Cyclone Thane brings a tragic beginning to the new year for residents of Cuddalore

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By Reeni Amin Chua, IFRC

On the morning of 30 December, Cyclone Thane battered India’s south-east coast causing thousands to flee from their homes. In its wake, the cyclone left an immense trail of destruction and devastated the beginning to 2012 for many. Early action by volunteers of the Indian Red Cross Society deployed before the disaster was able to reduce the impact of the severe storm.

Gale force winds and torrential rain brought down telephone and electricity lines, uprooted trees, and damaged more than 200,000 homes in four districts of Tamil Nadu. Some 50,000 acres of rice fields and agricultural land have been damaged. To date 47 people have died, mostly caused by house collapses, drowning and electrocution.

The Indian Red Cross Society, in coordination with the national and state authorities’ disaster response organizations, has been at the forefront of responding to the emergency. Working closely with the authorities, the Red Cross helped to evacuate people from low-lying coastal areas and sent out warnings through its district branches. In a demonstration of their focus on preparedness, volunteers began encouraging fishermen and families to heed evacuation warnings as soon as they received information that the storm was coming, three days before the cyclone hit.

John Roche, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in India said these operations were vital. “The early warning and critical life-saving disaster preparedness activities by volunteers, including the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, have helped save many lives and reduced the overall fatalities caused by the cyclone. While loss of life is always tragic, it could have been much worse without this vital work from the volunteers ,’’ he said.

Emergency response teams and trained volunteers have delivered supplies such as food packets, utensils, candles and water containers to those in most need, working alongside government response efforts. Assessment teams are surveying the scale of the destruction in order to develop appropriate response to assist the recovery efforts needed.

Dr S P Agarwal, secretary general of Indian Red Cross Society, said the organization was an important part of the coordinated disaster response network. “We are based in communities throughout the country and our volunteers work with the national and state authorities, as well as other partners on both preparedness and response to significant disasters,” he said. “This collaboration is an essential component of our ability to serve those who need our help most.”

The lack of safe water is currently one of the main concerns in the worst-hit district of Cuddalore, about 170 kilometres south of Chennai. The water pumps supplying water to the district have stopped working due to the power outage; Cuddalore has not had any electricity for over five days. The authorities have made it a priority to restore power. Meanwhile the Red Cross Tamil Nadu state branch has provided two water-tank trucks to distribute safe drinking water. This, though, will not provide enough for all the needs of affected people.

According to Sheik Nazar, a member of the Red Cross national disaster response team sent to Cuddalore: “Most households are out of water, or running on a very low supply which is hardly enough to use for drinking and cooking, let alone washing, which adds to a potential public health risk in the making.”

While many lives have been saved, livelihoods have been destroyed. Cattle have drowned, thousands of acres of crops swamped and rendered useless, and houses, shops, factories and boats have been smashed to pieces. It will take a long time for the affected population to recover from the economic loss caused by this disaster.

“The next few days we will concentrate on providing essential relief, but at the same time we will assess the damage and decide how to help people recover in the long term” says John Roche.