The cyclone that hit Orissa in October 1999
killed thousands of people and devastated
hundreds of villages. For two dreadful nights
Prashant, a young man, was marooned on the
roof of a house. On the third day he decided to
Author: HARSH MANDER
ON 27 October 1999, seven years after his mother's death,
Prashant had gone to the block headquarters of Ersama, a small
town in coastal Orissa, some eighteen kilometres from his village,
to spend the day with a friend. In the evening, a dark and
menacing storm quickly gathered. Winds beat against the houses
with a speed and fury that Prashant had never witnessed before.
Heavy and incessant rain filled the darkness, ancient trees were
uprooted and crashed to the earth. Screams rent the air as people
and houses were swiftly washed away. The angry waters swirled
into his friend's house, neck deep. The building was of brick and
mortar and was strong enough to survive the devastation of the
wind's velocity of 350 km per hour. But the cold terror of the
family grew with the crashing of trees that had got uprooted and
fallen on their house, some time in the middle of the night,
damaging its roof and walls.
The crazed destruction wrought by the cyclone and the surge
of the ocean continued for the next thirty-six hours, although wind
speeds had reduced somewhat by the next morning. To escape
the waters rising in the house, Prashant and his friend's family
had taken refuge on the roof. Prashant will never forget the shock
he experienced at his first glimpse of the devastation wrought by
the super cyclone, in the grey light of the early morning. A raging,
deadly, brown sheet of water covered everything as far as the eye
could see; only fractured cement houses still stood in a few places.
Bloated animal carcasses and human corpses floated in every
direction. All round even huge old trees had fallen. Two coconut
trees had fallen on the roof of their house. This was a blessing in
disguise, because the tender coconuts from the trees kept the
trapped family from starving in the several days that followed.
For the next two days, Prashant sat huddled with his friend's
family in the open on the rooftop. They froze in the cold and incessant
rain; the rain water washed away Prashant's tears. The only thought
that flashed through his mind was whether his family had survived
the fury of the super cyclone. Was he to be bereaved once again?
Two days later, which seemed to Prashant like two years, the
rain ceased and the rain waters slowly began to recede. Prashant
was determined to seek out his family without further delay. But
the situation was still dangerous, and his friend's family pleaded
with Prashant to stay back a little while longer. But Prashant
knew he had to go.
He equipped himself with a long, sturdy stick, and then started
on his eighteen-kilometre expedition back to his village through
the swollen flood waters. It was a journey he would never forget.
He constantly had to use his stick to locate the road, to determine
where the water was most shallow. At places it was waist deep,
and progress was slow. At several points, he lost the road and
had to swim. After some distance, he was relieved to find two
friends of his uncle who were also returning to their village. They
decided to move ahead together.
As they waded through the waters, the scenes they witnessed
grew more and more macabre. They had to push away many
human bodies — men, women, children — and carcasses of dogs,
goats and cattle that the current swept against them as they moved
ahead. In every village that they passed, they could barely see a
house standing. Prashant now wept out loud and long. He was
sure that his family could not have survived this catastrophe.
Eventually, Prashant reached his village, Kalikuda. His heart
went cold. Where their home once stood, there were only
remnants of its roof. Some of their belongings were caught,
mangled and twisted in the branches of trees just visible above
the dark waters. Young Prashant decided to go to the Red Cross
shelter to look for his family.
Among the first people he saw in the crowd was his maternal
grandmother. Weak with hunger, she rushed to him, her hands
outstretched, her eyes brimming. It was a miracle. They had
long given him up for dead.
Quickly word spread and his extended family gathered around
him, and hugged him tight in relief. Prashant anxiously scanned
the motley, battered group. His brother and sister, his uncles
and aunts, they all seemed to be there.
By the next morning, as he took in the desperate situation in
the shelter, he decided to get a grip over himself. He sensed a
deathly grief settling upon the 2500 strong crowd in the shelter.
Eighty-six lives were lost in the village. All the ninety-six houses
had been washed away. It was their fourth day at the shelter. So
far they had survived on green coconuts, but there were too few
to go around such a tumult of people.
Prashant, all of nineteen years, decided to step in
as leader of his village, if no one else did. He organised
a group of youths and elders to jointly pressurise the
merchant once again to part with his rice. This time
the delegation succeeded and returned triumphantly,
wading through the receding waters with food for the
entire shelter. No one cared that the rice was already
rotting. Branches from fallen trees were gathered to
light a reluctant and slow fire, on which to cook the
rice. For the first time in four days, the survivors at
the cyclone shelter were able to fill their bellies. His
next task was to organise a team of youth volunteers to
clean the shelter of filth, urine, vomit and floating
carcasses, and to tend to the wounds and fractures of
the many who had been injured.
On the fifth day, a military helicopter flew over the
shelter and dropped some food parcels. It then did
not return. The youth task force gathered empty
utensils from the shelter.
Then they deputed the
children to lie in the sand
left by the waters around
the shelter with these
utensils on their stomachs,
to communicate to the
passing helicopters that they
were hungry. The message
got through, and after that
the helicopter made regular
rounds of the shelter,
airdropping food and other
Prashant found that a
large number of children had
been orphaned. He brought
them together and put up a
polythene sheet shelter for
them. Women were mobilised
to look after them, while the
men secured food and
materials for the shelter.
As the weeks passed,
Prashant was quick to
recognise that the women
and children were sinking
deeper and deeper in their
grief. He persuaded the women to start working in the food-forwork
programme started by an NGO, and for the children he
organised sports events. He himself loved to play cricket, and so
he organised cricket matches for children. Prashant engaged,
with other volunteers, in helping the widows and children to pick
up the broken pieces of their lives. The initial government plan
was to set up institutions for orphans and widows. However, this
step was successfully resisted, as it was felt that in such
institutions, children would grow up without love, and widows
would suffer from stigma and loneliness. Prashant's group believed
orphans should be resettled in their own community itself, possibly
in new foster families made up of childless widows and children
without adult care.
It is six months after the devastation of the super cyclone.
This time Prashant's wounded spirit has healed simply because
he had no time to bother about his own pain. His handsome,
youthful face is what the widows and orphaned children of his
village seek out most in their darkest hour of grief.
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