BHUBANESHWAR, India, Nov 3 (Reuters) - The spectre of starvation, civil disorder and disease loomed in eastern India on Wednesday as relief teams struggled to help about 15 million people hit by a violent cyclone.
Five days after the storm ravaged the coastal state of Orissa, rescue efforts were finally on a war footing, with more than 5,000 troops frantically clearing roads and distributing emergency supplies.
There was still no reliable estimate of the number killed by the most devastating cyclone to hit the poverty-stricken state since 1971. Officials said the final death toll would run into thousands.
"So far the death toll figure with us is 426," said Jugal Kishore Mahapatra, the state revenue secretary. He added that it was still too early to make a final assessment.
"My 'guesstimate' of the death toll is 3,000 plus," the state's special relief commissioner, D.N. Pandhi, told Reuters. "Relief work is on on a war footing. We are conducting exhaustive aerial surveys to assess the situation."
India's federal government said that national expressways in Orissa had been cleared of fallen trees and could take traffic. "All National Highways in Orissa have been made traffic worthy," a government statement said.
Indian railways were due later on Wednesday to begin regular services between the eastern metropolis of Calcutta and Cuttack, one of the largest cities in Orissa.
WHOLE COMMUNITIES MAROONED
State officials said 1,500 villages had been battered into oblivion, and of the 15 million people affected by the cyclone, two million had lost their homes.
Four districts remained cut off by flash flooding, and Pandhi said the army would launch boats on Thursday to take food, drinking water and medical supplies to marooned communities.
"Until now we have been able to provide relief to only 30 percent of the affected people and hopefully by tomorrow evening we will be able to provide relief for 75 percent," he said.
The cyclone, packing winds of up to 260 km (160 miles) per hour and triggered towering waves, was the second storm to hammer the Orissa coast in less than two weeks.
About two million tonnes of winter rice crop in the state had been destroyed in the cyclone, officials said. Orissa accounts for seven percent of India's total rice output.
"At this stage, a total of two million tonnes at a very rough assumption," Bhaskar Barua, federal Agriculture Secretary said when asked about the damage to the rice crop.
There was a more pressing need for supplies of essential food. Domestic news agencies said desperate people had looted supply trucks stranded on the main highway, and police and paramilitaries had moved in to quell the unrest.
Air force planes dropped an unprecedented 150 tonnes of relief supplies on Tuesday alone and, as the gravity of the disaster became increasingly apparent, pledges of help flooded in from around the world.
U.S. President Bill Clinton offered $2.1 million in emergency food and shelter supplies, and Germany said it would donate the equivalent of around $530,000.
The International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) and Red Crescent Societies launched a preliminary appeal for 4.3 million Swiss francs ($2.83 million). Canada was among the first to respond, offering a contribution of around $100,000.
IFRC delegate Julian Francis, who witnessed the 1971 cyclone that claimed 10,000 lives, told Reuters in Bhubaneshwar, the state capital, that the death toll was unlikely to exceed 5,000.
"I would be surprised if it was as much as 1971 because since then there has been more awareness and preparedness," he said. "It may be that there will be further deaths through water-borne diseases and upper respiratory tract infections."
S.P. Agarwal, the government's director general of health, said a team of specialist doctors sent to the area had not reported any epidemic outbreaks, but there was still a threat.
"It is expected (in such cases) that immediately in the first 10 days, waterborne and diarrhoeal diseases such as cholera and hepatitis occur," he told a news conference in New Delhi.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
- For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit https://www.trust.org/alertnet