The Great Escape - Part 2

Grist Media

Shelter from the storm

IN Ganjam district, where a mere 80,000 people had been evacuated by Saturday morning — an insignificant percentage of the half million who needed to be moved — District Collector Krishnan Kumar had authorized the police to employ force.

But passing down instructions is one thing — there was just not enough police to carry them out. The district had only a few hundred police on its force, and they could not hope to forcibly evict more than 400,000 people from their homes and get them into shelters.

“Convincing the villagers to leave their property was absolutely the hardest part of the entire evacuation, because in an empty village you are inviting goons and crooks and everything,” Kumar told me. “The good thing was that because we kept at it for two to three days in every village, the message got drilled into their heads. At first they thought, ‘Something is coming but it’s not so serious. We’ll survive; not an issue; we need not evacuate.’ But because of that thing that we put into their heads that their lives may be in danger, as soon as people saw the first signs of the cyclone building up, they got out. And then there was a rush to leave.”

In the end, nothing was more convincing than Cyclone Phailin itself. By noon Saturday October 12 the storm had visibly intensified, and many people along the coast – except for those like Keerthwas and Prakash, who were already in their respective shelters, having breakfast – began to realize that their lives were in danger after all.

The wind by then had picked up along the coast, surpassing 100 kilometers per hour in some places, and the waves had become violent, spraying the air with a thick, salty mist.

It was not that people hadn’t seen such weather before (they had), or that the morning’s weather on its own was life-threatening (it wasn’t). Rather, it was a curious culmination of all the factors: the government’s insistent warnings, the non-stop media coverage, and now the deteriorating weather itself. During interviews with the locals, even the most skeptical holdouts described that moment as a kind of tipping point, and said that is when they began to truly feel afraid and decided that, even if they lost their boat or their home, it was better than losing their lives.

That moment, when the community decided to get out, was the turning point for an evacuation effort that until then had not succeeded in getting many vulnerable communities out of harm’s way. As the intensifying storm set off panic among coastal communities, the challenge for local authorities changed complexion: where earlier they were struggling to get locals to evacuate, now they were frantically trying to cope with the sudden onrush of people who wanted to reach the shelters before it was too late.

‘Like watching milk boil’

THE rough weather hit Gopalpur first. Around 10 am on Saturday, Jagannath saw the sea become frothy and rise up, much more than it usually did during cyclones.

“It was like watching milk boil, just before it overflows,” he told me. “It looked as if the sea would soon rise up and rush forward.”

Dozens of families were now jostling for a spot in the same vans that authorities were trying to fill by force the night before. However, many dozen more – mostly young men – were at the beach, eager to see a major cyclone unfold. The town chairman kept shuffling between the bus stand and the beach, simultaneously trying to bring order to the evacuation and chasing the foolhardy away from the shore. He and his staff took command of jeeps, buses, autorickshaws and every other kind of vehicle they could get their hands on, redirecting them towards the evacuation shelters. By their own count, they evacuated another 200,000 people by Sunday afternoon.

Jagannath was not one of them. As he worried about whether his boat, which he had kept in the canal behind the town, would survive the wind, his mother called him, for the first time after his fight with his parents. “Why don’t you bring your family over to our home?” she suggested.

His parents’ home had an asbestos roof and was stronger than Jagannath’s rented hut. “It would be much better than staying in your thatched-roof hut. Your father thinks so as well,” his mother told him.

Phailin was still some distance away, but its power was by then even impacting the coldest family disputes. Literally in the midst of a storm, Jagannath was about to reconcile with his parents. “If anything happens, let’s bear it together, as a family,” his mother told him.

Jagannath took his wife, his son and some valuable documents to his parent’s home where, earlier past grievances buried in the face of present danger, they were welcomed and sheltered.

Not everybody had some place to go, however. By now, more and more people were ready to evacuate to the shelters, but now the authorities were turning them away on the grounds that the shelters were already filled beyond capacity. Find a concrete home to stay in, the authorities told them.

In any case, by Saturday afternoon it was getting impossible to go anywhere. “The sea, the rain and the wind all mixed together,” Kondalrao said. “You couldn’t see anything. It might as well have been night.”

The first casualty

THE strength of the winds caught the Penthakata slum by surprise; most hadn’t experienced anything like it before. By noon, nearly everybody had put their most precious belongings – nets, motors, televisions – in the few concrete dwellings scattered through the neighborhood, and got out of there. Those who had a bit of extra money hired rickshaws to take them to one of Puri’s lodges, where for 500 rupees they could wait out the storm in comfort with their families. Others took one of the autorickshaws provided by the community leaders to one of five shelters, mainly colleges and government office buildings, which had been earmarked for Penthakata. Police and community leaders continued to roam through the slum, making sure everyone had either left or was getting ready to go.

Kondalrao, Jagalmani and the rest of their family were getting ready to leave. They put their belongings in a concrete house opposite to their shack, which would be strong enough for the storm but was too small to serve as anything other than a storage closet. By afternoon, the waves had grown to heights of 15 to 20 meters – tall enough to be seen over the tops of houses. Luckily, the water did not surge inland, which could have swept the slum and everyone in it away. It almost seemed like divine intervention, a god-given last chance to leave. But it also sparked a full-blown panic across the slum. There was no more time to think, no time to prepare.

“All that mattered was saving our own lives,” Jagalmani told me. “The waves were spectacular, but we had to get out of there, because there is nothing scarier than seeing the sea rise that much.”

Hardly 10 kilometers away, Debasis Rath had settled in his home, a lovely and spacious building that overlooks the train tracks and the sea beyond that. His mind was at ease. He had received word that residents of Baliapanda, the slum whose leaders were wondering yesterday where everybody would go, had found shelter in the posh, now-empty hotels where some of them worked. And from his balcony he watched as a special train carried thousands of rickshaw-wallahs, sweepers and other poor laborers from the nearby Balikuda slum to safety.

“In the eleventh hour, many of the most helpless people managed to find safety,” Rath said. “And high-class people, hoteliers, had opened their doors to the slum-dwellers, accepting them in the crisis. Community feeling had won the day.”

His own home was about to become a shelter too. The heavy rains from the day before had already caused his street to flood, so he invited his neighbors, who lived in single-storey structures that were vulnerable to flooding, as well as children from a nearby home run by his organization, into his own home. He had already stocked up with rice, potatoes, onions and eggs – all bought at exorbitant prices, but enough to feed everyone for a few days. By Saturday evening, over 150 people had gathered in Rath’s house, and the atmosphere was more of a festive get-together than a cyclone shelter.

So far, so good, Rath thought. He had not heard of any casualties yet. Neither had Kondalrao or Jagalmani, Jagannath, Prakash or Keerthwas.

Actually, Phailin had already claimed its first casualty around noon, of all places in the state capital. Jayanti Raul, a middle-aged woman, was plucking flowers near her house in Bhubaneswar when the wind knocked a tree onto her head.

‘Your house may not survive in this wind’

AROUND noon, Sunita Behera and her family return to Berhampur from Konitheega. They had enjoyed the festival, but now she and her husband were sick, and exhausted because of the long bus journey. Sunita had vomited along the way and contracted a fever. As they entered their very small first-floor apartment, they noticed their neighbors making last-minute preparations to shift into safer homes.

Sunita was too ill, too tired, to bother. She didn’t even have the strength to cook lunch; the family would have to make do with some snacks. The hard-driving rain, the whistling winds and the commotion on the street excited the kids, but Sunita and her husband just napped.

She was still sleeping when her sister Geetha called, to urge her to bring her family to their late father’s house, where all of Sunita’s siblings were staying. “Your house may not survive in this wind,” Geetha said, “and in any case it’s better to be with family now.”

In her feverish state of mind, Sunita made a decision she was to regret bitterly. She told her sister that she and her husband were too sick to move, and the weather outside was too nasty to move about in and, in any case, their house was strong enough. The building was made of brick and was shoddily constructed in a small town sort of way, but it was nevertheless a pucca home with a solid roof. They would just stay at home, she decided. It was 4 pm and almost dark, but the cyclone did not seem that bad.

Would this be it?

‘THE cyclone doesn’t seem so bad, would this be it?’ — listeners kept calling Radio Namaskar to ask. Callers were eager to know when the cyclone would hit, when the rain would stop, what was the situation like. Ansari and his staff struggled to answer their questions, in part because the weather reports they were receiving was fairly limited in detail.

The latest IMD report, from 4:30 pm on Saturday, was identical to the ones they had been releasing since Friday night: the cyclone would hit Ganjam in a few hours, with winds as high as 220 kilometers per hour, a storm surge of 3 to 3.5 meters, and heavy rain once the cyclone moved north.

Radio Namaskar repeated its call for evacuation, and relayed reports about people who had been left behind. A tribal couple was weathering the storm alone, in their shack in one of Konark’s slums. The entire village of Notura had to walk two kilometers to the nearest cyclone shelter since there was no road to their village and nobody had come to evacuate them. Some cyclone shelters did not receive the food and 10,000 rupees in cash allotted to them until the last minute – and by then the money was not of any use, since no one could venture out in the storm to buy anything, assuming there were shops open to buy things from.

Such random instances aside, Ansari found that the vast majority of his listeners were prepared, thanks partly to past experience and partly to the disaster preparedness programs organized by the government and NGOs. Many of them had found safety on their own, in neighbours’ homes instead of government shelters.

“Before Phailin struck, people were gathering their own dry fruits, their own kerosene, their assets, their ornaments and so on,” Ansari told me, when I visited his office a few weeks after the cyclone.

“They even preserved drinking water on their roofs, so that it wouldn’t get affected by the storm surge. Even in the interior villages, you will be astonished by how well people were prepared. They went to their neighbours’ houses because they preferred it, since that way they can keep an eye out on their homes and cattle.”

Will the shelters hold?

THERE is no precise tally on how many people were evacuated across the state, but there is no doubt the numbers were huge, and that the evacuation was instrumental in saving lives. By Saturday evening, most people in danger were either evacuated to nearby shelters, or had found their own refuge.

In the district of Puri, 102,000 people had been housed in shelters, according to official records; the figure for Khurdha was 185,291, while for Jagatsinghpur it was just over 100,000. Across the state, records say, an estimated 983,642 people had evacuated to government shelters.

In Ganjam district, officials had managed to evacuate 180,000 people, which was less than what they had anticipated. But District Collector Krishnan Kumar was satisfied, because many had evacuated on their own, and the villages along the coast were clear. Now Kumar was worrying about whether some of the temporary shelters – the government schools in particular, which were not exactly pinnacles of construction standards – would hold up in the storm. If a shelter collapsed, it could mean instant death for hundreds of people.

“I was sure that somehow we’d get the people out,” Kumar said. “But suppose the storm was really severe, and suppose one of the buildings that I’d identified to be safe gives way, then I’d really had it. The loss would have been enormous.”

The collector’s apprehensions seemed confirmed when, around 7 pm, the administration started getting calls from frightened people who said their shelters were shaking unsteadily, and demanded to be relocated. Kumar got his officials activated again, and a number of panchayats were, in the face of the storm, relocated to district headquarters.

In the event, none of the identified shelters collapsed.

Alone against the storm

JAGALMANI and her family were not able to evacuate Penthakata until six in the evening. Community leaders had arranged for a convoy of autos to take everyone to either a nearby engineering college or to the Life Insurance Corporation of India office building, but there were only a few autorickshaws on hand to transport almost a thousand people.

By the time Jagalmani, her mother, her grandparents, and her cousins – Kondalrao’s son and daughter – left, there were no other vehicles on the street. The wind by then was so strong it blew the autorickshaw’s vinyl roof right off, and then it pushed the tiny vehicle dangerously along the road.

“The auto driver took us to all the way to the shelter anyway,” Jagalmani told me. “It took only ten minutes to reach there, but in the rain and wind it felt like forever. We were constantly worried that the auto would tip over.”

Kondalrao’s son Raju dropped everyone off at the shelter and returned home in order to pick up his parents. They could have just left along with the earlier bunch, but something had been nagging at Kondalrao’s mind. All day he had been asking community leaders and the authorities about compensation for his boat. The weather was terrifying, and though Kondalrao did want to evacuate, he also wanted some kind of promise that damages to his boat would be compensated, and that his family would not have to suffer for it.

The authorities told him no; he needed to get out of the slum first, they said, and they could discuss compensation later.

It was not that the officials did not understand his concern and that of his fellow fishermen — but by then, they were responding to the intense pressure to prioritize the evacuation above all else, including relief. To Kondalrao, however, it seemed as though the government would not provide compensation to fishermen — and in a storm of this magnitude, his boat was sure to sustain damage. He considered staying behind to look after it. His wife Nakaratnam stayed with him, so that he would not be alone.

By the time their son Raju came back for them, however, Kondalrao had a change of heart. The sea had risen some 20 feet in height, and the wind became so strong that it knocked him over. He did not want to risk their lives. But when Kondalrao, Nakaratnam and Raju tried to leave for the shelter, at around 8 that evening, it was too late. Everybody was gone, including the autorickshaw drivers and the police.

They would have to weather the storm in the slum.


AT Debasis Rath’s place, it was a party.

The winds were by then so strong that it made the windows bend, and over a dozen people had to stand with their backs against them to ensure they wouldn’t shatter from the force. When someone finally opened a window to relieve the pressure, it was as if a million hosepipes were directed inwards, Debasis recalled.

By now the whole neighbourhood was in his home and, secure and sheltered under a strong roof, they thrilled to the cyclone raging outside. Adults challenged each other to walk as far on the roof as possible, and children chased each other through the spacious house. The bathrooms might have posed a problem because the house was not intended to relieve 150 people, but they would manage. There was enough food and drinking water, and everybody knew they would be safe.

The cyclone officially landed in Gopalpur around 8:30 that night, although people who were there said it was just as bad from 6 pm onwards. By then the town authorities had managed to shift about 2,000 people into the hilltop schools, and to see that everyone else has found a concrete home to stay in.

The shelters were extremely cramped, and due to the sheer number of people they would have to ration food carefully, but there were no other options by that point. The tourists and onlookers who dotted Gopalpur’s once-famous beach during the day to “watch the storm” had by then disappeared, driven away by the town chairman and by fear of the storm itself.

Jagannath was thinking of checking on his boat one last time when his parents’ house, where he was staying with his wife and kids, began to shake violently. The walls of the home had been strong enough to withstand many previous storms, but the way the wind was whipping against them now, they might as well have been made of cardboard. Fearing a collapse Jagannath, his parents and his wife and son made a hasty run for a neighbour’s house, which had a concrete roof and foundation and was much stronger.

Similar concerns were occupying Sunita Behera’s mind as well. She had slept through Phailin’s landfall; when she woke, it was past 9 pm. The wind was howling outside, and their apartment had begun to shake.

The kids were enjoying the experience; to them the building’s rattling was a pure thrill, unconnected to danger. Her husband, however, had begun to be alarmed. Grabbing a few precious items like their bank passbook and ration cards, the family rushed downstairs. Their neighbors had sheltered about three dozen people in their much stronger house, and they called for Sunita and her family to join them. Their landlord, on the ground floor of their building, also asked them in — and Sunita and her husband elected to go there, instead of crossing over in the teeth of the storm to their neighbour’s place.

Finding space in the front room of the pitch-dark house, Sunita — with the fever still raging — tried to sleep.

In their respective shelters in Bhubaneswar and Padmapur, Prakash and Keerthwas Das ate a communal meal with their families and hundreds of other people. The shelters were very cramped, and the dinner wasn’t very filling, but this was much better than being at home. Everyone from his slum and from another one nearby had come to Rajdhani College; Prakash estimated that there were about 1,400 people present.

Disaster management officials at the Emergency Operations Center in Bhubaneswar, who had been sleeping there since the past three days, were relieved to discover that nearly a million people had been evacuated by Saturday night. The disaster relief teams were in place, too, equipped with chainsaws and ready to clear roads as soon as the storm passed. In the morning, they would all have to get back to work.

By the time Phailin made landfall, a record 1,123,000 people – 984,000 in Odisha, and 139,000 in northern Andhra Pradesh – had been evacuated to coastal shelters. It was an unprecedented effort in India’s history, and an impressive one by any standards worldwide.

For now, though, the cyclone had made landfall and all anyone could do was wait and hope for the best.

Nightmare without end

SUNITA slept on. It was all she could do in the dim, cramped room. And then, at around 10, she was awakened by a loud crash, followed immediately by sharp waves of pain coursing through her.

She felt disoriented; it was too dark to see anything. Her head felt as if it had been split open and, when she touched it, she felt blood. Something heavy — a wall, or part of a roof, something — had crashed down on her and her family. As she slipped into unconscious, Sunita could hear the muffled cries of her husband and children, faint against the howling wind.

The wind raged so loud in Gopalpur that Jagannath could not hear his son screaming in terror from just a few feet away. Suddenly, he realized that his cell phone and documents were still in his parents’ house. He had forgotten to carry them along, during their panicked flight to the neighbour’s home. If his parents’ home was destroyed, he would have no proof of his fisherman’s permit, nor would his family have any official identification.

It is just a few meters away, he told his wife even as she pleaded with him not to leave. He stepped outside — and the wind knocked him down at once. That was when Jagannath began to feel really hopeless. The howling, screaming wind was a nightmare without end.

“I have never, ever heard anything like it,” he recalled. “And I never, ever want to hear it again.”

To Prakash, sheltering within Rajdhani College, the cyclone sounded like a thousand people ululating at once. “It was like the sound of a thousand ghosts,” he said. Although his shelter was crammed, no one was talking — they all huddled together, listening to the wailing storm and praying that it would leave them unhurt and their homes intact.

‘Everyone was pale-faced in fear’


AN hour or so later — Jagannath had difficulty recalling the precise time, because who really checks in the midst of such madness — the wind suddenly stopped, replaced by an eerie silence. Everyone breathed easier, thinking the worst was over.

The peace was merely an illusion. Ten or fifteen minutes later, the wind picked up again and it blew harder than ever — in the opposite direction.

The silence they had heard was the eye of the storm passing over Gopalpur; now the cyclone lashed them with renewed intensity. As the house rattled under the onslaught, those within huddled in fear. Worrying about his boat or his documents seemed irrelevant now; Jagannath just wanted his family to make it out of this alive. Believing that it could be the end, Jagannath and his parents spoke, and resolved their dispute. He promised to move back into his parents’ home once the storm was over — if they all made it out alive.

In Debasis Rath’s home, too, all was quiet. The festive atmosphere had vanished in the face of the storm’s fury, and now they all sat silent and still, listening to the storm and waiting for it to end. The wind came and went in gusts, its howls punctuated by moments of an unsettling peace.

“When there was silence, it was utter silence,” he recalled later, as we stood on the balcony of his home. “And when the winds started up again you could not imagine the magnitude of the sound. It was a shrill, high-pitched scream without end.”

During one of those brief moments of silence, Debasis thought he heard some people calling out for help in the distance, but the weather was by now too violent to contemplate venturing out to help. Although his home itself was a safe haven, the dimly heard calls were a chilling reminder of all those people who might be braving the storm in far worse conditions.

“By midnight, everyone was pale-faced in fear,” he recalled. “I was praying to the Almighty that something like this shouldn’t ever hit Puri again.”

In their shack in Penthakata Kondalrao, Nakaratnam and Raju did not have the luxury of thinking, “Never again” — they were sure they were going to die that night.

The narrow alleyways of Penthakata formed a kind of wind tunnel that amplified the noise and the force of the wind even further, and their simple home was no match for that fury. Bits of the wall steadily crumbled, as if someone was filing it away. They had not evacuated when they had the chance, and now they believed their fate was sealed.

Kondalrao bitterly regretted his preoccupation with his boat, and the danger this had caused for his wife and son. The veteran of major cyclones realized that this one was worse, far worse, than even the super cyclone of 1999.

“It was sound on a different level, nothing I had ever heard compared to it,” he told me. “We were resigned. We thought, if we die then we’ll die. At least our daughter was safe.”

He didn’t know, then, that his daughter was in as precarious a position. She, along with Jagalmani and the rest of the family, was sheltering in the LIC building — but even that building was shaking in the wind, filling its occupants with fear. There wasn’t much to eat in the shelter, but the family wasn’t very hungry anyway — their minds were full of fear for themselves and even more, for Kondalrao, Nakaratnam and Raju. They believed that by the time the cyclone passed, all of Penthakata would have been destroyed.

At the office of Radio Namaskar, Ansari and his team meanwhile kept up the non-stop bulletins through that night, updating listeners with reports from the field. The cyclone, they announced, was not as bad as was feared, at least in terms of lives lost. The power of the storm, however, was indescribable. Although their office was on the first floor of a concrete building, the construction was of dubious quality, and sometime after midnight the building began to sway. The staff now worried that the whole office would collapse, but by then it was too late to seek shelter anywhere else.

They faced a fresh problem around 4 am. Nobody in coastal Odisha was getting much sleep that night; everyone seemed to be tuned to the radio, and the listeners began calling in to complain that they couldn’t receive the transmission. Was there a technical problem? Or had Radio Namaskar shut down? How much longer would this storm last?

One of the staffers tried to check the antennae, but the wind was so unbearably strong that it was impossible to even open the door. Ansari called the people living in the floor below, who were also listening to Radio Namaste. They said the transmission was perfectly fine.

The staff decided it was likely some small glitch, and continued the broadcast.

Phailin draws blood

SUNITA struggled back to consciousness, and became aware that rain was falling directly on her and the wind was louder than ever.

She remembered, with a jolt of horror, that the house had collapsed and her family was underneath the rubble somewhere. The shock jolted her back to full consciousness, and she realized that a large chunk of concrete had fallen from the balcony of the house onto the asbestos roof of their landlord’s house.

Still bleeding profusely from a head wound, Sunita frantically dug through the wreckage. She first unearthed her husband and son, guided by their feeble calls in the pitch darkness. She called out to her daughter, but Anita did not respond. With the strength of desperation, Sunita began pulling out chunks of concrete and asbestos from the spot where she had last seen her daughter.

Sunita finally found Anita lying prone and still, with a bag of chips in her hand, and a few chips still in her mouth. As she picked her daughter up, Sunita felt blood on her hands.

Peering down at her daughter lying still in her arms, Sunita saw to her horror that a long piece of bone, about the length of a person’s hand, was sticking out of Anita’s skull. Tucking the bone into her sari in the vague hope that the doctors could stitch it back in, Sunita rushed out into the street with her daughter cradled in her arms, in the teeth of the full-blown cyclone, and cried out for help.

Nobody came.

The roads were dark and abandoned; her cries for help were lost in the incessant keening of the storm.

After what seemed forever, her neighbours — sheltering in the stronger house where Sunita and her family had originally intended to go — heard her frantic cries. They opened their door to her and urged her inside. Sunita was desperate to get to a hospital, but even in her panic she realized she couldn’t manage that till the cyclone died down.

For the next seven hours, Sunita sat in her neighbour’s house while her daughter bled into her lap. In her mind she went over all the things they could have done differently to keep their daughter alive. They could have stayed in her father-in-law’s village, like Anita wanted to do. They could have gone to her father’s home, like her sister Geetha had urged. They could have stayed in their own apartment, which had remained intact. They could even have come to their neighbour’s home, where she was sheltering now, instead of deciding to shelter in their landlord’s flimsy home.

Over the next few weeks, Sunita would endlessly replay these various scenarios over and over in her mind. Each time, the outcome was the same: her daughter would be safe, sound, unhurt.

But then she would wake to the bitter reality: Anita was never coming back.

The cyclone abated early on the morning of Sunday October 13, and Sunita finally made it to the hospital at 5 am. It was no use. The doctors pronounced Anita dead on arrival.

The storm had blown down the balcony, which had crashed through the asbestos roof they were sheltering under — and crushed the child’s skull.

Living to tell the tale

ANITA was one of just 21 casualties – most of whom died when something heavy, dislodged by the storm, fell on top of them. The expected storm surge — the deadliest part of a cyclone — had claimed no lives this time, a tribute to the efficacy of the mass evacuation.

On Sunday morning, the people of Ganjam came out of their homes and shelters unscathed, to discover that their slums had been devastated. But, those with memories of that time realized, it was nowhere near as bad as in Paradip in 1999, when the streets were littered with bodies.

Ganjam looked like some giant had put the whole place in a jar and given it a vigorous shake. Nothing stood perfectly straight anymore. All the trees were bent to one side, stripped of their leaves, often collapsed together in chaotic green heaps.

As soon as the cyclone passed, 35 units of state and national disaster response forces, already positioned in strategic locations based on the IMD’s predictions, set to work clearing trees from roads and restoring communication lines. By 11 am on Sunday, the roads to the district and block headquarters had been cleared, and relief efforts were ready to begin.

“In 1999, there was no communication at all,” recalled S Marrich, the special Director General of Police who had been placed in overall charge of all police, fire and disaster response forces during Phailin. “There were no telephones, no mobiles, no satellite phones, and neither did we have the ability to clear roads. So we were literally stranded.

“This time, however, my forces were out on the roads as soon as there was some visibility, trying to restore some semblance of order.”

Meanwhile in Gopalpur, Jagannath and the other fishermen woke to a confusing, slightly comical scene: the wind and the sea surge had moved all the boats around, so that none was where the owner had left it. Two boats had even wound up on the roof of a nearby factory.

A period of chaos ensued as the fishermen raced around trying to find their own boats — and when they did, they discovered that the equipment was severely damaged, and that they would be out of commission for several months.  Jagannath estimated that his own boat, net and motor would need around Rs 150,000 in repairs. The Odisha government has announced programs to assist the fishermen, but that will take months to implement – the state needs to rebuild first, and to provide millions of people, whose homes had been damaged, with shelter and relief.

The setback was severe, but Jagannath was in good spirits. When I met him some weeks later, he even laughed heartily at the memory of finding the boats helter-skelter. With his family, he moved back into the home of his parents, the grudges on both sides forgotten in their happiness to have survived.


AROUND 10 in the morning, the Beheras took Anita’s body for a post-mortem and then got treated for their own injuries. Sunita needed six stitches on her head; her six-year-old son needed a cast for his foot. Later that afternoon, they returned to Konitheega, the same village where Anita had fussed about her pink dress not 72 hours earlier, for the cremation.

Soon afterwards, she along with her husband and son moved in with her sister Geetha — they just could not bear the thought of going back to their home, where the memories of the laughing, lively Anita lingered to haunt them.

To add to her misery, Sunita found herself unable to obtain aid. The government distributed 50 kilograms of rice and 500 rupees to each family, while other NGOs gave out essentials like solar lamps and bleaching powder. But even though she showed her ration card, Sunita was told that her name was not on any of the lists – because, she believes, she and her family were not home when officials conducted the initial survey.

She thought then of how her sister had called to tell her the survey was on, and asked if she should include the names of Sunita and her family — and how she had casually dismissed it, saying she would attend to all that later.

For about a week, she and her family lived off the generosity of her sisters, until the administration provided her with rice and 5,000 rupees in ‘compensation’ for Anita’s death. Sunita is due another 4.5 lakh rupees in compensation from the state and central government, although the money hardly compensates for her enormous loss.

“I could save my ration card, I could save my passbook, I could get money,” she said. “But I could not save my daughter.”


‘God saved us’

THAT same Sunday morning in Konark, Ansari discovered that Radio Namaskar’s broadcasting antenna had collapsed. That explained the calls they had received about the broadcast. He figured that in order for the tower to collapse, the wind must have been much stronger than the 210-220 kmph figures the authorities had announced.

When I mentioned this to Sarat Sahu, the director of the Bhubaneswar Meteorological Center, he explained that the 220 kmph figure pertained to sustained winds. The tower, he said, could have been knocked down by gusts, which surpassed 240 kilometers per hour.

Water was everywhere in Konark, two feet of it around his antennae, although the city – and its famous Sun Temple – remained largely intact.

In Puri, Debasis Rath resumed his work with the city’s slums. Although there were very few human casualties, the cyclone and the heavy rains that followed the week after posed a different kind of problem: many of the slums were flooded, becoming breeding grounds for mosquitoes carrying malaria and dengue.

“The design of the city is such that you cannot drain one slum without flooding another,” he said. “Ten days after the storm, even our door is still flooded.” These were deeper, structural problems that endangered people’s lives, which could not be solved even with the best-planned evacuation.

Jagalmani and her family returned home on Sunday morning, delighted to find that Kondalrao, Nakaratnam and Raju were safe, and that Penthakata was mostly undamaged. Many people’s roofs had blown away, but the sea had not swept away the slum, as they had feared. Even Kondalrao’s boat had survived.

“God saved us,” Kondalrao told me, suggesting that he had learnt his lesson and next time, if there was a next time, he would be better about saving himself.

When Prakash returned to Paika Nagar around noon on Sunday, he found that houses were largely intact, but most roofs had collapsed and parts of the slum were badly flooded. Again, nobody came to dredge the slum until the intervention of Sakar, the same NGO that had helped them in 1999. For all the efforts that the government made before the cyclone, it seemed to revert to its default mode of neglecting the slums once the immediate threat was past.

The Odisha state’s measured response to Phailin – as well as that of the districts of Visakhapatnam and Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh – was an example of thinking ahead in terms of disaster management, and is an encouraging sign of change in the mindset of policymakers and the administration.

The Indian government for instance has already begun working with the World Bank to build more cyclone shelters along the Andhra Pradesh and Odisha coast, as well as to make existing shelters stronger and more accessible, and to create an early-warning system that immediately alert coastal communities.

“If you adopt this strategy for all future tragedies, Odisha need not be scared of the cyclone in the future. There is no need to be afraid of the cyclone, because it will keep hitting us,” Mohapatra, the special relief commissioner, mused. “We can rebuild the roads, we can rebuild the bridges, we can plant new trees. But we cannot get back the lives we have lost.”

The OSDMA is the visible manifestation of such thinking – an independent authority with an allocated state budget and a dedicated staff focused exclusively on risk reduction. It is a lesson for other states. Only Odisha and Gujarat maintain fully functional disaster management agencies, despite it being required by the Disaster Management Act of 2005. The Center runs the National Disaster Management Agency, but it cannot respond in the nuanced way the state agencies can, by training people, creating awareness, and addressing structural flaws in disaster preparation. The sooner each state’s independent disaster management authorities are in place, the more lives can be saved through prevention.

"There are two ways to react after a disaster,” said Saurabh Suresh Dani, team leader of the World Bank project. “You can say that this is just a one-time thing and move on, or you can say you will make sure that the same thing will never repeat again. That's where Odisha stands, and that's why the story is important.”

“The main thing was that the government took the onus on itself,” Dani added. “It took the responsibility in making sure every single person got out of harm's way.


The state administration does not, however, deserve sole credit. The coastal communities were also more prepared this time as compared with previous cyclones -- even if they weren’t evacuated to a government-run shelter, people stocked up on supplies and ensured that they made it to a safe place before the storm hit.

Ansari is one person who believes the community efforts have not been given their due. “People are praising the chief minister and administration, but from my personal view, the state administration shouldn’t get this credit,” he said. “In fact, considering what happened that credit should go to ground administration and also the community, due to their preparedness.”

Since the super cyclone of 1999, a series of marginal developments in Odisha, like in the rest of the country, helped to better equip the state for calamities. There are of course more cell phones, more television sets than ever before, so people not only know about impending calamities but can call for help in case of distress. Because the national weather service has upgraded to using Doppler radar, it was able to make the kind of accurate predictions that were crucial to the administration’s efforts. Agricultural productivity has increased and the state – which was importing rice from Punjab in 1999 – now produces a surplus, meaning more food is available for an evacuation and subsequent relief efforts; many more people also have the means to stockpile essential supplies for themselves.

“And more importantly, in the 14 years between 1999 and 2013, a lot of houses have become pucca houses,” said Krishnan Kumar, the district collector of Ganjam. “And national highways have come up, which in itself helps to mitigate disasters” because better roads make it easier to rescue people and deliver relief.

The state, especially the district of Ganjam, now faces the enormous challenge of relief and reconstruction. These efforts were hindered when heavy rains pounded Odisha hardly a week after Phailin passed, causing extensive flooding and aggravating the damage. The state government estimates that Phailin and the subsequent floods caused Rs 14,373 crore in damage to public and private property, over a third of that in Ganjam alone, which will among other things need to rebuild its entire power infrastructure.

“I am the last person to be pleased right now,” said Kumar, when I asked him if he was happy with the way the evacuation turned out. “I have a relief operation to do. Only when that is over will I be pleased. But right now we are looking at damage to three lakh houses, and to three thousand crores of public infrastructure not to mention two thousand crores of household damage and a billion dollars in all.”

According to official tallies, well over half a million hectares of farmland have been severely damaged, as well as more than 8,000 fishing boats and 32,000 nets, as well as the tools of thousands of craftsmen. With so many livelihoods disrupted, a massive migration is underway as tens of thousands of laborers and fishermen head to other states in search of work.

“Already it has started to happen,” said Father Peter Jacobs, who runs a nonprofit called PREM that works primarily in Ganjam. “Some of the women are saying it would have been better to die, because they have lost everything except their lives, and now they’re crying and saying that our men will go away. Maybe the government provides some rice and dal for today. But what about tomorrow?”

As the climate warms, natural calamities are becoming – if not more frequent – more erratic and devastating. Although many lives were saved, Phailin’s sheer destructiveness demonstrates the need to upgrade homes in ways that are not only safer for people living in disaster-prone areas but also reduce the damage caused by future weather-related catastrophes. Most of the million-plus people evacuated this time lived in kutcha houses that could hardly protect their lives or their property. Ideally, when a big cyclone strikes again, those people will be living in the kind of homes that they won’t need to worry about leaving behind.  

“The bottom line is that you can’t always put a million people into cyclone shelters,” Dani said. “The stock of housing needs to improve, with technology that makes sure roofs won’t get blown off and houses flooded in, so that all of these people won’t need to be evacuated in the future.”

The same need extends to public infrastructure. Even with conservative estimates, it will cost Rs 1,000 crore to rebuild Ganjam’s power network. The system could be rebuilt using underground cables, for instance, which would not be affected by heavy winds – an idea endorsed last month by Marri Sasidhar Reddy, vice-chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority – though as yet there are no plans to do so.

The other major challenge is the restoration of livelihoods. Kondalrao risked his life – and those of his family – because he is so unprotected against property damage that it was better to take his chances with the storm than to risk the nightmare of losing his family’s sole source of income. In fact, the reluctance that so many lakhs of people felt about evacuation is directly related to this sense of vulnerability. Had they had some form of insurance that kicked in immediately – and not just the uncertain promise of government compensation, which costs about as much but takes months to process – then perhaps the decision to evacuate would have been easier.

"Our country's risk insurance coverage is practically non-existent, and that is a sad thing,” said Dani. “The more insured people feel, the more their decisions will be about protecting the lives of their families than about making sure their assets are not washed out."

In the end, we may need to start thinking of natural disasters not as discrete, sporadic events but as a fundamental feature of India’s developmental challenges. “The pity is, our entire development planning – whether it is for the state or country – doesn’t take into account the disasters,” said Jagadananda, a well-respected social worker who heads the Center for Youth and Social Development in Bhubaneswar. “Disasters are seen as an emergency situation, and the belief is that we only have to respond to when the crisis hits. But you must bring that element into development planning.”


ONE evening a couple of days after I left Puri, I got a call from Kondalrao. He was in a relaxed, convivial mood. It was a fishermen’s festival that day, and everybody in Penthakata was taking a break from the sea, spending time with their families instead.

“I hope you’re keeping safe,” he said. “They’re saying another cyclone is headed this way, and it’s going to be big.”

It was not, in fact, true. After Phailin and the heavy rains that followed it, all sorts of rumors flew around the state about further disasters. People were more willing – almost too willing – to believe, it seemed. There was even talk of an earthquake headed for Berhampur, even though it is impossible to predict seismic activity.

But the weather was actually going to be lovely in Odisha that week, with plenty of sunshine after a long, gloomy spell. I was told as much by Sarat Sahu himself. Still, I couldn’t help but smile that Kondalrao, the skeptic, was calling to warn me about a storm that didn’t actually exist.

“Don’t worry, it’s just a rumor. I spoke to the meteorology people about it,” I told him. “And even if it comes, you’ll be ready, right?”

“Of course, we’ll be ready, but I’d rather it not come, so that’s a relief,” he answered honestly. “Have you eaten yet?”

“No, not yet,” I said. “What are you having for dinner?”

“Fish, of course.” He paused for a moment. “It’s going to be a good meal.”