Odisha supercyclone and Amphan: Nights of the storm

Debaashish Bhattacharya | Updated on May 29, 2020

Dark cloud on the horizon: Kolkata, which hadn’t seen a storm as brutal as Amphan in decades, hadn’t been prepared for the consequences   -  REUTERS/RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI

Cyclone Amphan revives dark memories of a violent cyclone that battered Odisha a little more than 20 years ago

The sky was already dark and the wind was picking up speed. I sat all by myself, pounding out a report on the impending storm, in my newspaper office in a high-rise building near the Bhubaneswar railway station. My colleagues had left, after urging me to head home without delay.

Suddenly, the phone on my desk rang shrilly, startling me. My wife was on the line. “When are you coming home?” she asked, her voice shaking. “I just saw on TV that the storm has turned into a supercyclone and is now headed towards us. It looks bad.”

I assured her that I would soon be home. I was racing against time, for there were still two stories to be filed — one for the Kolkata newspaper I worked for and the other for an American news agency.

The memory of that night came billowing in last week, as another storm howled outside and rattled the windows of my Kolkata apartment. A little over 20 years after the 1999 supercyclone in Odisha (then Orissa), I can still feel the terror of that night.

In Kolkata, Cyclone Amphan had on May 20 already hit the coast of the Bay of Bengal near Sagar Island in Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district. The state power utility had switched off electricity.

Sweating profusely in my dark and stifling flat, buffeted by the storm, I began to wonder if this was going to be as bad as 1999 — or worse. As the evening stretched into the night, the storm grew stronger and stronger. Kolkata had not seen a storm this brutal in decades — and hadn’t clearly been prepared for this.

As coconut, mango and banana trees in a neighbouring garden crashed to the ground, the newly-built plastic shade over my balcony flew off. A dish antenna came thudding down from the rooftop of our apartment complex. There was a loud bang as an electric post in the street outside tumbled over.

Well into the night — at around 2am — a chilling wail replaced the roar of Amphan. As I pressed my sleepless eyes against the windowpanes, straining to see into darkness, I had a strange sensation. It seemed as if the storm was trying to spirit off the unwilling residents of the other world and that they were weeping in unison. For, they still loved the land they had once physically belonged to.

I stood by the window and recalled the journey back home from work that afternoon in the Odisha capital, where I was then posted. As I kick-started my scooter against the billowing wind outside, I saw a small grocery store opposite my office about to down its shutters. I stopped by and picked up candles, two packets of flour and a jar of pickle. Little did I know then that this instinctive last-minute purchase would help my family of four — which consisted of, apart from me, my wife, our small son and a live-in help — survive the October 29 supercyclone that killed more than 10,000 people in the coastal districts of the eastern Indian state.

Amphan, with a maximum wind speed of 135km per hour (kmph), was nothing compared to the Odisha supercyclone’s speed of 260 kmph. The May 20 storm killed some 90 people, but the destruction it wrought in the Bengal capital — and elsewhere in the state — was severe.

While we were lucky to have electricity back in our housing complex after four days, many parts of the city went without power and water for days. Things are worse in the districts, where thousands of people have been left homeless. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, following an aerial survey of the affected zones, declared an interim relief package of ₹1,000 crore for Bengal with an additional ₹2 lakh each for the kin of the dead.

The situation was no different in Odisha in the aftermath of the supercyclone. If anything, it was worse. We were without electricity for more than 10 days and we lined up every morning for two buckets of water delivered by a municipal tanker in our neighbourhood. The shops were all shut, so we had to survive on the meagre provisions that I had brought back home after work. For Bengalis reared on rice and fish curry, it was not easy for us to eat rotis with pickle for breakfast, lunch and dinner for an entire week until the local markets opened.

If hungry cyclone victims stopped trucks and looted relief material being shipped in 1999, hundreds of Kolkata residents without power and water have now taken to the streets to protest what they call government inaction and apathy. “We don’t want promises. We want action,” a senior citizen yelled at a reporter in a south Kolkata neighbourhood.

But, yes, unlike 1999, the shops opened their doors — despite the coronavirus lockdown — within a day or two of the cyclone. My family did not have to survive on rotis and pickle.

In 1999, mobile phones had hardly taken off in Odisha and the internet was slow and patchy. In fact, the weather forecast, unlike today, was unreliable in those days.

And yet, all the technology that we have today — our smartphones, broadband and 24x7 cable television — proved useless, with Amphan shutting them all down. I am still struggling with my cell phone connections. Nearly a week on, internet and cable television are still out.

It just shows that nature still likes to have the last word.

Debaashish Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based journalist

Published on May 29, 2020

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