GOPALPUR, India – Hundreds of thousands of people who fled India’s strongest cyclone in 14 years returned home to scenes of devastation Monday, as survivors stranded at sea during the storms were finally rescued.
One million people were forced to seek refuge in shelters after the terrifying cyclone struck eastern India on Saturday, killing at least 22 people and leaving a trail of destruction along the coast.
Cyclone Phailin pounded the states of Orissa and to a lesser extent Andhra Pradesh, bringing winds of more than 200 kilometers an hour (125 miles per hour), uprooting trees, overturning trucks, and knocking out power lines.
“The death toll from the cyclone in Orissa has now gone up from 17 to 21. The deaths are mostly due to falling walls and tree branches,” Pradipta Kumar Mohapatra, the state’s special relief commissioner, told AFP by phone. One person was also killed in Andhra Pradesh, officials have said.
Loss of life was minimized after one million people spent the night huddled in shelters, temples and schools during the ferocious storm, in what officials said was India’s largest ever evacuation operation.
Indian President Pranab Mukherjee led a chorus of praise for the evacuation effort and the “high level of preparedness” as well as for the accurate forecasting of the country’s weather bureaus.
Relief agencies said government officials seemed to have learnt the lessons from 1999, when a cyclone tore through the same region, killing more than 8,000 people and devastating crops and livestock.
“The government and the community were more aware this time and better prepared, it was a collective effort and a successful one,” Manish Choudhary, a director of the Indian Red Cross Society, told AFP.
Although some reluctant residents were threatened with prosecution if they did not evacuate on Saturday, others, recalling the trauma of 1999, packed into auto-rickshaws, trucks and buses and fled.
“The government didn’t help us at all (in 1999),” said Gopal Behra from Sunapur village in Orissa’s hardest-hit district of Ganjam.
“They came, took a cursory glance and left. They switched their phones off when we needed them the most. So we took things into our own hands and left the village,” he said.
Officials in Orissa said 873,000 people moved before the cyclone made landfall on Saturday evening, while at least another 100,000 were evacuated in Andhra Pradesh. Residents were also evacuated from coastal regions of West Bengal state.
Many returned home on Monday to discover their homes, many flimsy mud and thatch dwellings, and their businesses damaged or destroyed. Most were resigned to getting on with the job of rebuilding rather than waiting for rescue workers.
“I left everything (behind) and when I came back nothing was here,” said Bhagwan, 50, who uses one name, a coconut seller from the town of Gopalpur, as he sat on the ground in front of his destroyed shop.
Kishor Nayak crammed into a boat with dozens of others to reach his village across a swollen river from Sunapur hamlet. Villagers clutched shoes, clothes, food and other basic possessions in plastic bags.
“My house is flat. I have to go back and fix it now,” Nayak said. “There is no food either. My kids have been starving, crying,” he added.
Teams from the army’s National Disaster Response Force have fanned out across the region, clearing away fallen trees from roads, mangled power poles, and other debris in a huge relief operation, officials said.
Other relief workers distributed food at shelters and treated the injured, while authorities worked to restore power, water, communications and other services.
Choudhary from the Red Cross said 3,000 volunteers were distributing tents and other assistance to those left homeless, many of them poor farmers and fishermen, while the state government announced food assistance packages for affected families.
“Two lakh (200,000) houses have been damaged in Ganjam district alone in Orissa…these are mostly mud houses with thatched roofs,” said Tripti Paule a spokeswoman for the National Disaster Management Authority.
“The people living there are in shelters, we have the supplies and equipment ready to rebuild and will repair them once the rain stops, so people can return to their homes,” Paule said.
Although the cyclone has dissipated, heavy rain was falling in parts of Orissa and other states, raising fears of flooding.
Meanwhile, the coastguard on Monday rescued 18 sailors — 17 Chinese and an Indonesian — who had been drifting on a lifeboat since their cargo ship sank in the Bay of Bengal during the cyclone.
“The crew abandoned the ship and set out in a lifeboat after their vessel began sinking in the rough seas,” coastguard Commandant Rajendra Nath told AFP from the city of Kolkata.
The lifeboat carrying the crew from MV Bingo was finally spotted overnight, drifting upstream in a river that runs into the bay near Orissa’s Balasore city, said Nath, who led the operation.
In another remarkable story of survival, 18 fishermen trapped offshore in rough seas abandoned their trawler as the cyclone approached, Nath said.
The fishermen swam to shore and were discovered on Sunday before being taken to a local hospital near the port of Paradip in Orissa.
Some of the deadliest storms in history have formed in the Bay of Bengal, including one in 1970 that killed hundreds of thousands of people in modern-day Bangladesh