India cyclone ravaged memories as well as land

People lost everything they had in Ersama, Orissa in the 1999 "super-cyclone."
People lost everything they had in Ersama, Orissa in the 1999 “super-cyclone.”

Thinking of the 12 milion Indians who are bearing the brunt of Cyclone Phallin. Here is a piece I wrote for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1999, after the last deadly cyclone in the state of Orissa.

November 25, 1999

Bhubaneshwar, India — I had been to Orissa before, lured by its ancient Hindu temples and pristine beaches.

This time, I was not a tourist.

I was there to witness a tragedy of enormous proportions. A “super cyclone” had visited the state just days before my trip. And it had changed the face of Orissa.

The plane ride from Calcutta to Bhubaneswar, Orissa’s capital, took 50 minutes. Indian Airlines Flight 7544 from Calcutta steadied itself after a steep climb into a clear November sky. We were more than halfway there when the captain announced, “We are flying over Paradwip. It’s to our left.”

On Oct. 29, the cyclone, having churned across the Bay of Bengal, came ashore at Paradwip. Wind and sea had spared little. I had read newspaper accounts about the devastation, and so had everyone else on the plane.

The very mention of Paradwip had nearly all the passengers on the right side of the cabin up from their seats. We craned our necks to peer out the windows and see firsthand what we already knew.

From 15,000 feet, the landscape resembled a blueprint for destruction. A vast sheet of silver-blue iridescence cut into the green mosaic of rice paddies and farmlands. Helicopters skimmed over the flooded land below us. Perhaps they were making air drops of food to cyclone victims.

Suddenly, the plane was filled with comments, sighs and emotions. Curiosity. Uncertainty. Fear.

As the aircraft descended, I saw the massive steel bridge over the Mahanadi River that I had crossed by train only months before on my way to the beach at Gopalpur. Then Orissa had seemed so lush, so serene, so idyllic. Now it was a series of mangled fields and broken trees, bare of bark and branches.

In the chaotic arrival hall at Bhubaneswar’s small airport, people held up placards to connect with arriving relief workers, journalists, government officials and medical teams. Boxes full of bottled drinking water rotated on the luggage carousel. People had come prepared to face the shortages. I wondered whether our six bottles of water would suffice.

orissa1Outside, the hoards of white taxis that normally await arriving tourists were in short supply. Instead, a line of four-wheel drive vehicles crowded the curb. Several bore the Red Cross symbol.

It wasn’t a long ride to the Hotel Shishmo, which had recently undergone minor renovation. I remembered it as being shoddier on my last trip to Bhubaneshwar, four years ago. It was the only thing I saw this time that looked better.

Eugene, my colleague and guide, and I wanted to grab a quick lunch before venturing into the city. At the hotel restaurant, we were told that the only thing available was a limited buffet, since many of the kitchen staff had returned to their villages to check on their families. The mediocre meal cost twice what it would have in Calcutta, but there wasn’t another restaurant open for miles.

Bhubaneswar, which was a relatively new but disheveled town before the storm, looked utterly dismal. Its dirty roads were even dirtier. Its nondescript architecture seemed uglier. Many of its tall palms stood no more. A confusion of electric lines dangled overhead as our taxi negotiated pools of mud and slush around the city’s shantytowns.

For the people who live in these slums, life had already been unimaginably difficult. Now it was plain unimaginable.

Still, the urban shantytowns were better off than the thousands of small hamlets and villages that fell prey to the cyclone. Tens of thousands of people died; no one knows exactly how many. Millions more were left with nothing to their names but the wet dirt on which they were standing.

These were India’s poorest, most vulnerable people, and they had been left in their mud huts to ride out one of the fiercest storms in the subcontinent’s history. A man in a nearby hospital had held onto the trunk of a palm tree through 36 hours of rain and wind. He survived but he had no flesh left on either arm.

On the way to Kendrapara the next day, we stopped for breakfast at the Indian equivalent of a truck stop. We were told there would be no more food available beyond that point. We sat in a dark, dingy dining hall — there was no electricity — and filled our stomachs with sand-laden rice cakes and vegetable curry. We planned to never eat there again.

But we did — out of necessity. And 10 exhausting hours later, the same rice cakes and curry seemed gourmet fare.

We thought about the villagers with whom we had spoken, and of how they had mobbed relief trucks for food and were surviving on one scanty meal a day. One man showed us his stash of rice carefully wrapped in a towel. He had gathered the grains from the road when a bag of supplies had burst.

In Paradwip and Ersama, names now synonymous with death, we had watched a young woman wash herself in a pool of water while a few yards away, another young woman’s body, bloated and rotting, floated along the bank. We saw the charred remains of human beings at mass funeral pyres, and we inhaled death. We looked into the eyes of a child who will grow up without his parents — and without hope.

After seeing all that, conversation in our taxi stopped for a long time. I found myself clutching my bottle of water and not wanting to look anymore.

But the images still burned in my mind. I left Orissa two weeks ago; soon I will return home to Atlanta, leaving India far behind. And this time, a very different Orissa will smolder in my memory.

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