By Sandeep Sahu
It has been 17 long years. But the memories of those dreadful 36 hours remain fresh as if it all happened yesterday.
The Met department had sounded out a warning about a severe cyclonic storm brewing in the Bay of Bengal. But back in 1999, meteorological prediction in India was still in its infancy, lacking as it did the modern, advanced technology that it has in its possession now. No wonder the alert sounded by the IMD did not tell the exact location where the storm would have a landfall. At one point, it had indicated that the cyclonic storm could even spare Odisha and hit Bangladesh instead.
With no previous experience of a cyclonic storm, I did not know what to expect. The only concern that I had on the morning of October 29 was how to get my land phone, 'one-sided' by the Telecom department for non-payment of dues, restored to full working condition because that would be the only way I could stay in touch with the outside world for collecting news and - more importantly - with my office in Delhi. (Though I did have a mobile phone by then, it did not allow me to make calls. It was another 'one-sided' affair that allowed only incoming calls. For those who may not know, the rate for outgoing calls on mobile phones at the time was a pocket-pinching Rs 6.40 a minute and hence beyond the reach of ordinary mortals like me!)
So, there I was, setting of on my humble scooter from my rented house in Baramunda housing board colony for the Telecom office near Rupali Square, a distance of about six kilometers. The wind had already started gathering speed. But undeterred, I drove off hoping to be back in one piece after paying my outstanding bill. (In hindsight, I shouldn't have taken the trouble - not to speak of the risk - because it normally took 24-48 hours for 'one-sided' phones to be restored even after the payment was made!)
Barely had I managed to cross CRP square when a sudden gush of wind threatened to sweep me off along with my scooter and dash me against one of the speeding trucks on the National Highway No 5. Realising the foolhardiness of it, I decided to take an about turn and return home, leaving everything to fate. Even that turned out to be an ordeal as the wind was getting stronger with each passing minute.
The rain that started in the afternoon took torrential proportions by evening. The shut doors and windows of the rickety house flapped incessantly under the impact of the wind, which had gathered frightening speed by then. Needless to say, power had gone off, making the whole scenario even more scary. But I had no time to get afraid. The only thing I worried about was how to access a phone so that I could do a story for the 7.30 on bulletin on BBC radio. For the second time during the day, I threw caution to the cyclonic wind and set out, umbrella in hand, knocking on the doors of every neighbour to see if I could use their phone. Soon, I realized it was a futile exercise as their phones too were 'dead' by then. I returned home dejected, not knowing what to do.
Mercifully, the mobile phone was still working and the producers at the BBC studio managed to record an extempore story on it despite the deafening sound all around. A little after 8 pm, however, even the mobile phone conked off. I reconciled myself to the reality that there was nothing I could do about it and kept switching radio stations in a desperate attempt to stay in touch with what is happening around the state. Shortly before midnight, the Cuttack Station of the AIR, which had been giving regular updates on the cyclone till then, went kaput. In a supreme irony, BBC radio, which was banking on me for inputs from the 'ground', became my only source of knowing what has happening outside!
Though there was little to do, I kept awake for the better part of the night, listening to the ear-splitting sound of the wind. Every once in a while, there would be the sound of a tree falling somewhere nearby. By then, rainwater had gushed into the house. The room in which my mother slept had ankle deep water. Listening to the combined sound of the wind and the rain rising by a few decibels every few minutes, it seemed as if the concrete roof could cave in any moment. It was nothing short of a nightmare!
The nightmare lasted for the next 24 hours or more. There was little to do except listening to the frightening sound all around. For close to 36 hours, the only sight I saw was the interior of the house and the only people I talked to were family members.
What made things more difficult was that we had run out of LPG and food had to be cooked in a kerosene stove. Never having known the phenomenon called 'panic buying', there was a shortage of everything at home and we had to make do with whatever we had. (It was especially hard for me because I had run out of my stock of cigarettes even before the first night was out!) The presence of my mother turned out to be a boon during those trying times as she came up with some innovative solutions to the problem of shortage of cooking stuff. With rains lashing the house incessantly, even lighting the stove required a special skill, which I duly acquired during those crucial hours.
The fury of the cyclone had subsided by the time I woke up on the morning of October 31. For the first time in nearly 30 hours, I opened the front door to see that an eerie calm prevailed outside. My journalistic instinct, coupled with the desperate urge to have a smoke, made me leave home and take a round of the city, with a friend riding pillion, to see the devastation wrought by the cyclone.
It did not look the city I knew so well. Giant trees, some of them perhaps half a century old, lay prostrate on the roads. People were busy chipping away at the fallen trees, not so much to clear the roads as to procure some free firewood at a time when the supply of LPG and kerosene was doubtful. Uprooted electricity and telephone poles made commuting more difficult. But I did manage to manoeuvre my way to the railway station where I found a man a selling cigarettes at a hefty premium. I bought two packs of Gold Flake, without taking the trouble of bargaining, for Rs 25 each.
My next stop was the PTI office in Unit 1 where I hoped to pick up some information on the cyclone. But all that I got was that the Paradip area had been the worst affected. There was little by way of authentic information coming from the ground since all communication lines had snapped. Even the phones at the CTO had conked out. But an engineer there assured us that they were working overtime to activate at least one phone by evening for the use of the media.
By the time the phone was activated at the CTO, almost the entire press corps had assembled there. We took turns using the phone, my turn coming well past midnight. My producer was thrilled to hear from me. After asking me about my well being, he proposed that we first record what is known as a two-way in BBC parlance and 'phone-in' in our vernacular television media. Even 17 years after the event, I clearly remember that two-way. "Sandeep, I know with telecommunications down, information from the ground is hard to come by. But could you give us a sense of the devastation and the number of people who may have been killed?" No one - just no one - in the state had any information about the toll at the time and hence rather than hazard a guess, I played it safe and answered the question thus. "All I can say at the moment is the toll is in thousands rather than hundreds."
The producer said I could take my time and prepare as exhaustive a report as was possible under the circumstances, length no bar. I sat in the press room at the CTO provided by the Telecom department all night and I prepared a report that ran nearly five minutes and was aired in the morning bulletin. For the next month or so, I did an average of two reports a day for the BBC on the aftermath of what had by then been christened Super Cyclone, earning enough in the process to book a house for myself in the city!
Apart from a house, the Super Cyclone also gave me what I had lacked till then: recognition as a journalist. For close to two weeks, there were no newspapers, no TV and no local radio - leaving BBC as the sole provider of news for the people of the state.
But the Super Cyclone also presented two riddles that I have still not been able to deconstruct. First, till I reconnected with my office in Delhi late on October 31 night, I had been listening to the voice of my good friend Pratap Mohanty on the BBC, wondering if he was in Delhi giving the updates. When I met him for the first time after the cyclone, I came to know that he was very much in Bhubaneswar during the time. His land phone, along with that of 4-5 others, was apparently working all through those dreadful hours even as all phones in coastal Odisha had gone silent!
The second - and even more intriguing -riddle was a puny papaya tree that stood erect after the 36-hour long horror story even as lakhs of giant trees were uprooted by the cyclone.
That papaya tree would remain the abiding memory of the Super Cyclone for me!