It was a Friday and I was in my 7th class at that time. My dad used to be a teacher in the Railway school in Jatni. It was a small town, about 30 km away from Bhubaneshwar.
Cyclones hit the northern part of the Bay of Bengal frequently, especially Bangladesh. This time it was forewarned (about 3 days ago as i remember) that a cyclone would make a landfall in the Orissa coast.
It was the end of the month, so we did not have enough rice, dal etc and I remember my dad stocking some up the previous day. I had an examination that day and was all prepared. We had grossly underestimated the power of a cyclone – my mom had asked me to stay back just in case.
What started as a typical rainy season type wind soon turned into a nightmare within a matter of hours. To be precise, me and my dad were enjoying the clouds and the wind by sitting on our chairs on the porch earlier in the day. As the day progressed, wind speed picked up, trees were getting uprooted and big objects were flying in the air. Pretty scary – nothing prepares you for this kind of stuff. The sound of the wind was as if the skies were crying and wailing.
Our Railway quarters looked something like this but with a front porch :
As you can see, the top is made of asbestos and is not very strong. By afternoon, water started to leak from sides of our walls, electricity was cut off. Dad was frantically moving all household items away from the walls. It got worse by night. We ate apples that night and my parents couldn’t sleep for the fear of the asbestos sheets getting ripped and flying off. I guess they would have, if the winds were only a little stronger.
Somehow we survived the storm and woke up to the smell of fish. The storm had abated and it smelt bad everywhere. We thought we survived and felt relieved, not knowing what lay ahead of us.
In any storm, the easiest part is till the storm passes – then starts the living hell. 2 months of pure hell. Schools shut, heavy downpour, no electricity for over a month, telephone lines down, communication with rest of the world cut off, food shortage, banks wouldn’t function, mosquitoes everywhere, no trains, no busses, no petrol, no shops, not even fresh air to breathe and utter confusion. Jatni was suddenly an island despite the State capital being only 30 km away.
The worst part is not the lack of food. Food can be stocked up and we did so. The problem is the lack of potable water to cook that food with. With animal carcasses everywhere, even ground water couldn’t be trusted to be safe. Somehow may dad got some tablets (disinfectant or something) which could be dissolved in water to make it a bit safer. Waking up everyday to start the struggle of fetching water from some far off place was the saddest part.
Stories of cholera and malaria shook everybody – especially due to scarcity of medicines. Rescue and relief measures were pretty late and people had to stand in queue for hours in front of ration shops to get a candle, a matchbox and some kerosene. After the railway tracks were repaired, Bhubaneshwar had received some food packets from Andhra Pradesh. For us this was bad news because now my dad being a central govt employee, was pushed into rescue and relief duty for some days. We somehow managed. One day, long after telephone lines were up, we received a phone call from our grandparents in Vizag and they were relieved to know we survived. They had been seeing horror stories in the news everyday.
My dad had the community support of other railway staff, we lived in Pucca houses, we had food stocked up in advance, we had some cash in hand – still we saw hell. Now think about the ones who lived in kaccha houses (those days in Orissa there were many) and from a lower economic background. Sends shudders down my spine whenever i remember those days.