Co-presented by

Cyclone Fani survivors: From ravaged homes to lost loved ones, Odisha's Puri district's residents struggle to recover

Editor's note: Cyclone Fani has left in its wake a trail of destruction in Odisha. This multi-part reported series tells of who survived the devastation.

***

At around 7.30 am on 3 May, all members of Benudhar Khuntia's (68) family that include his wife Bilasa, elder son Aswini who is mentally challenged, his wife Savita and three minor children and younger son Prasanna, 27, had something light for breakfast. Like any other day, their next meal would have been lunch which usually comprises rice, lentils and vegetables. Only that Cyclone Fani was standing in between breakfast and lunch which made landfall in coastal Odisha around 8 am.

 Cyclone Fani survivors: From ravaged homes to lost loved ones, Odishas Puri districts residents struggle to recover

Prasanna Khuntia, his sister-in-law Savita and mother Bilasa in their cyclone hit house. Image credit Debi Mohanty

The wind soon turned into a squall, the rain torrential and nature's fury was in full display. Amid the storm, the Khuntia family in Kendubari sahi (hamlet) in Chanrapada panchayat of Nimapara block in Puri district, was confined to their two-room dingy house hoping this would soon pass over. Two-and-half hours later when the asbestos roof of their tiny storeroom gave away, Benudhar rushed out to protect his precious three paddy bags which the family would consume for the next four months at least. With only 14-15 decimal of land, each grain in those bags was invaluable for his family. Benu and his son Prasanna also worked in their betel vine plantation that the family owns for livelihood.

As Benu entered the room he was heartbroken to see water pouring on the bags. He quickly tried to put a polyethene on them when a big stone supporting the wooden bar on which the asbestos rested fell on him. Soon bricks followed. Though the room was just a few feet away from where others were, no one could hear his cries as the combined sound of wind and rain was too loud. Minutes later when Bilasa tried to see what her husband was doing, much to her horror she found her husband lying motionless under the debris. She called the others, perhaps by then it was too late.

Despite the fury of Cyclone Fani, Prasanna and some other youths of the village gathered the courage to carry Benudhar to the government hospital at Nimapara, seven kilometres away. They tried with a cycle, but as trees blocked the narrow village road at every 8-10 feet, they carried him on their shoulders. Despite being drenched by the heavy rain and battered by the wind, they managed to cover the distance in four hours. However, the doctors only confirmed their worst fears -- brought dead.

Shattered, they begin their journey back home. It was already past 4 pm and the evening was approaching fast. The rains subsided by then but the cremation became an uphill task until someone from the panchayat office stepped in and gave them Rs 2,000 for dry woods under the Harischandra Sahayata Yojana. Finally, the villagers managed to get some dry woods and the burial rites went on well past midnight.

Things happened so fast that Prasanna had little time to comprehend his tragic loss. Today, his face bears a stoic and concerned look. For the future of the family, particularly the three children of his elder brother are now on his lean shoulders. He is not married and can't even think of tying the nuptial knot for many years to come. The family's source of income — the betel vine plantation — was also destroyed by Cyclone Fani.

"My husband looked after everything and with much difficulty ran the family. What will we do now, what will happen to the kids?" cried Bilasa, 62, as a dark future loomed.

Benudhar's daughter-in-law Savita was far more distraught because of his sudden tragic demise as her husband is of little help.

"My father-in-law was everything for us. I don't know why god is so unkind to me," she said trying to wipe out her tears.

As their village is nestled 1.5 km away from the main road joining Nimapara and Uttara Chowk on the Bhubaneswar-Puri highway, which is still difficult to access due to fallen trees, the entire administration and media have preferred to focus more on the Puri town itself.

Ashok Sahu, 30, the husband of Chanrapada sarpanch Samita Sahu has taken upon himself to clear the road to his village with a JCB machine. Generally, in Odisha the husbands of women sarpanchs carry out their wives' jobs, albeit unofficially. The elected ones attend meetings, sign papers, rest the husbands look after.

"Benudhar is a Cyclone Fani casualty. We have given his family the money under the Harischandra Sahayata Yojana. The revenue inspector is assessing the damage. We will try to ensure all possible government help to his family," Sahu said.

Prasanna, however, did not believe him.

"My main job is to work hard and get the betel vine ready," he said. But it's easier said than done given the intensity of the damage.

In another part of the cyclone-hit state, one-month-old Shradha is deep asleep on her mother Jyoti's chest. A few feet away nine-month-old Lipsa is looking quizzically. Her mother wants her to sleep, but she can't because of the heat and humidity.

Lipsa and Shraddha are the tiniest members of the around 180 people of 60-70 families that have taken shelter at a school at Bhatabandha in Chanrapada panchayat. There are Trinath Pradhan, 37, and others like Gaurang Pradhan among others. They are all from Bania village, where their forefathers migrated from Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh.

Trinath Pradhan and Gaurang Pradhan at a Cyclone Fani relief centre. Image credit Debi Mohanty

Trinath Pradhan and Gaurang Pradhan at a Cyclone Fani relief centre. Image credit Debi Mohanty

Bhatabandha is on the Nimapada-Uttara Chowk main road.

Both Trinath and Gaurang said all these people had moved to the school building after watching the warnings about the cyclone on TV.

"No one informed us. We came on our own," said Trinath who looks much older than his age. "I have severe liver problems. For years I am seeing a doctor at Bhubaneswar's Sum Hospital. We came in a huff, so I forgot to carry medicine."

Trinath is clueless if he will be able to find those medicines in his devastated house. "With everything gone, I don't think I will be able to buy medicines again," he said.

In the makeshift camp, only a single tubewell in the school caters to their needs. However, food is a major problem. The family of ward member of Chanrapada panchayat, also a resident of Bania sahi, Laxmi Priya Das is also staying with her fellow villagers in the makeshift camp.

"So far no assistance has reached us. The government hasn't given us not even a packet of stuffed or puffed rice. The kids are crying. I have met the sarpanch. The revenue inspector has seen our condition. But what can they do? The entire panchayat is in distress," Laxmi said.

Jyoti and Gaurang said that a BJP worker had come with cooked rice and dalma (made of dal and vegetables) but the amount was insufficient.

"Many of us couldn't get," they say. "We are purchasing biscuit packets with whatever we have for the children. They are crying. We can drink water and wait but they can't."

The people in the makeshift camp don't bother the heat or humidity. What scares them is the night. Mosquitos are rampant and the fear of reptiles is always there. However, they have little choice but to be in the camp until they get their houses somewhat in order. Despite that, oblivious to the impact Cyclone Fani has caused in their lives, some kids used coconut branches as bats to play but then they only didn't have a proper ball.

What is worrisome is that the camp in Bhatabandha is a roadside camp and still struggling to provide basic amenities to its inmates. Probably, the camps located in the interior areas are all left to fend for themselves until help from outside reaches them. Alarmingly though, that can take days.

Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.

Updated Date: May 08, 2019 09:58:23 IST