Black Friday: An Oxfam programme officer's report from Orissa

Originally published
Termed as one of the most devastating human disasters ever experienced, Orissa has been completely shattered by the worst cyclone experienced in East India.
In the early hours of 29 October 1999, Black Friday as it will always be known from now, a massive and merciless cyclonic storm hit the coastal part of Orissa, killing thousand and displacing millions. Wind blew at an unbelievable velocity of 250-300 km per hour and the turbulent sea rose up to 5-9 metres high, with accompanying continuous rain, which has swept lakes (100,000s) of houses out of existence.

Such was the fury of nature that nothing except lifeless concrete structures have survived. Children have lost their mothers and the adults are constantly looking up for the never reaching food parcels. Thousands of cattle and wild animals have died.

The aerial survey says the coast of Orissa from Puri to Balasore has become an extended Bay of Bengal, threatening everybody for the days to come. The coastal districts have turned into a graveyard - eyewitnesses confess that if there is hell anywhere, it is here.

The worst affected districts have been Jagdsingpur, Kendrapara Puri and Khurda, Bhadrak and Balasore which have been totally delinked from the rest of the country. Bhubaneswar, the capital city, is lying quietly in darkness and all the possible links with the outer world have been cut off by this super cylone. Even communication within the state has become impossible due to the complete ransacking of the telecommunications wires and electric cables.

Though there are no official estimates of the human casualties, independent observers and local level workers figure it to be more than 20,000. The port city of Paradip in the worst affected area has a casualty count ranging between 8,000-10,000 where the deceased are mostly daily wage labourers, fishermen and women.

Physical infrastructures including school and college buildings and government offices are severely damaged, therefore unlike previous cyclones these infrastructures could not be used as refugees for the evacuees. Thatched and mud houses are either blown away or damaged beyond repair. All major district roads are either washed out or blocked by uprooted trees. Even National Highway 5, joining Cuttack and Bhubaneswar, was not spared. Primary health centres with asbestos roofs were blown away and most are unrepairable. Most of the government buildings are badly effected, similarly grain go-downs, milk society buildings, etc were either blown over or badly damaged.

Crop loss is very high. Food for consumption at the household level has been either buried or destroyed resulting in acute shortage of edible food. Instances of food being ransacked and several trucks attacked have been reported in the last few days, resulting in relief measures not reaching the most affected. Sugar cane which was almost ready for harvest has been completely destroyed and along with it most of the other Kharif (winter) and pre rabi (autumn) crops. Even old and huge banyan trees with thick trunks lie uprooted. The cities and towns and adjacent rural areas are almost devoid of tree cover.

Most artisans have lost their workshops, their tools and machinery. Small scale factories (rice and flour mills) have been destroyed and the machinery badly damaged. In a nutshell, the damage can be said to be a total loss of normal livelihood for the next 6 months.

As a consequence the village economy has collapsed hitting mostly the landless labourers. About 10 million people are affected by loss of livelihood.

Children in the affected areas are another vulnerable section who are subjected to the threats of malnutrition.

Available food that would be accessible for people in all affected districts would last for a maximum of 4-5 days. Cold fever and diarrhoea are spreading and is going to take epidemic proportions which could affect more then 5 million people.

Without financial and material help the people, irrespective of cast and class, will not be able to bear this onslaught. Having lost 90% of their moveable property acquired over generations, they are in the fear of losing their livelihoods and hopes for the future at the turn of the millennium.