Relief begins arriving as grim task of counting the dead gets under way

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The Independent Online

Three days after one of the worst cyclones on record hit eastern India, relief flights remained grounded and millions of people were left stranded in ripping winds by flood waters.

Three days after one of the worst cyclones on record hit eastern India, relief flights remained grounded and millions of people were left stranded in ripping winds by flood waters.

Communications were severed to most of the stricken area, but reports of hundreds and perhaps thousands of casualties and horrendous damage were beginning to emerge.

Food riots erupted in Bhubaneswar, the state capital of Orissa, which had no electricity, drinking water and or fresh food, Press Trust of India reported.

Residents stopped vehicles carrying emergency relief and looted them, the agency said.

The agency also reported that 39 bodies were recovered from coastal areas on Monday, apparently in addition to at least 232 deaths reported earlier.

But the monumental task of counting the dead and searching for the missing had not yet begun.

Press Trust said in Bhubaneswar alone, 200,000 people - nearly one of every six residents - lost their homes. Entire slums were washed away. Cuttack, the second largest city in the state, was still under six feet of water in some places, it said.

Earlier, Chief Minister Giridhar Gamang expressed fears that casualties could mount into the thousands.

An army infantry division - about 10,000 troops - was put on emergency relief duty. Air force and naval helicopters were requisitioned to airdrop dry food packets normally used for high-altitude warfare.

Heavy rains that lashed Orissa since Friday eased Monday, allowing relief efforts to move into a higher gear.

Regularly scheduled flights resumed, and rail links to the state capital also were restored.

But efforts to open the main coastal highway were set back when farmers cut a 10-foot (3-meter)-wide breach in the road 38 kilometers (24 miles) south of Baleshwar, trying to drain flood waters from their fields.

When the army arrived to repair the breach, "the reaction was violent," and troops cordoned off the road, said General U.S. Abrol, director of the Chandipore test range who was commanding rescue efforts.

Earlier, dry rations and first-aid kits were sent to about 2,000 people marooned near Baleshwar, the eastern flank of the cyclone-affected area that stretches about 140 kilometers (85 miles) on the coast of Orissa.

After building steam for five days in the Bay of Bengal, the cyclone crashed into the coast on Friday with winds of 260 kilometers per hour (155 mph). Meteorologists classified it as a supercylone, one of the strongest this century.

Questions were beginning to be raised about lack of preparation and slow evacuation procedures despite days of warning, although the severity of the cyclone had not been predicted.

Most of the dlrs 128 million worth of aid sanctioned by the federal government could not reach the area, officials said. An estimated 15 million people, half of Orissa's population have been affected by the cyclone and the resulting floods.

"This is the worst flooding in 100 years. I would say its is the worst in India's history," said Asim Kumar Vaishnav, the chief administrator of Baleshwar, also in charge of relief operations in and around the district.

Vaishnav estimated damage would surpass 100 billion rupee (dlrs 2.3 billion) from the cyclone, which ripped through the port city of Paradwip and ravaged Cuttack, the industrial hub of eastern India.

Thousands of people camped on the national highway begging for food near Baleshwar 200 kilometers (120 Miles) northeast of the state capital.

Swollen rivers washed away huge chunks of the road, blocking convoys of relief supplies and severing commerce between Calcutta in the north to Madras in the south.

"The entire area is cut off. Telecommunications is nonexistent, though we are in radio contact with the area," Orissa chief Minister Giridhar Gomang told the private STAR TV channel.

Hundreds of acres of farmland were inundated with sea water. Tree tops and utility poles poked through the water's surface.

Near Chandipore, the missile base, fishermen cast nets in crop fields that had been flooded with sea water 1,000 meters (yards) from the coastline.

Huddled under plastic sheets, entire families squatted on their roofs with stoves, beds, bundles of clothes and a goat or two, to escape the rising water. Many refused offers to be moved to safe government shelters.

"A lot of people just want to hold on to their houses and refuse to be evacuated," a senior army officer supervising rescue and relief work said on condition of anonymity.

Tens of thousands of mud and thatch houses were washed away in the floods; only a few brick and cement houses remained standing.