29th October 1999: A super cyclone strikes Odisha

On October 29, 1999 a super cyclone struck Odisha, causing widespread destruction, with at least 10,000 lives lost and an estimated 1.5 million people rendered homeless. Unofficial estimates suggest those figures could be much higher.

Also called the Cyclone 05B and Paradip Cyclone, it was the deadliest storm to hit India after 1971. The Joint Typhoon Warning Centre issued a disturbance alert on October 23. Another alert was issued on October 25 when the tropical disturbance reached the Andaman Sea. Soon, it became Tropical Depression 5B over the Malay Peninsula, and travelled northwestward. It became Tropical Storm 5B on October 26.

The storm gained in strength and became a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal on October 27, with a velocity of up to 300 km/hr. On October 29, it hit Odisha between Ersama and Balikuda in the Jagatsinghpur district, southwest of Paradip.

The cyclone battered the coastal districts for more than eight hours. A tidal wave that swept across low-lying areas near the coast, wiped out entire villages. Puri, Kendrapara, Khurda and Jagatsinghpur were among the districts worst affected by the cyclone, which was the second storm in a fortnight; the one on October 17, 1999 had struck Ganjam district and left at least 150 people dead in the state.

Though the capital city of Bhubaneswar was spared intensive damage by the October 29 storm, the signs of the havoc were visible everywhere, with reports indicating that even the gates of the then Odisha Chief Minister Giridhar Gamang's house were blocked by uprooted trees. A shell-shocked Gamang, speaking to a wire agency hours after the storm hit his state, said: “The devastation is beyond imagination . . . I have never seen Bhubaneswar and Cuttack cut off from the rest of the country in my life.”

The state government, unprepared to handle a storm of this magnitude, sought help of the Army and the Air Force to carry out massive relief and rescue operations.

Initially, the extent of damage was difficult to ascertain, with the cyclone tearing down bridges and making roads and railways impassable. Rescue efforts were further hampered by the complete breakdown of all communication links with affected areas, and the continuing bad weather.

Defence personnel using helicopters to drop food parcels reported thousands of people stranded on rooftops or pockets of high ground.

Standing crops were destroyed in nine coastal districts while tens of thousands of livestock died. Because of contamination of drinking water by human bodies and decomposed carcasses of animals, hundreds of people contracted chronic diarrhoea and other illnesses.

“When we found ourselves alive after the cyclone, we thought we were lucky. But now we think it would have been better had we died,” Sudhakar Nayak, a 32-year-old farmer from a village near Paradip, told a reporter. “Anything would have been better than the way we are living now.”

On November 1, 1999 a helicopter was attacked in Paradip by angry residents, while carrying the then Defence Minister George Fernandes, Tribal Affairs Minister Jual Oram and Minister for Mines Naveen Patnaik. They were protesting the lack of relief supplies, medicines and drinking water. “We are not here to listen to speeches. We want food and water,” they shouted.

“The full extent of the havoc caused by the cyclone in Orissa will not be known for some time, but what is already evident is the total unpreparedness of both the state and central governments for the disaster,” Hindustan Times said in an editorial. “What is unpardonable is that it was not something which could have caught the authorities by surprise, like an earthquake.”

Ten days after the monster storm swept Odisha, receding waters and opening up of a passage into the interiors of the state’s battered coastal areas framed a horrifying picture. In several blocks around the Paradip port in the Jagatsinghpur district, rescuers and aid workers discovered mounds of corpses in nearly every village, rotting alongside tonnes of carcasses.

In dozens of villages, there was barely anyone left alive to mourn the dead. Mass cremations were carried out to check the spread of diseases.

The relief efforts came under pointed criticism. In a damning article,the Outlook magazine reported: “The civic administration, critical for moving relief and saving people, is also in a mess in several districts. A typical case is that of a severely affected coastal district, some 100 km from Bhubaneswar. Its collector was transferred four days after disaster struck, the additional district magistrate’s post still lies vacant and the superintendent of police is on leave and has been replaced by a tainted officer to prevent mobs from looting trucks. The elected parliamentary representative, meanwhile, stays put in Delhi after making a cursory aerial survey and the local legislator lands up a good four days after the calamity.”

If the 1999 storm had a silver lining, it could well be the fact that 14 years later, in October 2013, when another major storm, Cyclone Phailin, hit the Odisha coast, the state administration was, by all accounts, much better prepared and equipped to deal with it. Consequently, the loss to life and property was minimised. That’s a lesson which other state governments need to learn too.


Also on this day:

1931 — Vaali, Tamil poet and lyricist, was born

1988 — Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, social reformer and freedom fighter, passed away

2005 — Three bomb blasts in Delhi killed 62 people and injured more than 200

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