Weathering the Storm in Ersama
The storey tells the account of a storm that hit the coastal town of Ersama in Odisha state in 1999. Prashant, a young boy, faced extreme storm to reach his village. The details of how he worked tirelessly to assist the villagers in overcoming the devastation caused by the storm inspire us to be courageous and optimistic in our approach to life.
Prashant was a nineteen-year-old young man. He was from Kalikuda, a village in Odisha's coastal state. His mother had died seven years before. A super cyclone hit the area on October 27, 1999, while he was visiting a friend in Ersama. There was widespread devastation. The gusts of wind and rains continued for two days. They remained on the house's rooftop, surviving on the tender coconuts from the coconut trees that had fallen on the roof. Prashant left for home as the rain stopped, fearing the worst for his family. He took a stick to assist him in finding the road. He had to swim through the flood waters at times. On the way, he met two friends and their uncle, and the three of them moved together. They came across dead bodies of humans and animals floating in the current. There was not a single house to be seen as they passed through villages. Prashant's house was also shattered, and he saw his belongings hanging from the tree branches. He sobbed as he realised he had lost his beloved. In search of his family, he went to the Red Cross shelter. Prashant met his maternal grandmother there. She was overjoyed to see him alive, as they had not expected him to survive the storm.
At the shelter, Prashant noticed a crowd of 2500 people. Many people had lost their families as a result of the disaster. They were grieving because the disaster had taken everything away from them. They had survived on coconuts for the previous two days, but they were running low on supplies. Prashant took control of the situation. He gathered a group of elders and young people. They were successful in forcing the merchant to give them the stock of rice. The crowd ate a meal after four days. The volunteers then cleaned the shelter and cared for the injured. Prashant engaged the widows to work in his non-profit organisation, "Food for Work."
He kept the kids interested by organising sports games for them. The volunteers were successful in establishing foster families made up of widows, orphaned children, and lone men who would form a family and support one another. Prashant, like this, overcame his grief and learned to smile even in the face of adversity.
ON 27 October 1999, seven years after his mother’s death, Prashant had gone to the block headquarters of Ersama, a small town in coastal Orissa, some eighteen kilometres from his village, to spend the day with a friend. In the evening, a dark and menacing storm quickly gathered. Winds beat against the houses with a speed and fury that Prashant had never witnessed before. Heavy and incessant rain filled the darkness, ancient trees were uprooted and crashed to the earth. Screams rent the air as people and houses were swiftly washed away. The angry waters swirled into his friend’s house, neck deep. The building was of brick and mortar and was strong enough to survive the devastation of the wind’s velocity of 350 km per hour. But the cold terror of the family grew with the crashing of trees that had got uprooted and fallen on their house, some time in the middle of the night, damaging its roof and walls.
- Menacing: dangerous and harmful
- Fury: extreme strength
- Incessant: unceasing, continuous
- Ancient: old
- Rent: filled
- Swirled: moved or flowed along with a whirling motion
- Mortar: a mixture of lime, cement, sand and water used to construct buildings
Prashant was from a village in Odisha's coastal state. On October 27, 1999, he went to see a friend in Ersama, a small town in Odisha and a block headquarter in Jagatpura district. His village was eighteen kilometres away from Ersama. His mother had died seven years before. In the evening of that day, a strong storm gathered. The area was damaged by a furious wind and constant rain. Screams could be heard as trees were uprooted and fell on houses, destroying them. The water gushed and swept away any houses that got in its way.
In his friend's house, there was neck-deep water. Because his house was a pucca house, it could withstand the strong winds that blew at a speed of 350 kilometres per hour.His friend's family was scared because trees had fallen on the house in the middle of the night, damaging the roof and walls.
The crazed destruction wrought by the cyclone and the surge of the ocean continued for the next thirty-six hours, although wind speeds had reduced somewhat by the next morning. To escape the waters rising in the house, Prashant and his friend’s family had taken refuge on the roof. Prashant will never forget the shock he experienced at his first glimpse of the devastation wrought by the super cyclone, in the grey light of the early morning.
- Surge: gush
- Refuge: shelter
- Wrought: produced as a result of something
The storm raged on for another hour and a half, despite the fact that the wind had slowed. Prashant, along with a friend and his family, took shelter on the roof of the house to escape the rising water levels. Prashant witnessed the devastation caused by the super cyclone as the day ended.
A raging, deadly, brown sheet of water covered everything as far as the eye could see; only fractured cement houses still stood in a few places. Bloated animal carcasses and human corpses floated in every direction. All round even huge old trees had fallen. Two coconut trees had fallen on the roof of their house. This was a blessing in disguise, because the tender coconuts from the trees kept the trapped family from starving in the several days that followed.
- Fractured: broken
- Bloated: swollen
- animal carcasses: dead bodies of animals
- blessing in disguise: an apparent misfortune that eventually has good results
- Tender: soft, raw
Prashant could see a cover of muddy brown water as far as the eye could see. There were the shattered remains of houses surrounded by water. The bodies of animals and people floated in the water. Massive trees had fallen and were floating around. Two coconut trees had fallen on their house's roof. Initially, they believed that the trees had damaged the roof and walls of the house, but they soon realised that this had proven to be beneficial to them. They saved themselves from starvation by eating raw coconuts from these trees while trapped in the house.
For the next two days, Prashant sat huddled with his friend’s family in the open on the rooftop. They froze in the cold and incessant rain; the rain water washed away Prashant’s tears. The only thought that flashed through his mind was whether his family had survived the fury of the super cyclone. Was he to be bereaved once again?
- huddled : together in a group
- flashed through his mind: came to his mind
- Bereaved: to have lost a family member or a friend to death
They stayed on the roof for the next two days. Everyone was so scared that they sat together in a group. Prashant's tears were washed away by the cold and the constant rain. He was concerned about his family. Perhaps he would have lost another family member and would be grieving the loss of a loved one once more. Prashant was concerned by this thought.
Two days later, which seemed to Prashant like two years, the rain ceased and the rain waters slowly began to recede. Prashant was determined to seek out his family without further delay. But the situation was still dangerous, and his friend’s family pleaded with Prashant to stay back a little while longer. But Prashant knew he had to go.
- Recede: reduce
After two days, the rain stopped. Prashant described the two-day period to be equivalent to the duration of two years. This demonstrates how difficult it was for him to pass the time because he was concerned about his family's well-being. The rain had stopped, and the water was gradually receding. Despite the fact that it was dangerous to go out, he did not waste any time and set out to find his family. Prashant was asked to stay by his friend's family, but he declined.
He equipped himself with a long, sturdy stick, and then started on his eighteen-kilometre expedition back to his village through the swollen flood waters. It was a journey he would never forget. He constantly had to use his stick to locate the road, to determine where the water was most shallow. At places it was waist deep, and progress was slow. At several points, he lost the road and had to swim. After some distance, he was relieved to find two friends of his uncle who were also returning to their village. They decided to move ahead together.
- Expedition: journey
Prashant began the eighteen-kilometer journey back home with the aid of a long stick. The journey became imprinted in his mind as he passed through the floodwaters. He needed to use the stick as a guide to find the path where the water was shallower. The water was waist deep in some places, so his pace slowed. He lost track of the road in some places and had to swim to save himself from drowning. He was relieved after a while because he had the company of two friends who were returning to their village with their uncle. They all walked together.
As they waded through the waters, the scenes they witnessed grew more and more macabre. They had to push away many human bodies — men, women, children — and carcasses of dogs, goats and cattle that the current swept against them as they moved ahead. In every village that they passed, they could barely see a house standing. Prashant now wept out loud and long. He was sure that his family could not have survived this catastrophe.
- Waded: swam
- Macabre: horrible
- Catastrophe: disaster
As the group proceeded, they were exposed to horrific scenes. They had to push dead bodies of humans and animals that were being swept around by the water's current. They passed through villages without seeing a single house. Prashant sobbed loudly as his terror grew. He felt sure none of his family members would have survived the disaster.
Eventually, Prashant reached his village, Kalikuda. His heart went cold. Where their home once stood, there were only remnants of its roof. Some of their belongings were caught, mangled and twisted in the branches of trees just visible above the dark waters. Young Prashant decided to go to the Red Cross shelter to look for his family.
- Remnants: small remaining quantities
When Prashant arrived in his village of Kalikuda, he became numb when he saw the ruins of his house. Their belongings were scattered in the water, and some were hung on tree branches just above the flood water. He made the decision to look for his family at the Red Cross society.
Among the first people he saw in the crowd was his maternal grandmother. Weak with hunger, she rushed to him, her hands outstretched, her eyes brimming. It was a miracle. They had long given him up for dead.
- eyes brimming: eyes were full of tears
He ran into his maternal grandmother at the Red Cross shelter. She appeared weak, but she was heartened to see Prashant alive. She rushed to him, her arms open and her eyes welling up with tears. It was a miracle for her because the family had expected Prashant to pass away in the storm.
Quickly word spread and his extended family gathered around him, and hugged him tight in relief. Prashant anxiously scanned the motley, battered group. His brother and sister, his uncles and aunts, they all seemed to be there.
- Motley: desperate, varied in appearance or character
- Battered: injured
When Prashant's extended family found out he had arrived, they gathered around him and hugged him in relief. Prashant noticed that everyone was concerned and injured. He met his siblings, uncles, and aunts.
By the next morning, as he took in the desperate situation in the shelter, he decided to get a grip over himself. He sensed a deathly grief settling upon the 2500 strong crowd in the shelter. Eighty-six lives were lost in the village. All the ninety-six houses had been washed away. It was their fourth day at the shelter. So far they had survived on green coconuts, but there were too few to go around such a tumult of people.
- Tumult: uproar of a disorderly crowd force
Prashant realised the next morning that he needed to overcome his emotions and take control of the situation. The large crowd of around 2500 people in the shelter was depressed because they had lost everything in the storm. The super cyclone had killed 86 people. They had spent the previous four days at the shelter. They had been eating raw coconuts, but there were no longer enough for the large number of people.
Prashant, all of nineteen years, decided to step in as leader of his village, if no one else did. He organised a group of youths and elders to jointly pressurise the merchant once again to part with his rice. This time the delegation succeeded and returned triumphantly, wading through the receding waters with food for the entire shelter. No one cared that the rice was already rotting. Branches from fallen trees were gathered to light a reluctant and slow fire, on which to cook the rice. For the first time in four days, the survivors at the cyclone shelter were able to fill their bellies. His next task was to organise a team of youth volunteers to clean the shelter of filth, urine, vomit and floating carcasses, and to tend to the wounds and fractures of the many who had been injured.
- Triumphantly: victoriously
- Bellies: stomach
Prashant, who was only nineteen years old, decided to lead the crowd of distraught villagers. He gathered a group of villagers, including elders and youth. They intended to force the local merchant to give them the grain and rice stock to feed the people. The group was successful, and they swam through the floodwaters to get food for the crowd. No one was bothered that the rice was rotting because they were starving and willing to eat even rotting rice. Broken tree branches were used to start a fire. It was difficult to start a fire because they were wet. Even though it was a slow fire, they were able to cook the rice on it. After four days, the survivors ate a meal. The group's second task was to clean the shelter. They cleaned up garbage, excretory waste, dead bodies, and treated the injured.
On the fifth day, a military helicopter flew over the shelter and dropped some food parcels. It then did not return. The youth task force gathered empty utensils from the shelter. Then they deputed the children to lie in the sand left by the waters around the shelter with these utensils on their stomachs, to communicate to the passing helicopters that they were hungry. The message got through, and after that the helicopter made regular rounds of the shelter, airdropping food and other basic needs.
A military helicopter flew over the shelter on the fifth day after the super cyclone and dropped food parcels. It did not return later, but they were hungry. As a result, the young people in the crowd gathered empty utensils. The children were forced to lie in the sand with utensils on their stomachs to signal passing helicopters that they needed food. The helicopters received the message and returned to the shelter with food and other necessities for the crowd.
Prashant found that a large number of children had been orphaned. He brought them together and put up a polythene sheet shelter for them. Women were mobilised to look after them, while the men secured food and materials for the shelter.
- Orphaned: a child who loses either one or both of his parents to death
The super cyclone had left a large number of children orphaned. Prashant arranged them under a polythene sheet. The women in the shelter were assigned to care for the children, while the men organised food for everyone.
As the weeks passed, Prashant was quick to recognise that the women and children were sinking deeper and deeper in their grief. He persuaded the women to start working in the food-for work programme started by an NGO, and for the children he organised sports events. He himself loved to play cricket, and so he organised cricket matches for children. Prashant engaged, with other volunteers, in helping the widows and children to pick up the broken pieces of their lives. The initial government plan was to set up institutions for orphans and widows. However, this step was successfully resisted, as it was felt that in such institutions, children would grow up without love, and widows would suffer from stigma and loneliness. Prashant’s group believed orphans should be resettled in their own community itself, possibly in new foster families made up of childless widows and children without adult care.
- Stigma: disgrace
- foster families: a family that provides custody or guardianship for children whose parents are dead or unable to look after them
The children and women in the shelter were becoming increasingly depressed with each passing day. Prashant started work for the non-profit organisation "Food for Work." He organised sports events for the kids to keep them busy. He enlisted the assistance of other volunteers to assist widows and orphans in returning to normal lives. Prashant successfully opposed the government's proposal to establish separate institutions for widows and orphans. He believed that these separate institutions would be neither beneficial to orphaned children nor to widows. These volunteers wished to place orphaned children and widows in foster families where they would be loved and cared for.
It is six months after the devastation of the super cyclone. This time Prashant’s wounded spirit has healed simply because he had no time to bother about his own pain. His handsome, youthful face is what the widows and orphaned children of his village seek out most in their darkest hour of grief.
Prashant has recovered from the grief of losing his mother six months after the disaster because he was so focused on helping others that he forgot about his own pain. In their time of grief, all the widows and orphans looked up to him, so he learned to smile and come out of his gloom.
Harsh Mander, born on April 17, 1955 in Shillong, is an Indian author, columnist, researcher, teacher, and social activist who founded the Karwan-e-Mohabbat campaign in solidarity with victims of communal or religiously motivated violence. He is the Director of the Centre for Equity Studies, a New Delhi-based research organisation.