I Survived Cyclone Gaja, But My Village Will Take a While to Heal

It was almost 3 pm, 11 hours before the cyclone hit, when I finished recording a video of a fisherman narrating his experience of the cyclone last November. Two minutes into the video, and the clouds started bursting. I packed my camera and, along with the fishermen, ran into the nearest shelter. "It's going to be huge," I thought. One of the fishermen replied, "we are used to it."

The cyclone, as we know it, was much bigger than anticipated by the fishermen, and destroyed not just houses or trees, but livelihood for the next 6 to 8 months at least.

I was then working at the local community radio, and tried to alert people on the day of the cyclone by providing ground updates from the shore through social media. However, because of the power cut that day, my efforts were in vain.

I had thought of getting back to my house by 5 pm – which is at least 3 kms from the shore – to upload the videos I’d shot. But nothing from that moment went as planned. It rained like never before from late afternoon, and it was almost impossible for me to go back to my house.

I stayed at the house of one of the local reporters of the radio, Revathi. Her house, almost 150 meters from the shore, was the frontline soldier when Gaja hit. It was a sturdy house compared to other houses, it had a thick plastic ceiling and another layer of brick slabs. About 50 meters from her house was a small cemetery, a homage to those that died during the Tsunami of 2004.

The last devastation the family faced was that year, and nothing but the dentures of the house were left. Everything else was washed off.

On the day Gaja hit, Kumar Anna, Revathi's oldest brother, her sister-in-law from her second brother, and her mother were present in the house. Around 8, the daughter-in-law of the house rushed from one room to another closing windows, securing her valuables, paintings made by her husband, and locking them in their wooden cupboards.

Even by this time, Kumar Anna was sure the cyclone would pass without hurting. The rains continuously poured, and the waves from the sea, which we could hear without interruption, lashed on the shore repeatedly, like a warning.

The otherwise chirpy house now had an eerie silence. People stopped looking each other in the eyes. Occasionally, Revathi's mother checked doors, looked at the roof which was now dramatically shaking, and kept her eyes locked at the entrance of the house, waiting for Kumar Anna to bring some news of the cyclone.

At around 9, when Kumar Anna finally returned he said he hasn't been receiving much due to the network interruptions, and it's best that we sleep this out. The cyclone will come and go, he said. We pulled out some mattresses and lay down to sleep. I clasped onto Revathi's hand and closed my eyes. It was a mad rush of people running around that pulled me out of sleep, an hour later.

Kumar Anna had received information about the cyclone being extremely aggressive and that the eye of the cyclone was aiming our village steadily.

Before I could realise what's happening, I was running to the nearest Tsunami safe house along with everyone else.

At the Tsunami Safe House

We came to the Tsunami safe house. It was adjacent to Revathi's house, at almost the same distance from the sea. It had two rooms, a steel cupboard, a long wooden table, and a swing for babies. After a quick glance, we all chose a safe place to sit. We closed the door tightly and waited for the cyclone to hit. Kumar Anna was still outside, and after an hour, Revathi's mother insisted on checking up on him. Revathi shut the idea down, saying it's too dangerous. She kept starting at the door that wouldn't stop banging because of the strong winds.

After hours of silence, Kumar Anna finally knocked and came in with mattresses and pillows and candles. We lit one, and again in the hope of this being just another nightmare, tried to sleep. A small part of me still had a feeling that this was just a dream.

At around 1 in the morning, Revathi's mother started humming a folk song. We all looked at her in surprise but breathed a sigh of relief as the song had a calming effect in the otherwise nightmarish room. The winds now blew violently. The water started coming inside the Safe house.

We tried not to panic. Kumar Anna got up finally and in an attempt to tighten the windows knobs, he opened the window. The winds were so strong that the cupboard right in front of the window smashed against the wall in front of us. Fear gripped us.

Nobody said a word. We erected the cupboard, and put our heads between our hands, covering our ears with whatever piece of clothing we could find. Revathi's mother had stopped singing. We now knew by the force of the wind and the shrill sound outside, that it was time.

At around 2.30 am, we heard a high-pitched, shrill, whistle-like noise. Revathi's mother smiled at me and said something to Kumar Anna in Tamil. He told me,

"“I’m sure this wasn’t something you expected to see. This is our life here. People in the cities have no idea, do they?” "

Much like the rest of the night, I had no words to offer.

By 2.45 am, the winds were hovering over the safe house like a ghost. We could hear trees clashing against each other, water hitting our shelter hard enough to break it and things banging on the walls of the safe house randomly. I thought this was it. I thought of my mother, my family and tried to have a happy picture in my head the last time, in case things end up badly. The noise by this time was so high, that we couldn't hear each other inside the room.

I could just see that the sister in law was crying silently in a corner, and Revathi was holding her mother tight and patiently  comforting her.

It was the longest hour of my life. But we made it, we didn’t die, we really did survive.

At around 4.15, the cyclone stopped and all we could hear was rains. Kumar Anna now decided to go see the house. His mother protested but Revathi knew it was important, so she didn't say a word. Kumar Anna returned with bad news.

“Full damage. All washed off.” he announced.

The oldest neem tree of the house that was planted by their ancestors was uprooted. The house was waterlogged, with water reaching the knees.

Revathi’s sister-in-law now broke down thinking of all the things her family purchased this year, which had now gone to dust. Kumar Anna asked us all to stay in the safe house till it was absolutely safe to go to the house. At 5 am, Revathi's mother walked towards the door. It was time for pooja.

Revathi lost her cool and shouted, “it’s your God that brought this upon us and you want to garner flowers on him? No I won’t let you.”

Time passed and we finally went to see the house. Walking on the street felt like I was in some other city, at some other time. Trees like dead bodies were scattered all over the place. The village that once had a thriving forest, didn't have a fresh leaf left. The house had survived. The rooftop was damaged, but the walls inside were intact. I heaved a sigh of relief. But not for long. All the houses next to Revathi's had been damaged.

My laptop bag, too, was soaked in water. All my electronics were damaged, but this was no time to complain. We spent the next two days repairing the house, waiting for the local MLA to come and help with food since there was no electricity, no roads, no commute and all the food inside was soaked in water. I wasn't surprised to see that no one turned up till the fourth day.

The Painful Ride Home

On day 4, when the roads finally cleared, Kumar Anna said he could now drop me home. He even arranged for a phone (working on solar power) for me to inform my parents that I was safe.

Before I reached home, I made a stop at the radio station. Everything except the walls and roof had washed off. The house next to the station was completely washed off. The family said that they took refuge inside the radio station the night the cyclone hit. They couldn't save any of their valuables.

On my way home all I saw was devastation. It was not my village anymore. People were stranded, waiting on roads, for food, for money, for anyone who was an outsider and could help in anyway.

Upon reaching, I realised that my area of the village was hit just as bad, if not more. The doors and windows of my room had blown away. My certificates, a polaroid camera, clothes, bags, utensils, everything was gone.

Everything was on the road outside my house. In that moment, I relived it all again. My heart sank in a little more. But I could not afford to break down. My landlord helped me gather my belongings. Everything else was gone.

On the 5th day, I remember locking myself inside the bathroom and crying. Seeing nothing but pain and hopelessness made me numb. I realised however with time that I still have a home. Thousands of miles away, where my parents are safe and sound, but people here have lost their livelihood, a roof on their heads.

Thousands of coconut trees (which will take another 5 years to grow and yield) were damaged, taking away the livelihood of those who depend solely on coconuts as their source of income. Crops have been damaged, and the expenses needed to replace all of it again are too high. Fishermen's boats were either washed away or damaged, which means no livelihood until they get them repaired.

Restarting life financially and emotionally seems impossible right away, when people are still scrounging through the debris and finding their lost valuables.

It might take months for the electricity polls to get repaired and houses to be fixed. Life as we know it, has come to a standstill.

A lot of relief in terms of food, clothing and domestic items is flowing in. Yet, many elderly, single mothers, and the handicapped from the interior parts of the village haven't been able to get help. Women haven't been able to use toilets because most of the toilets were single units built outside the houses, and couldn't survive the force of the wind. Around fifteen people use one toilet (the ones left intact) or defecate/bath out in the open. Incessant rainfall has made that difficult as well. Apart from the damage, the disaster has taken a toll on people's health. Since a week, doctors clinics have had many people complaining of chest pain, fevers and headache. It's a dead end for the community.

An honest appeal to the readers, donate where ever possible. Every penny counts at this moment. Almost 10 days later, when I managed to get internet, I started a campaign on Milaap.org, to fix rooftops of houses that were most damaged. No amount is small, so I urge the readers to donate.

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