Orissa, the eastern coastal state of India, famous for the Sun Temple (Black Pagoda) at Konark frequently faces the ire of one of the worst natural hazards, the cyclone. In order to understand the gravity of situation it is necessary to know the geography of the coastal plains of Orissa. These plains mark the interface between the sea and the land. Bound in the north-east by Subarnarekha River and on the south-west by Rushikulya River, they make the most fertile tract also called as the rice bowl of Orissa. The coast within the jurisdiction of Orissa is less indented compared to west Bengal and A.P.
Eastern coast of India is a retreating coast, thus more land is exposed here. Six rivers from north to south, viz. Subaranrekha, Burhabalanga, Baitarani, Brahmani, Mahanadi and the Rushikulya drain these plains, rendering them fertile. Unlike other coasts the coast between Tamilnadu and Orissa faces a strong sea current, which does not permit formation of a true delta. Thus more land is available for agriculture. The rivers while they bring prosperity have also started to spell doom, because the rise in population has compelled the villagers to settle down close to the river. Each year the floods take a heavy toll.
Along the coast in Orissa one can see vast stretches of rice fields. If the weather god is happy the farmer prospers. But often droughts and floods and topped by Cyclones take a heavy toll of life and livestock.
Severe cyclone (numbered 05B) that hit Orissa coast on 29 October, 1999 was according to Meteorologists the strongest cyclone in India's memory. It was more powerful than the cyclone that hit Kendrapara in 1971. Depending on intensity and damage potential cyclones are graded from 1 to 5. The cyclone number 05B by virtue of its catastrophic intensity falls in the category five.
It became pitch dark in the noon of October 29 at Paradip. The cyclone struck at least an area of 300 km across with wind speed varying from 150 to 300 km per hour. Other nearby townships like Kendrapara, Rajnagar and Mahakalpada faced the worst of the disaster when seven metre high waves rushed in and at places forged its way up to 15 km inland. Normally a cyclone spends 6-8 hours on land and then wanes out. This one preferred to stay at Paradip and neighboring places for almost 24 hours. The courage of the then Union Defence Minister must be appreciated who flew in to Paradip while the storm was still raging. Paradip was a ghost town he told the reporters. He was heavily mobbed upon landing, survivors wanted food and shelter. They had lost everything.
The eye of the storm was 190 km away from Bhubaneshwar yet it was thoroughly lashed by the gale. The roar of the wind was unimaginable recorded the locals, the high rise buildings shook with the impact of the wind. Trees and billboards were tossed around like matchsticks. The winds howled and lashed the city for 11 hours disrupting communication lines. The rains that accompanied and followed the cyclone deluged everything.
Telecommunication lines of Orissa were completely damaged by mid-night. Even the Chief Minister had to resort to a Satellite Phone to get in touch with the Prime Minister. The state went incommunicado for next 48 hours.
At Nuagarh, a fishing port on the estuary of the Debi River large fishing trawlers were picked up by the wind and tossed against the offices of small fishing companies on the sea front. Boats were flying like papers and landed in paddy fields.
Meteorology department had issued several timely warnings, but the poor farmers with small holdings could not dream of evacuating their abodes to safety. Had it been Dallas or Florida , people would have moved away in their cars. But unfortunately so is not the case here. People had to be forcibly moved. Those who stayed back either perished or became homeless and many continue to do so even now after eight years.
The worst part of the story is that in 1999 for a coastal state like Orissa only 21 concrete shelters existed with a capacity to hold about 2000 persons in each. Yet another problem was felt regarding timely warning of the cyclone. Satellite perceives the cyclone, locates the area, tracks its movement and issues warnings through satellite controlled phones installed at the offices of the District Magistrates of the coastal districts. These phones have a siren too which wails in the event of an expected cyclone and also issue warnings in English and local language. After the cyclone reports appeared in the news papers that the phones did not buzz before the storm. The officers of the meteorology department had counter claims to point that there was an administrative apathy. Whatever might have been the reason, but the fact remains that before going for the costly hardware, more cyclone shelters should have been constructed because these areas face the nature's ire each year. It is worth mentioning that 250 such hooters are installed all along the coastal districts of the country, out of which 34 are installed in Orissa.
If the newspaper reports have to be believed the cyclone relief fund transferred by the central government to the state was not properly utilized to help the victims. People lose lives, property and cattle whereas the blame game amongst the governments continues.
A super cyclone of the type that struck Orissa has long ranging after effects. Emotionally one shudders to think the impact of the cyclone on the small inconsolably weeping children who were seen attempting to cremate the bodies of their parents. On the economic front apart from the loss of house and property and crops the salt water incursion on the land at times as far as 80 km had ruined the rice fields and coconut plantations. The sandy beaches are porous and a good percentage of salt entered the coffers of ground water. The salinity in drinking water apart from the problems of potability and health hazard has is highly corrosive. All pipe fittings corrode fast with saline water, a scenario common in several coastal towns.
Nature has its own ways. Erasma Block in Jagatsinghpur district was the worst affected area. In this block there are three villages Kiyada, Ramtera and Ambiki. Of these Kiyada is farthest from the Sea compared to the other two, yet it faced complete destruction and loss of lives. Compared to this village the other two escaped the brunt of the cyclone despite being quite close to the Sea. S.C. Tewari of Institute of Natural Philosophy, Varanasi after a study of cyclone affected areas in Orissa in 1999 explained in Current Science, 'Sand hills and hillocks saved many people in these villages from the furious surge of the cyclone'. Death and destruction was less in areas where the storm surge was not able to reach.
While the cyclone raged in October, followed by floods, the following summers witnessed intense heat and a drought. Trees that escaped the human axe had been uprooted by the cyclone. Polythene covered shelters with practically no vegetation around aggravated the misery of the cyclone affected masses on the Orissa coast.
Scientists are deeply engrossed trying to work out the possible causes of cyclones. It is certain that the surface temperature of the sea has to do a lot with it, but the picture is not yet clear. J.R. Holton a renowned meteorologist, in his book 'An Introduction to Dynamic Meteorology says, 'The origin of tropical cyclones is still a matter of uncertainty. It is not clear under what conditions a weak tropical disturbance can be transformed in to a hurricane.' On the other hand the people on the coast realize that while the whirlwind can force its way through any obstacle, the storm surge is certainly checked by the mangroves and hillocks. In the name of development all the coastal states are vying with each other in converting the mangroves in to a lucrative realty business.
A recent survey to study the coastal processes in the Mahanadi Delta system by Kaberi Bannerjee and her colleagues from Geological Survey Of India points out the presence layers of pollen grains of mangroves in the beach sands at Dhamra. In addition abundance of pollen grains of Casurina suggest that beach sediments of Dhamra were deposited more than half a century ago i.e. before the first Casurina plantation in the area. Alas now only the pollen lie buried in the layers of sands. The extensive destruction of forests has exposed the beaches to the brunt of cyclones. The rate of sedimentation on a beach increases once it is divested of vegetation. It is time the government starts rejuvenation of the mangroves.
Cyclones can not be wished away. But yes their fury can be abated to some extent, if we revive the nature's barriers, the mangroves. Incidentally in 1956 a commission headed by the then Revenue Minister of Orissa had strongly recommended the creation of a mangrove boundary along the coast line to reduce the impact of cyclones. Had the report been implemented the number of dead would have been much less.
Do we care!