The Great Escape

Zero casualties

IN his office in the Bhubaneswar Meteorological Centre, located within the grounds of the city’s Biju Patnaik International Airport, director-in-charge Sarat C Sahu sat staring at some troubling news.

On his computer screen was a satellite image of the spiral-shaped set of clouds that his team of meteorologists had been tracking for a few days now, and which was moving slowly towards the Andaman Sea, off Malaysia.

By comparing their measurements with historical patterns, he and his team had confirmed that the spiral — the visible manifestation of an atmospheric depression — would grow in size and strength and speed, and morph into a full-blown cyclone as it raced across the Bay of Bengal with India’s eastern coast in its sights.

Conditions were ideal for the incubation of a full-blown calamity. Cyclones grow over open seas, and the Bay’s warm waters would nourish the system over the span of the 1,200-odd kilometers it would traverse before landfall.

It was October 6. By his estimation, potential landfall was at least six days away — but it was time, he decided, to blow the whistle.

He sought a meeting with Odisha's Special Relief Commissioner Pradip Kumar Mohapatra at the latter’s office in Rajiv Bhavan, near the state secretariat.

They had been in fairly regular touch about this system, and Mohapatra had also been checking online updates from the United States Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center. The system would become a cyclone headed for Odisha, Sahu now warned him, and it would probably be the worst to hit the state since the super cyclone of October 1999.

“I was horrified to hear that, and I couldn’t concentrate on anything else for the rest of the day,” Mohapatra said. “I couldn’t even eat.” An old memory came back to haunt him: the body of a young woman, her baby still cradled in her arms, crushed by a collapsed wall.

The memory dated back to the 1999 cyclone. He had come upon the crushed woman and child as relief workers cleared debris in a town called Kakatpur. That was 14 years ago, yet the image and all it stood for could still provoke a visceral sadness. Mohapatra, then 34, was District Collector of Puri when the super cyclone had struck, killing the woman and the child and many thousands more.

Although the city was relatively untouched, parts of the district had been completely devastated. In the days after the cyclone, he had waded through flooded slums and villages in a pair of cutoff pants and vest, surveying the damage and helping orchestrate relief efforts. He had to send the police and army to escort relief convoys because survivors were so desperate that they attacked the convoys and stole their precious cargoes of rice.

The 1999 cyclone — the first ever that India Meteorological Department had labelled a ‘super cyclonic storm’ — had ravaged large sections of Odisha’s coast. The official count put the toll at 12,640, though locals insist that over twice that number had died. Many of the deaths had occurred when, in the dead of night on October 29, a storm surge carried eight meters of seawater almost 20 kilometers inland.

Even though there was sufficient advance warning, the Odisha government was “caught with its pants down,” a state disaster management official told me. The devastation of the cyclone was followed by a humanitarian crisis. Once the waters receded, bodies littered streets and paddy fields. The administration struggled to assist survivors who had lost everything.

Back then, few officials had cell phones. The storm destroyed hundreds of telephone poles, severing communication channels between the administration and relief forces. The government had stocks of medicine and food, but couldn’t transport it to the affected areas because fallen trees had blocked roads – and they had no chainsaws to clear them.

Fourteen years on, Mohapatra recalled those experiences with a renewed urgency. He briefly considered going public with the warning — but rather than trigger premature panic, he decided to wait for more information.

He did not have to wait long. Sahu confirmed his suspicions the very next day: the cyclone, known at the time by the innocuous name ‘BOBO4’ and building bulk out there in the Bay, would be a monster, and it would make landfall on October 12 somewhere along the coasts of Ganjam district in Odisha and Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh.

Mohapatra decided it was time to alert the collectors of the 14 districts in Odisha that were most severely impacted by the 1999 cyclone, and which lay in the potential path of this one now building.

As Special Relief Commissioner, it was his responsibility to command the state administration during times of calamity. He was determined to avoid a repeat of 1999 — and he had just five days to prepare. Working with the respective district collectors, Mohapatra and his team had to accomplish two things: one, conduct a mass evacuation on a potentially unprecedented scale and two, position staff and aid materials strategically so relief efforts could begin as soon as the cyclone made landfall.

Of these two objectives, evacuation was key. Millions of people along the coastline lived in thatched huts that would be easily blown down during a storm or washed away during the ensuing surge -- the single biggest cause of death during cyclones. Unless these people were moved into safe, flood-resistant shelters in time, the storm could precipitate tragedy on an unimaginable scale.

Learning from mistakes

THE 1999 super cyclone had changed everything about disaster management in Odisha and, to an extent, across India as a whole. Just one month after that tragedy, the government declared that the state was “traditionally vulnerable to disasters”, and created the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority, or OSDMA, the first agency in India to specialize in responding to natural calamities.

OSDMA analyzed everything that went wrong in 1999, and worked with different agencies of government to prepare for future disasters. Among other things, it built 247 cyclone shelters along the coast, and trained and equipped units of the state police to enable them to rescue stranded people and clear blocked roads.

“After the super cyclone, we learned that preparation is much more important than response,” Kamal Lochan Mishra, a senior official at OSMDA, told me. “We started thinking of disaster management as a proactive thing, and that requires planning and prevention.”

“You learn the most from your own mistakes,” he said.

The logistics of a successful evacuation are far more complex than simply getting people out of homes and into shelters. The administration had to study the meteorological forecasts and make a call on where to concentrate their efforts. Evacuating the entire coast was not feasible, but evacuating the wrong areas could prove to be fatal. And there was hardly enough time to wait until they were sure of how bad the cyclone would be, or where precisely it would hit — they had to act off of what they knew, keeping in mind that a cyclone could veer off its predicted path for any number of reasons, and a swerve of even a mile could open up new areas to threat.

Once the local administration had identified the areas to be evacuated, the real work would begin. In towns and panchayat headquarters, enough people owned strong, concrete homes that could shelter their neighbors. But in the poorest coastal villages or slums, where almost everybody lived in shacks or huts, the government had to provide accommodation for entire communities.

The shelters that the OSDMA had built could hold about 60,000 people – a fraction of what a large-scale evacuation would require. A school or other public building – preferably within two kilometers of each community being evacuated – had to be therefore designated as a temporary shelter. Enough buses, trucks, jeeps, autos and other vehicles had to be arranged to transport hundreds of thousands of people to the shelters. Police and government officials had to be dispatched to supervise the evacuation, and to persuade people to leave their homes.

Once the people had been evacuated, they had to be fed. Rice, dal, vegetables, oil, spices and firewood had to be procured and supplied to each shelter in quantities sufficient to feed the evacuees for up to three days. The working estimate was 300 kilograms of rice and flattened rice for each shelter (1,500 kilograms each for every gram panchayat). Each shelter would also need people to cook and provide basic first aid, as well as someone in charge who could liaise with the district administration.

Lights, first aid kits, a generator, and communications equipment — all of this had to be provisioned. All block, district and state level officers had to be in a position to monitor the whole thing – meaning that, at the very least, their cell phones had to be charged and their offices needed to have back-up power. And all this had to be done against an inexorably ticking clock.

‘Not even a stray dog...’

THE official decision to evacuate was taken during an 11 am meeting on October 9 between the senior disaster management officials and the secretaries of all the state government departments.

Sarat Sahu provided the status update: The cyclone, which IMD had by then christened ‘Phailin’ (the Thai word for sapphire), was expected to make landfall on the southern coast of Odisha by the evening of October 12, with winds as high as 185 kmph.

Mohapatra and OSDMA Managing Director Dr Taradatt then briefed the heads of the various government departments on the coordinated response that was required. Each department was assigned a role. The food supplies secretary, for instance, would speak with mill owners to obtain sufficient quantities of rice and sugar. The transportation secretary would commandeer as many trucks from the highways as possible. The energy secretary would oversee the acquisition of a sufficiency of truck-mounted generators, test them to see if they worked, and deploy them to planned locations like hospitals and government offices. The housing secretary would, among other things, ensure the designated shelters had access to drinking water.

The task was going to put an enormous strain on manpower — a situation complicated by the fact that all state employees would begin their week-long Dussehra holidays the next day. The officials took a spot decision to cancel all vacations with immediate effect.

Mohapatra was still not satisfied. Spurred by the persistent memories of 1999, he made a forceful demand: this time, the government agencies represented at the meeting needed to take complete responsibility for ensuring that every single person was moved out of harm’s way.

“I put the thing in the government’s mind that we should have an objective of no casualties,” Mohapatra told me. “We had never had a zero casualty approach before — but if we made that our stated objective, then we’d reduce the final figure.”

A few officials demurred. A cyclone of Phailin’s size was bound to take casualties, they argued, which the government could not realistically prevent. Mohapatra, backed by a few others, stuck to his guns. By that same afternoon, he had briefed state Chief Minister Navin Patnaik, who signed off on the evacuation order with an official commitment to zero casualties.

Mohapatra called each of the district collectors with that message — and reinforced it with the threat that criminal cases would be filed against them in the event of any casualties in their jurisdictions.

“I even told them to evacuate in such a manner that not even a stray dog should be visible in the sanitized zone,” he recalled, with a grin.

‘We will not let you remain behind’

ON the balmy morning of October 10, a group of megaphone-wielding police officers and municipal officials wended their way through the labyrinthine alleys of Penthakata, a sprawling beachside slum on the outskirts of Puri that was home to nearly 40,000 Telugu-speaking fishermen.

“A cyclone is coming,” they announced on their speakers. “Do not venture into the sea. And please, for the sake of your lives, leave your homes by the 12th. We will not let you remain behind.”

They roamed the slum, enlisting community leaders into their effort to ensure that the message spread to every single resident. They had received unambiguous orders from the highest levels of the state government: Cyclone Phailin, by then building up steam hundreds of miles off shore, should cause no loss of life in Penthakata.

Vasulu Jagalmani, a slim, pretty 22-year-old with large round eyes and high cheekbones and a ready, flirtatious smile, stood outside her home, watching the harried officials with a puzzled frown. She knew a cyclone was coming — the Telugu channels had been talking about it for the past two days. Jagalmani had lived in Penthakata for all of her life; this was not the first time she had seen officials warning of impending storms.

This time though, something was different. The officials showed an unusual urgency, and a determination that everybody evacuate. She and her family had never left home for a storm before; she wondered where they would even go.

Jagalmani went next door to visit her aunt Mailubilli Nakaratnam — a loquacious, motherly woman who was happiest when she had people to fuss over and care for. Their conversation turned to the cyclone.

“Do you remember the cyclone in ‘99?” Nakaratnam asked, referring to the super cyclone that had devastated the Odisha coast on October 29, 1999. Jagalmani was just eight back then, and her memories were vague.

“Well, we all stayed home for that one. But once the storm came we wished we hadn’t,” Nakaratnam told her niece. “We thought we were all going to die.”

The 1999 cyclone did not cause as much devastation in Puri as it did in other parts of the state, notably in the port town of Paradip. Nakaratnam, like other locals, attributed this to the intervention of Lord Jagannath, the presiding deity of Puri’s storied temple, among the most sacred of Hindu holy shrines. But talk of an imminent cyclone stirred uneasy memories; Nakaratnam did not want to live through that experience one more time.

Her husband was more ambivalent. Mailubilli Kondalrao was a veteran of deadly cyclones. He had weathered the 1977 cyclone that killed at least 15,000 people at Chirala, in Andhra Pradesh, and he was in Paradip when the 1999 super cyclone had struck with devastating effect.

He empathized with his wife’s concern, but he had lived through countless false alarms for cyclones that never materialized. With his thick moustache, strong arms and straight posture, Kondalrao cultivated the proud look of a veteran Telugu fisherman. He knew the sea and had learned to trust his own instincts.

Fishermen know that the first tell of an imminent cyclone is when the waves begin to crisscross each other. He gazed out to sea, where the waves continued to roll shoreward in straight, parallel lines — and saw nothing to cause alarm.

He was reluctant to evacuate, because to do so would mean leaving his property unattended and exposed to the risk of theft. His boat and net not only fed his family and put his teenage daughter through school, but also helped support kin like Jagalmani and her mother. He knew what loss or even damage to his boat could entail – the 1977 cyclone had put his boat out of commission for a month and forced him to borrow from a local don.

He decided to wait. For now, there was just not enough information for Kondalrao to act.


Turn on the radio

INFORMATION was also on NA Shah Ansari’s mind that Thursday (October 10) morning. As president of the community station ‘Radio Namaskar’ that operated out of Konark, he had to decide just how much of his station’s broadcasts to dedicate to the cyclone.

As early as the morning of October 8, Sarat Sahu and his team had publicly announced that a depression over the Andaman Sea, then located about 1,450 kilometers southeast of Paradip, was building into a major cyclone and that landfall would be along the Odisha coast. Ansari’s was among the few news outlets that picked up that early story and relayed it.

News of impending storms was critical to his core audience — the fishermen and their families who lived along the coast around Konark. Working far out at sea where cellphone coverage is non-existent, fishermen tended to rely on FM broadcasts as their primary source of information.

The IMD had not provided any information other than that a cyclone was on its way and that fishermen should return home from the seas within 48 hours, recalled Ansari, a portly man whose kurta masked a slight paunch, and whose deep-set eyes gave him the air of someone always in deep thought.

The warning seemed routine. Tropical storms over the Bay of Bengal are such a regular feature that the locals refer to October and November as “cyclone season.” There was nothing — yet — to set this latest warning apart from the many other routine warnings that are a part of the season, so Ansari’s staff settled for interrupting its regular programming every few hours with the latest weather advisory.

“We started informing the fishermen that a storm was coming and that from the 10th onwards they shouldn’t go into the sea, because basically they go into the interior parts of the sea and stay there for one or two nights,” Ansari told me. “They just needed to be aware of that.”

The story however had blown up in the national media, which framed the narrative against the memories of the 1999 super cyclone, with the impending Dussehra festivities as backdrop. As words like “Phailin” and “devastation” splashed across the screens of national news channels, listeners began frantically calling Radio Namaskar for more detail on how it would affect their community.

To Ansari — who, as head of a community radio station, was by definition an area activist — the sheer volume of calls was a clear indicator of Radio Namaskar’s role. “The mainstream media was talking about the cyclone, but wasn’t providing clear, up-to-date reports,” Ansari said, as he recalled the thinking behind the decision to launch round-the-clock coverage though the cyclone was still more than 48 hours away from landfall.

“The situation was so dangerous that every hour we were getting hundreds of phone calls from listeners about what was happening. That’s why we thought, why not start a live broadcast and give people free information, so that people can listen to the radio and preserve the batteries on their cellphones.”

‘Get out of its path’

BY noon October 10, two conflicting mindsets pervaded — and divided — the region.

Hordes of government officials, mandated to ensure zero casualties and threatened with prosecution if they failed, had stepped up effort to get the message out that Cyclone Phailin was a real and present danger, and that evacuation, at the very latest by the morning of the 12th, was compulsory.

Their efforts acquired an added urgency because of Sarat Sahu, whose team at the Bhubaneswar Meteorological Center had begun tracking the cyclone’s progress every hour. Phailin was by then just 950 kilometers away and had grown to roughly the size of France; the prognostication was that it would make landfall on Saturday evening/night, with windspeed around 185 kmph. Sahu had been ordered to report directly to the IMD’s main office in New Delhi — the storm had by then assumed national meteorological importance.

In their efforts to spread the message, officials were aided by the likes of Ansari, whose radio station was providing continuous updates, and by a national media that had by then jumped on the story with both feet. All India Radio had also begun broadcasting special bulletins featuring no less than Special Relief Commissioner Mohapatra himself.

“Don’t take chances with your life, because the cyclone’s path cannot be changed,” Mohapatra announced repeatedly, in Odiya. “Everybody needs to get out of its path and into a safe place.”

None of this was news to the intended recipients of the message. The 1999 super cyclone had caught the coastal residents of Odisha largely by surprise because back then, none of them had televisions and very few had landline telephones, let alone mobiles. Now, however, in a testament to how well connected India was becoming, it was almost impossible to not know about the cyclone. Even if you hadn’t heard the news on radio or television, someone else had — and would have alerted you by word of mouth, or on mobile.

It was not therefore information that the locals – specifically in the southern parts of Odisha, which were relatively spared in 1999 but would be hit first by Phailin – lacked this time, but the impetus to make the decision to move. They heard the warnings, but then they looked out at the calm seas fringing their homes and decided there was no visible urgency, no real reason, to uproot themselves leaving their homes and belongings behind.

“I needed to change the mindset of the people,” Debasis Rath said.

Tall and well dressed, with rimless glasses and an incongruous paan-stained smile, Rath is a Puri-based social worker of some 20 years standing. An easy, articulate communicator, Rath had first heard the news online, realized it would hit his city hard, and recognized the danger.

Experience had taught him that the people of Puri, particularly those who lived in the slums and made up almost 60 per cent of the city’s population, had the ingrained notion that their Lord Jagannath would protect them from calamity. This attitude had fostered nonchalance towards impending disasters.

Rath knew that in reality, Puri’s 49 slums were exceptionally vulnerable. They had only grown larger since the 1999 super cyclone; today, they were crammed with flimsy dwellings, a section of them below sea level, and no proper drainage. Rath’s own home, behind the city’s railway yards, was about 10 feet below sea level, so he and his family were sure to be impacted in the event of a storm surge.

“I realized there would be problems because of Phailin,” Rath recalled.

That realization had also sunk into official circles. By noon, the IMD had updated its forecast and predicted that Phailin would make landfall near Gopalpur, which meant that Ganjam district would be the worst hit district of all.

The local administration of Ganjam got busy creating a ‘micro-plan’ for the evacuation. A list of all villages within five kilometers of the coast — and therefore under serious threat from Phailin — was prepared; 1,060 school buildings capable of housing as many as 500,000 evacuees were identified.

“We had to work in overdrive to create and execute the micro-plan,” said Ganjam District Collector Krishnan Kumar. “Which school building to house the people of which village, who the officer in charge at each location would be, how much food was already stocked and how much more needed, how the people would be evacuated… we had to get our plans worked out.”

The challenge for Kumar and his officials was to ensure that each school was stocked with sufficient food, fuel, medical supplies and money. Before the evacuation could kick in, the administration needed to procure and distribute rice and other essential items. Bureaucracy was forgotten, as was the red tape that is a corollary to all governmental functioning: the official order was to do whatever necessary.

Special Relief Commissioner Mohapatra had already authorized District Collector Kumar to spend what he needed to, and to act freely and at his own discretion without having to file reports and wait for official permission. “So I passed legal orders that my officers could commandeer any vehicles they needed, open up any ration or grocery shop and take whatever materials were required,” Krishnan recalls.

“Just give them a receipt and we will pay them later,” he ordered his staff.

It never hurt to take precautions

AS Krishnan Kumar and his team of officials got down to micro-planning, a group of officials arrived in Paika Nagar Bhasti in Bhubaneswar, with the message to its 700 inhabitants that they had to evacuate by the morning of Saturday, October 12. By way of incentive, they announced that free meals would be served at the shelters.

Prakash Chandraparida had already heard of Phailin on TV. A very fit young man with the beginnings of a beard, he was nicknamed ‘hero’ for his good looks.  As one born and raised in Paika Nagar, he was surprised by the effort the officials were making to get them evacuated. As a general rule, the slum was neglected despite being just ten minutes away from important buildings like the airport and the United Nations Development Program office.

No one had come to help in 1999, when the residents had huddled in their own homes in the face of a nightmare storm. Four feet of water had flooded the slum for days, making a bad situation worse; the local municipality had dredged the drains and cleared the water only after the active intervention of an NGO named Sakar.

Prakash was just a kid then, but he still remembered the pervasive fear of death that plagued the community. He recalled, too, how the force of the storm had blown down all the coconut trees in the neighboring compound — which was kind of a good thing for the then seven-year-old, because he and his friends could gather all the coconuts they wanted without fear of punishment.

Now he, along with the rest of the inhabitants, watched the government officials go door to door with their dire warnings. A feeling of dread gripped Paika Nagar. Most of its residents earned daily wages as laborers and vendors of chai, paan and gupchups — “small businessmen”, Prakash, a recent business graduate, called them — and were in no position to absorb any damage/loss to their homes.

The locals would evacuate, he knew, because “our lives are important to us.” But that was not until Saturday; for now Prakash had no work to do, and the weather was beautiful. He spent the rest of the day outdoors, with friends.

The weather wasn’t as nice in Gopalpur, a fading resort town in Ganjam district. It was raining there, but it wasn’t coming down particularly hard. Local fisherman B Jagannath stroked his thick, whiskery mustache, gazed out at the calm sea and wondered what all the fuss was about. He had just returned from a fishing trip earlier that morning and pulled in his boat and nets; the rain was soft and crisp and refreshing and Jagannath had seen nothing to alarm him.

He had heard the news that the cyclone was due to hit Gopalpur first — but he was now 32 and in his memory, no cyclone that had made landfall in Gopalpur had proved particularly bad.

It never hurt to take precautions, however, so Jagannath moved his boat into a canal that wrapped behind the town, where most of the area’s fishermen sheltered their boats during storms. The canal was flanked by a dense, verdant strip of palm trees that would form natural cover for the boats, protecting them from the wind and heavy waves. He wouldn’t be able to see his boat from his house, and would have to walk over to the canal if he wanted to check up on it during the storm, but it was still the safest place for it.

He wasn’t enthusiastic about evacuating, however. He lived with his wife and young son in a rented house with a thatched roof — just the sort of home official warnings said was most at risk. He was worried about the safety of his family, but didn’t quite see how abandoning his boat and home and moving into a cramped school building would make them any better off. The area school, he knew, could hold a few hundred people at best, and there were over 6,000 people in Gopalpur.

He decided to wait and watch. If it got really bad, he decided, he would take his wife and son to the home of his parents, who lived close by in a much larger home.

There was only one problem: He’d had a big fight with his parents, at the end of which he moved out of their home — and he hadn’t spoken with them since.

‘Wait till Dussehra’

FAMILY was also in the thoughts of Sunita Behera of Berhampur, the largest town in Ganjam.

When the officials arrived there to spread their warning, Sunita had already left with her husband and two kids for her in-laws’ home in the nearby village of Konitheega.

The trip was an annual ritual, timed for the festival of the local goddess Budi Thakurani, which they never missed. For three days around Dussehra time, the village brings the goddess out of the temple to worship her — but like most village festivals, it was also a carnival, a big market, a chance to catch up with the family.

Although her husband made only a modest income as a barber, this year had been particularly good to them. They had moved into a new home, their children were attending an English medium school, and they had managed to save some money. This good fortune they attributed to their daughter Anita, a sweet-faced 10-year-old they believed was their personal Lakshmi.

Almost as soon as they reached Konitheega, Anita confronted her mother over the new clothes that had been bought for the festival. Anita had indulged in her favorite color — pink shirt, pink bangles and a new pair of silver pattis — and she was impatient to try them on.

“Just for a little while,” she cajoled her mother. “Wait till Dussehra,” Sunita told her importunate daughter, though she secretly wanted to see Anita, with the curly hair and big eyes she had inherited from her father, in the new clothes.

Even as Anita threw a childish fit, Sunita was attending a call from her sister Geetha, who lived only a few minutes away from them in Berhampur. “They are really making a big deal about the cyclone,” Geetha reported. “Someone came to our home and collected names; they said it was for getting rice afterwards. Shall I give them your name too?”

“No, it’s okay,” Sunita told her sister. “We can deal with whatever it is after we get back.” The cyclone was far from her thoughts just then — Sunita was more intent on pacifying her daughter. She was not aware, then, of just how much the cyclone would affect their lives.

The sum of all fears

BACK in Penthakata, however, Jagalmani was beginning to get very worried indeed. Her uncle Kondalrao and the other area fishermen kept insisting Penthakata would be fine, and pointing out that the sea remained calm. They dismissed the warnings of government officials as so much hype by city dwellers who did not know what they were talking about.

The fishermen knew best, Jagalmani thought — but then, she had never seen this kind of alarm raised over a storm before. Government officials were blasting their message out over loudspeakers; the TV channels were playing cyclone footage on loop, and the radio was now talking of nothing else.

“The way the police spoke about it and seeing how TV9 was broadcasting, it was hard to believe the cyclone would be a normal one,” Jagalmani recalled.

Kondalrao tried to assuage her fears. If it really got bad, he told his niece, she should take her mother, grandparents and cousins to the shelter while he stayed behind to look after the boat and net and make sure nobody robbed their homes.

Her uncle had been at the epicenter of two major storms, Jagalmani reminded herself as she tried to stifle her unease at the prospect of Kondalrao facing the storm alone; he knew what he was doing.

“The police kept warning us about our lives,” Kondalrao told me. “But we were more scared for our livelihoods.” He and his fellow fishermen, he said, had used their wits and knowledge of the sea to save themselves and their boats when the 1999 cyclone had struck Paradip, and he didn’t think this was going to be any different.

“The collector had wanted us to leave, but we put our boats in the market building first. Then we went into town and took a room in a lodge. None of the Telugu fishermen died in Paradip; it was only the Oriya people, who remained in their mud homes, who lost their lives.”

Memories or nightmares?

KONDALRAO had no dire memories but even today, Paradip and the surrounding villages are a repository of sad tales and memories that resemble nightmares.

Nearly every home in Padmapur, a small seaside village some 30 kilometers from Paradip, had lost at least one family member in the 1999 cyclone. Most of the residents here made a living not off the sea, but in agriculture. Their endless expanses of lush paddy, fringed by neem, bamboo and eucalyptus, seemed almost too idyllic to be associated with tragedy, except for one very visual reminder: dozens of schools raised up on stilts, meant to double as shelters in case of future storms and floods. Stop any passing villager and he will recall on cue the unexpected surge from the sea, the floating bodies, the mounting panic as they realized there was no place to hide.

Keerthwas Das, an agricultural laborer, had lost his 9-year-old daughter in 1999, when the storm surge swept her from the street even as the family was scrambling for cover. When Red Cross volunteers came to Padmapur on the evening of October 10 to warn of Phailin and ask the residents to seek shelter in one of those schools-on-stilts, Das said, his wife burst into tears.

“We remembered our daughter,” Das said. “We couldn’t save her then, and we were scared at the prospect of facing another cyclone.”

He had reason to worry. As evening morphed into night, Sarat Sahu’s team at the meteorological department had revised its forecast for Cyclone Phailin upwards: it would hit with wind speeds of 190 to 200 kmph, with the possibility of a stronger storm surge.

TV channels, meanwhile, were quoting the US Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center’s prediction that the cyclone would be even worse than IMD was projecting; it was a Category 4 storm, the US centre declared, which would make landfall with wind speeds in excess of 250 kmph.

The varying predictions didn’t really matter, Special Relief Commissioner Mohapatra told me. “After a storm reaches 200 kmph, it makes no difference what the precise wind speed is because it will be devastating no matter what. We had to prepare for the worst — that was our mission.”

By then, he had every government department working round the clock. The health department was busy packing and shipping medicines and other supplies to the hospitals and clinics in the district; the food department was accumulating and deploying grains to the various shelters. BSNL workers were occupied in filling generators, by now located adjacent each cell phone tower, with diesel so the cell phone network would continue to function after the power went out.

And the Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force was engaged in checking their chainsaws, making sure they had spare chains.

An ominous calm

THE morning of Friday, October 11 dawned with sunshine and clear skies. But there was no light in the homes — as a precautionary measure, the government had cut power lines in those districts that were expected to be hit. Those who did not own inverters or generators — that is, the vast majority of the residents — could no longer get updates from TV, nor charge their cell phones.

The evacuation effort had by then kicked into high gear. As per plan, an army of village-level officials, police officers and community volunteers descended on the villages and towns earmarked for evacuation, directing people towards their designated shelter either on foot or in the vehicles that had been provisioned.

This ground army of officials reported to an administrator, usually at the block-level, who was responsible for a given shelter. The block-level officials updated the district administration on the evacuation’s progress, sending real time figures of how many people had reached their shelters. The district administration relayed area-wide updates to state officials like Special Relief Commissioner Mohapatra and Dr Taradatt, MD of the ODSMA. It was a calibrated web of constant interaction, designed to ensure that nobody was missed and that any problems were resolved immediately.

In Paika Nagar, Prakash began collecting the things his family could need in the days during, and after, the storm. He knew from experience to be mindful of small details. He bought matches, biscuits, dry fruits and candles; the family packed clothes, money and important documents like bank passbooks and ration cards.

Prakash made sure to include the diploma from Rajdhani College, his alma mater that had now, ironically, become his designated shelter. And just before they left their home, Prakash and his family members stuffed themselves with all the perishable food left in their house, so nothing would go to waste.

The evacuation was proceeding without a hitch in Paradip and the rest of Jagatsingpur district. Keerthwas Das and his family moved into Padmapur’s cyclone shelter Friday evening, and found it already packed. Everyone who lived in a mud home had packed up and moved into the shelter.

Because the cyclone was going to affect Ganjam, the government had directed additional resources there, and to the southern parts of Puri. It meant that people residing in Padmapur’s shelter had little to eat but plain rice, but it didn’t really matter — everyone had brought their own food.

In Puri’s slums, though, activist Debasis Rath was dismayed to find the same level of preparedness missing. He had spent most of the day checking on evacuation efforts in the city’s slums, including Baliapanda, home to mostly migrant laborers who service the tourism industry. He saw that most of the slum’s 12,000 inhabitants were still in their homes, and showed no sign of leaving anytime soon.

“People kept telling me they would be fine,” Debasis recalled. “Two or three government vehicles were still there, but I did not see any eagerness to evacuate the slums, either from the administration or the dwellers.”

State authorities shared his concern. Officials monitoring the evacuation from the Emergency Operations Center in Bhubaneswar – a control room set up to monitor evacuation and relief efforts in real time – received troubling reports that their field staff was struggling to draw communities out of their homes. On the ground, residents doubted whether an evacuation was necessary, whether the shelters would have sufficient capacity, and whether their property would be safe if they left it behind. This was particularly an issue in Ganjam.

Realizing that time was running out, the state government invoked a provision of the National Disaster Act that permitted authorities, in the event of imminent disaster, to evacuate communities by force.

Forced evacuation

THE term “forced evacuation” has an ominous ring to it, especially in context of the long history of state brutality against India’s poor. But to my surprise, the people I spoke with who had been evacuated by force did not mention violence — instead, they described the threat of beating and arrests, and a lot of the rough-tongued talk that Indian police seemed so good at dishing out.

“People were not beaten, but sometimes they were forcibly taken and put into the trucks,” said Kamal Lochan Mishra, the OSDMA official. “They’re not criminals, so it wasn’t a punishment! But if people did not go, we shouted ‘Chalo! Chalo! Either you or somebody will be given two to three shots.’”

In some areas, however, resentful community members clashed with officials. Such clashes were the reason the evacuation in Ganjam could not begin until 4 pm that day. In Gopalpur, where Phailin was now almost guaranteed to make landfall, Jagannath watched some of his fellow fishermen – the poorest of them, who lived in very small huts on the edge of town – revolt against the municipal chairman and police. They pointed to the unthreatening weather and the calm sea, and argued that the police had no idea what they were talking about and refused to listen to either blandishments or threats.

Jagannath liked the chairman, who he believed genuinely cared for the townspeople. But today, that official was not his usual affable self; he did not respond when the fishermen asked what would become of their boats. Many of them had already prepared for the cyclone, stocking food and water and so on — they just did not want to be far from their homes and their boats.

With the clock ticking, exasperated police officers began physically carrying a few people to the vans, all the while apologizing and telling them it was for their own good. But, Jagannath knew, there was no way police could evacuate the 5,000-plus residents in this fashion.

Even as this standoff continued and the evacuation ran behind schedule, the situation began to deteriorate in Ganjam and Puri. Cyclone Phailin was growing steadily in strength, and advance clouds had started lashing the coast with heavy rain. By early afternoon, the IMD had already upgraded its forecast and was predicting wind speeds of around 220 kmph when the cyclone made landfall.

The report from the US Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center was even more dire: Phailin, the center said, was now the equivalent of a Category 5 storm, the highest level of its classification system, and winds could be as fast at 270 kilometers per hour, bringing with them a catastrophic storm surge. Some forecasters were already likening it to Hurricane Katrina, another Category 5 storm that devastated the US Gulf coast in 2005 and killed 1,833 people.

The dichotomy between the IMD’s forecast and that of the US agencies had already become a preoccupation for TV newscasters and a talking point on social media. By then, the impending storm had also become an international media sensation, with global news outlets and relief organizations heaping criticism on the IMD for low-balling its forecasts. Many doubted if the evacuation efforts would succeed, and expressed skepticism about whether the Odisha government was doing enough.

“In India and Bangladesh, where so many live only a few meters above sea level, the sheer size of Phailin nearly guarantees that hundreds of thousands of homes will be inundated,” wrote meteorologist Eric Holthaus on the website Quartz. “A storm surge of 1 to 3 meters could extend for hundreds of kilometers northeast of where the storm makes landfall. In short, Phailin is a humanitarian disaster in the making.”

Officials on the ground, already struggling to cope with an evacuation going slower than planned, began feeling the additional pressure of media criticism. Director General of Meteorology Dr Laxman Singh Rathore of the IMD began holding periodic press conferences to provide status updates — and to respond to critical reporters demanding to know why the IMD was “lowering” its forecasts despite much higher projections by US agencies.

“Meteorology is such a thing that you cannot be final all the time,” said Sarat Sahu, the director of the Bhubaneswar Meteorological Center, when I asked why the IMD had stuck to its forecasts despite the chatter. “We constantly modified our predictions based on the data, but we also had some ideas based on past experience.”

A deluge of information

AT the Radio Namaste office in Konark, Ansari was monitoring the Phailin buzz on Twitter and Facebook and broadcasting translated summaries of relevant bits.

Although not everything on social media was accurate, it was exactly the kind of abundant, real-time information that was so hard to come by during the 1999 super cyclone. Most of the community radio’s audience did not have social media accounts or Internet access even on normal days; now, they also did not have power, so radio was their only source of information.

The station fielded hundreds of calls from listeners, answering their questions and relaying some of their reports on air. Ansari realized his reports were becoming an important source of information not only for his regular audience but also for local authorities, who kept calling him for updates on the weather, and even on the evacuation’s progress. The station’s round-the-clock bulletins also included tips on what to gather before the storm – drinking water, kerosene, dry fruit, and valuable documents – and encouraged listeners living in kutcha homes to move into the nearest concrete building.

“Shelters were not sufficient,” Ansari said. “So we were advising people to go to their relatives’ places. It was quite pointless to tell them to go to the shelters, because they won’t go.”

At the local administration’s request, Young India, the NGO that runs Radio Namaskar, sent around 100 volunteers to help with the evacuation. Without help from such community volunteers, evacuating one million mostly unwilling people would have been all but impossible for the government. The volunteers organized buses and trucks, and went directly to the communities. “Because fishermen generally don’t believe the government, na?” Ansari quipped.

Some of the field reports from the volunteers disturbed Ansari: some coastal villages had not been informed and were not being evacuated because village governments did not have the manpower to reach everyone. Although government officials refuted this claim, to Ansari it seemed as if the state government was giving its local branches inadequate support for such an enormous task. Radio Namaskar kept reporting, and urging communities to evacuate.

What this incessant flood of information accomplished is different matter entirely. Many of the people I spoke with in coastal communities, like the fisherman Kondalrao from Penthakata, admitted that although they heard the repeated warnings about Phailin and prepared for it in small ways, for instance by stockpiling rice and candles, they did not intend to actually leave their homes.

This mentality seems to be more a function of human nature than of economic circumstance or access to information. Even in advanced countries like the United States, local and state governments struggle to convince people to clear the coasts before a big storm, and rarely succeed in evacuating even half of the population from a vulnerable area.

“Too many people living in the most dangerous locations underestimate their vulnerability,” said Jay Baker, a professor at Florida State University, who has studied how people respond to evacuations. Instead of sending representatives door-to-door, authorities in the United States broadcast evacuation orders using local media announcements and automated calls, which Baker said were ineffective in getting people out of their homes.

“Frankly, people willingly evacuate only when they have suffered in a bad hurricane or cyclone before,” he added, “but there will never be a time when the majority of people have had that experience.”

‘Connectivity is the real power’

IN Penthakata, Jagalmani was getting panicked calls from relatives in Andhra Pradesh. Get out of there, they pleaded, before it is too late.

Cell phones were ringing all over Penthakata that Friday, and by nightfall most people were scared. The rain was driving down hard by then, and the entire city of Puri had plunged into darkness because of the power cut.

Kondalrao looked out to sea, and noticed something peculiar: the waves had changed shape, crisscrossing each other instead of reaching the shore in straight, parallel rows. The veteran of two cyclones knew this was the sea’s way of warning about a big storm.

He was not the only one to notice the change. The slum’s Telugu-speaking leaders, whose word was highly respected by all of Penthakata, much more so than that of the Odiya government, beseeched the community to evacuate. Kondalrao realized that the police had been right all along: the worst was yet to come, and when it came it would be very bad.

The good part was that people were still in touch, they were communicating, sharing information. The cell phone has become such a quotidian instrument that even defining its significance is a challenge. But the Phailin evacuation showcased how valuable connectivity had become in preventing repeats of past disasters.

The government’s evacuation plan relied on an elaborate hierarchy of calls, text messages and faxes to not only deliver instructions from the top ranks to the ground-level, and for those on the ground to communicate back up the chain. Family members far inland kept in touch with their kin in the coastal areas, and in their own way exerted pressure on them to evacuate. And Ansari culled valuable field reports from direct calls from his listeners, and rebroadcast them.

“We’re seeing that connectivity is the real power,” said Hemant Purohit, a crisis informatics and coordination researcher who worked on a CrisisMap for relief efforts after Phailin. “It’s a very macro-level phenomenon. You can think about how evacuating a million people was possible. But in order to execute that, mobile technology played a big time role.”

By the end of Friday October 11,  authorities in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh had managed to evacuate about 260,000 people from 18,000 villages. Phailin was less than 24 hours away — and they had to find a way to evacuate about 800,000 more.

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.”

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