Help at last for starving survivors of the cyclone

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The Independent Online
THE RESCUE effort to help thousands of people left homeless by the cyclone that struck the Indian state of Orissa got into top gear yesterday, but disease now threatens villagers weakened by five days without food or drinking water.

Sudakar Shakar, a peasant farmer, is just one of the victims who lost everything in the storm that devastated the coastal state five days ago. "We thought that the worst was over after the cyclone. But now we think it would have been better had we perished, because it is too tough living without food for five days," he said.

The fear-haunted eyes and gaunt frames of the homeless on the waterlogged road from Nanderapur to the port city of Paradip tell the same story. Complaining of the lack of food and drinking water, the people are already suffering from gastroenteritis, and worse epidemics are feared. The air is thick with the stench of rotting livestock carcasses floating in the water, and sanitary conditions are rapidly worsening.

News that the help is on its way raised the hopes of the villagers stranded by the highway. They say they have faith in the army, which is organising relief in a joint operation with state officials, who have been criticised for their slow response. About 5,000 troops have been thrown into the aid effort.

The villagers said they had seen helicopters hovering overhead, but so far no food has been dropped to them. The authorities admit that it will take another two days before the emergency airdrops make a difference in more isolated areas, where thousands are in desperate need.

The death-toll from the disaster at the weekend is still not known, but it is expected to be in the thousands. Two million people have been left homeless out of a total 15 million affected by the storm in the southern state.

Nanderapur was a bustling town 12 miles from Paradip, but the area is now a lake. About 5,000 residents have set up shelters on the road, where they wait for help.

Still dazed by the power of the cyclone that uprooted their homes with winds of 160 mph, which also triggered 20ft wave surges, they search for relatives and friends among the highway community.

"The wind speed was such that I thought the world was coming to an end," said an almost-blind 65-year-old woman who gave her name as Shashikala.

Helicopters yesterday made 100 flights to carry 250 tonnes of emergency aid to the affected areas, giving priority to the more remote hinterland

Anger continues to mount at the local government's response to the crisis. One local politician, Prapat Samandaray, said yesterday that the government had been "negligent" and should hand over full control of the relief operation to the army.

But in the state capital Bhubaneshwar, Chief Minister Giridhar Gomango rejected the criticism. He pointed out that the devastating storm was the second to hit the coastal state within two weeks.

"It is a hell of a job coping with two calamities within two weeks. The government is doing its best against all odds," Mr Gomango said.

Bhubaneshwar itself is slowly returning to normal, but electric power is still out. Many telephone lines to the stricken region are also cut.