissioner, Odisha, told Gaon Connection that overall, more than 15 million people in 14 districts of the state are affected, with Puri district being the worst affected. Sethi pegs the total loss to the state and its people due to cyclone Fani at Rs 100,000 crore.

To many, it is a miracle that there wasn't a much greater loss of life from Fani, which intensified from a depression into an extremely severe cyclonic storm when it hit the Odisha coast in Puri on May 3 morning. According to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), Fani, with an elongated time period of 11 days, was the longest-lived cyclone in the Bay of Bengal.

"Using a combination of satellite imagery and doppler weather radars, we tracked each and every movement of Fani and were able to accurately and timely forecast the location of cyclone landfall in Odisha and pre-warn the state administration," M Mohapatra, additional director general of meteorology at the met department's National Weather Forecasting Centre in New Delhi told Gaon Connection.

Things were moving fast in Bhubaneswar.

Based on the Met department's information, the state government issued a cyclone alert to 20 districts with specific alerts to 14 districts, informing areas that were likely to be hit with very high wind speeds, and inundated.

"From April 30 onwards, we had started sending specific warnings to districts, informing them to keep their disaster management teams ready," said Sethi, the special relief commissioner.

As the wave of panic started, Mannaber Sattibeni, mother of two and a resident of the Painthakota urban slum in Puri, was one of those trying to save lives.

On the mornings of May 2 and May 3, Sattibeni, who works with Spandan, a local non-profit organisation, roamed around the narrow lanes of Painthakota to convince more than 300 families to leave their homes and shift to a cyclone shelter.

"On May 2 evening, around 5 pm the NDRF (National Disaster Response Force) team came to our locality and asked us to evacuate the place and shift to a nearby cyclone shelter," Sattibeni told Gaon Connection. "I took every short-cut possible to reach the maximum number of people and told them to quickly finish their meal and shift to a safe shelter as cyclone Fani was going to strike the next morning."

She kept knocking on doors all evening, between 5 pm and 10 pm of May 2. Along with her two young kids, she also then moved to the cyclone shelter.

Around the same time, across the road in Harchandi Basti, the Behera family — father, mother and their three children — were sitting down for a meal together. Thereafter, Sanjukta Behera packed some clothes and chuda (flattened rice) with her and left for the cyclone shelter, about half a kilometre away, along with her children Pratima (15), Sadashiv (13) and Guruprasad (11). Her husband Kapila Behera stayed back to guard the house made out of bamboo, mud walls and a thatched roof.

Most men of the village decided to stay back — in the past, when they left homes to flee impending disasters, they had often come home to find that their homes had been ransacked, their belongings stolen.

Things seemed under control as Sanjukta left home with the three children, planning to return home the next evening after Cyclone Fani had passed onwards to other neighbouring districts of the state.

But the night at the cyclone shelter, a local administration building in concrete, wasn't very comfortable. There was no power supply, which had been cut-off in wake of the approaching storm, no drinking water inside the rooms and no provision for food.

The children were getting very anxious. Rains had started and Behera's children, drenched, spent the night shivering in wet clothes.

"It had already started raining in the night. It was pitch dark at the cyclone shelter," 13-year-old Sadashiv said as he stood by his mother. "Our room was on the first floor and stairs had no railing. I was scared to climb up and down the stairs."

The whole night, he said, he kept thinking about his baba (father) whom they had left behind. "I was scared — what if there is a flood after the storm and it washes away my baba?" said Sadashiv.

The night passed.

Across the vulnerable coastline, more than 1.5 million people had been evacuated by daybreak with the help of local administration, NGOs and community leaders, officials said. More than 20,000 tourists were also evacuated before Fani hit the tourist hub of Puri, they said.

"On May 3 morning, at 5 am I again came back to Painthakota to inform the men, who had stayed back, to shift to the shelter," said Sattibeni of Painthakota, overlooking the sea. "By that time the rains and winds had already started and it was clear that storm would hit us soon."

By 8 am, it had started to rain very heavily. Locals say the rainwater was salty, showing the cyclone was carrying large amount of seawater with it. There were very strong winds, roaring in at over 200 kilometres per hour.

In the makeshift cyclone shelter near Harchandi Basti, the Behera kids had spent a terrified, sleepless night huddled with their mother.

"Once the cyclone hit, it turned dark and I could not see anyone or hear anything except the deafening sound ssssaaaaiiii ssssaaaaiiii of the cyclone," said 15-year-old Pratima, Behera's eldest child, whose 10th standard result is declared, but she isn't aware of her marks due to no phone and internet connectivity in the area.

"I have never seen such a storm in my life," she said. "I am so scared to even think about it."

Suddenly that morning, the door of their room was ripped open. The raging winds were too strong.

"We tried shutting it. But the storm kept throwing us back and the door fell on us. We were hurt. Our room was filled with rainwater mixed with seawater," Pratima told Gaon Connection. "We were wet to our bones and kept clinging to our mother."

At their home five hundred metres apart, Kapila Behera sat waiting for the cyclone to pass.

"I was at my home when Fani struck. I saw coconut trees and asbestos sheets flying all over in the air," Behera said. As he ran, he was hit by flying bricks and coconuts.

He said he kept thinking of his children and how they would survive without him being around. He was certain he would not make it out of the storm alive — but decided to make one last, desperate effort to survive.

"I had to somehow survive and found a concrete wall at a distance. With great difficulty, not being able to see anything or hear anything, I reached that wall and clung to it for my life," said Behera. Other men of his neighbourhood were also clinging to the same wall in the hope of surviving the worst cyclone of their lives.

They did. But there was nothing left at home. There was no home.

Behera's neighbour Punya Chandra Sahoo, who runs a grocery shop, also stayed back to guard his home and shop and his wife and three daughters shifted to a family friend's house on May 2 evening.

"We all survived the cyclone, but we have lost everything," said Sahoo, who worked as a daily wage labourer for many years in Jammu & Kashmir to earn money and save enough to start a life in Harchandi basti in Puri, Odisha, his home state.

"Our kitchen is buried under two feet of sand. Rs 20,000 worth stuff stocked in the shop is lost," he said. "The house has been razed to dust. We are back to zero."

Suchismita Sahoo, Sahoo's 17-year-old daughter, lost her college books and notes in the cyclone and was trying to salvage some by drying them in the open sun.

"Whatever grains were stored at home were lost," she said. "We are now buying grocery from the open market and prices of daily essentials like pulses, fish and eggs have already increased."

Balwant Singh, district collector of Puri, said Fani "destroyed 40,000 electric poles and several 33kV towers. It will take a long time to restore power supply in Puri."

Puri is still in the dark as power lines are yet to be restored. Power supply should be restored in Puri by the end of May, he said.

"No doubt the situation is extremely grim in Puri district. About 126 gram panchayats are severely affected due to cyclone Fani and 278 gram panchayats are moderately affected. But we are working on war-footing to restore basic services," Singh told Gaon Connection.

Singh took charge of Puri district on May 6.

"We must acknowledge that the evacuation and rescue work was very good for which we got help of 23 NDRF [National Disaster Response Force] teams and 57 fire teams," he said. "That is why death toll has not been very high in spite of Fani being an extremely severe cyclonic storm."

A few days after Cyclone Fani, there were protests in affected districts and road blockages were held by the local people who complained they had not received any relief from the state government and were forced to go hungry for days. But Singh said such cases were rare.

"You must understand in such a calamity, people are distressed and some untoward incidents take place. But the situation is under control," he said.

Only for now. Authorities and local residents know that this is not the last time disaster has lashed India's coast.

M Rajeevan, secretary, Union ministry of earth sciences, warned that in the coming years, intensity of tropical cyclones may increase, hence better disaster preparedness is crucial.

"Tropical cyclones don't commonly form in April and such storms are a rare occurrence," he told Gaon Connection in an interview at his office in New Delhi.

"This time [Cyclone Fani] occurred very close to the equator and moved a very long trajectory and had a long life cycle, which is all unusual," he said. "It was a unique event and could be related to climate change."

In the Painthakota shanty, Shashwat, a colleague of Sattibeni, knows that the damage caused by Fani is cascading and will have a long-term effect.

"Whereas no lives were lost due to Fani in Painthakota, which houses our 1,500 fisher families right on Puri coast, all boats and fishing nets are lost," he said. "And without boats, fishers are crippled and have no income.

"It may take years for fishermen of Painthakota to come back to leading normal lives," Shashwat said. "They have lost their homes, their boats, their nets and their friendly relation with the sea."

Across the road in Harchandi Basti, Punya Chandra Sahoo says: "We are back to zero."

Edited by: Neelesh Misra

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