Millions of India cyclone victims wait for aid

THREE DAYS after a "super- cyclone" devastated a huge chunk of Orissa, on the eastern coast of India, the relief effort was finally getting under way yesterday. But with deaths probably already in the thousands, and victims maddened with hunger raiding government food stores, for many in the state help will arrive too late.

Ten million people have been affected by the rain, winds of up to 160mph and tidal waves 15 metres high. But there is no way of estimating the casualties yet - and if many of the victims have been dragged out to sea by retreating tidal waves, there may never be an exact figure.

The cyclone hit on Friday, but ferocious rain and widespread flooding made it impossible to gauge the scale of the disaster, let alone get to grips with rescue and repair.

On Sunday, the chief minister of Orissa, Giridhar Gamang, toured the area by helicopter. "It is a huge catastrophe," he said. "The entire low-lying area from Bhubaneshwar to [the port town of] Paradip is covered with sea water. I have never seen anything like this in my life."

He held out little hope for survivors unless food and medicine reached them soon. "Entire villages have been submerged and except for groups of people clinging on to the rooftops of houses that are still standing, there is little sign of life... It seems as if the sea has simply taken over the coast." Paradip was barely recognisable as a town, he said.

Yesterday, army helicopters began ferrying sacks of relief material to the thousands of people marooned. Bhubaneshwar itself has been torn apart, with many roads blocked by fallen trees. But the airport was reopened, and flights bringing relief workers were arriving. A train carrying 50 tons of medical supplies was reported heading towards Orissa from the capital, Delhi, while navy ships were taking food, clothes, candles and other items to Paradip. India's Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, announced a 3bn rupee (pounds 42m) rescue package.

But the destruction of infrastructure makes relief enormously difficult. Power remains cut off throughout the area, desperate people were reported to have ransacked three food warehouses and cars were said to have been stopped and looted.

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