On the morning of 3 May, Odisha chief secretary, special relief commissioner (SRC) and a few key officers along with National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) deputy inspector general (DIG) KK Singh and some of his senior colleagues, were glued to a large monitor inside the SRC's control room in Rajiv Bhawan in Bhubaneswar.
An hour later, as the very severe cyclonic storm Fani made landfall, they could feel the effect from the live pictures on the screen and also the trees swinging outside, through the windows of the room. Suddenly an object fell on the car of one of the officers and completely damaged the front glass. "There was pin drop silence. The only noise was that of the wind," recalls Singh, who has been camping in Bhubaneswar from 1 May. "We realised it was massive. And, the challenges ahead were massive too," he adds.
Elsewhere, stationed at the ground zero in Puri " close to where the cyclone had its landfall " to oversee rescue operations, Vijay Sinha, commandant 9th Battalion, Patna, was experiencing a tough time at the second floor, sea facing VIP suite of the circuit house. According to him, at 7.30, the wind speed increased, and soon went up to dangerous level. First it was from north to south, then south to north and then the rotation continued for hours.
"The windows started shaking badly, I thought it could blow away. Before, it could turn into a flying object and hit me, I tried to get out," recounts Sinha. However, against heavy wind pressure, he failed to open the door. Sinha called one of his constables on intercom to push from the outside. Both men pulled and pushed from the two sides of the door. Both failed. Then another constable joined, and somehow, the three managed to open up to 4-5 inch. Sinha put his right foot in that space, and with difficulty got out. Shouting to others to rush to the ground floor, he started running down the staircase.
NDRF teams used cutting edge machinery including plasma cutters during rescue ops in Cyclone Fani-hit areas in Odisha. Debi Mohanty
On the ground, water tanks of 3,000 litre capacity had fallen from the roof of the building. Forced by the wind, the tanks automatically ran helter-skelter.
Several hours later, as Sinha, went to his room, he found, everything, mattress of the bed, pillows, windows, even outer portions of the window air conditioners missing. "The heavy sofa set seemed as if someone had thrown it from a distance," he recalls.
Even days before Fani hit Odisha, 28 NDRF teams, including the existing eighteen of its 3rd battalion at Mundali in Cuttack, along with the state government and volunteers, were busy in 'community awareness' and evacuation of people from vulnerable pockets to safe shelters.
However, seeing the magnitude of destruction, twenty-two more teams were called in. While Fani was causing havoc in Odisha, one such team led by inspector Ankit Tiwari, was on the highway, moving in a bus, from 10th battalion at Guntur (Andhra Pradesh) to Bhubaneswar.
Their bus ran non-stop. "In emergencies, the only aim is to reach the spot of operation, quickly. It's the destination not the distance that's on the top of our mind," says driver of the bus, Rama Sekha Kol.
However, driving or reaching the destination wouldn't be as easy as Kol makes it believe. Second in command of the 10th battalion, 2 IC Santosh Kumar, who had left ahead of Tiwari's team, reached Bhubaneswar sharp at 3.30 am of 4 May. According to Kumar, it was pitch dark and silent. But, every direction, he wanted to move was blocked by huge trees on the road. He kept searching for a way for two hours. "I was thinking how to reach my room, change and rush," Kumar recalls.
That's when he chanced upon a policeman patrolling in that cyclone ravaged night. "Even if I verbally guide, you will not be able to reach your place," the policeman told Kumar. Realising the gravity of the situation, he accompanied Kumar and after a lot of difficulties, in Kumar's words, "I managed to reach the point. I am grateful to the policeman."
Within a few hours, all the teams had arrived and taken their positions. While Singh headed the entire operation and Sinha looked after Puri district, commandant of 3rd Battalion, Jacob Kispotta was in charge of Bhubaneswar and adjoining locations. Kumar was in charge of coordination.
In all, there were 19 senior supervisory officers, over 100 local supervisors, six doctors and paramedics, signals men, drivers, etc. And, most importantly, there were the 1,500 operations men in orange uniforms of fifty teams from four battalions-Mundali, Guntur, Kolkata and Varanasi. "It's the second largest NDRF deployment, next to Kerala floods where 58 teams had been engaged," informs, DIG Singh.
Now, the focus was on the first and biggest challenge. According to Kumar, unlike in normal flooding, mobile connectivity is a casualty in cyclones. The primary challenge in cyclones is to stay connected.
"If roads are affected, it's not a problem, we can move," Kumar says.
"But without telecom network, you are completely in the dark. It's difficult to move an inch ahead," he adds.
"In disaster response, the most important thing is you should know which area needs your immediate presence, so you can prioritise the operation," he continues.
With almost all the mobile towers badly affected, the NDRF relied on very high frequency (VHF) and high frequency (HF) sets for intra-teams connectivity. But, in this overall operation and its management, what helped them most was the 'seven quick deployment antennas (QDAs)'.
"Not only, we could connect on phone, we had access to WiFi and internet as well," Kumar informs. Thus, the first major problem was sorted out.
Next, it was clearing the thousands of big trees lying across the roads to smoothen movement. The professional force had with them rubber boats with out-board machines (OBMs) which are attached to the boats for movement in flood-hit areas, cutting equipments such as diamond chainsaw (used for concrete cutting) and rotary rescue saw. There were also angle cutters, airlifting bags, etc.
"In the Fani-hit areas mostly chain saws are being used as mostly trees have to be cut," informs Tiwari.
According to another head constable, cutting a dead or dry log is far easier than the live ones, as the liquid content in the latter takes more time and causes damage to the blades. Also, when the equipment is used round the clock, they are bound to develop some defects.
Here, Kispotta's experience and idea came in handy. He had moved twelve of his technicians with rescue machinery and set up a workshop at the ground floor of Rajiv Bhawan. "The workshop operated round the clock and importantly saved precious time. Otherwise, for each repair, we would have to carry the equipment to Mundali, 30 kilometers away and lost hours," says an officer.
"Planning and preparedness are utmost important in disaster response. You want to use every moment," Kispotta adds.
However, for the thousands of damaged or broken electric poles, that had left power supply completely disrupted in Bhubaneswar, Puri and all other places, the ten plasma cutters worked wonders. Such equipment, that run on double generators, being used for the first time in an operation in India by the NDRF', cuts iron poles in a few seconds. Kispotta says, our men with the plasma cutters have been assisting the Central Electricity Supply Undertaking (CESU) in Puri for restoration of power'.
"The nature of the job is such that you have to be prepared to move at anytime. For us every life is very precious," the DIG asserts.
The entire team is happy with the cooperation and support extended by the Odisha government, Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF), NGOs, volunteers and most importantly the affected people. "By giving us space in SRC's office, the government ensured that there was no communication gap," says Singh.
"All through, there has been superb coordination with all the concerned departments and agencies," he adds.
Singh and his entire team believes that Odisha has put in place an excellent disaster preparedness system, which according to them is 'the best in the country' and is prepared to meet any disaster. "The disaster awareness level of the people is amazing, which helped in evacuation of over a million people," says Kispotta.
What surprised them is that even the affected people extended all possible courtesies to the men on the ground. At places, youth and students came prepared to help us. "That's amazing," says, Singh.
What about the basics " food and accommodation " for the men who worked like machines? "In emergency, our focus is on rescue. When you see the terrible condition of the people, food is the last thing that comes to mind. Any food is good food and will do," smiles Tiwari.
Singh says his team has stood up to the challenge well despite the baking heat. However, four of his team members sustained injuries. They are fine and on job now.
"From this morning, one is down with typhoid," informs Kumar.
A satisfied, Singh says, "They have made us proud".
The Fani-battered Odisha is proud of them too. From interior villages to cities, everywhere, people view them as saviours. As Ramesh Bhoi, a farmer in Balipatna block, says, "They are the real heroes. Friends in our hour need."
They are. Indeed.