Thousands are feared dead in cyclone `calamity'

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The Independent Online
THOUSANDS OF people were feared dead and up to 1.5 million were left homeless after a cyclone swept across the east coast of India at the weekend. After an emergency cabinet meeting in Delhi, the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, declared a national calamity.

The coastal state of Orissa bore the brunt of the storms and the state's chief minister, Girdhar Gamang, called the disaster the "storm of the century". He forecast the death toll could exceed the 10,000 lives lost in 1971 when a cyclone of similar ferocity lashed the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh.

"There'll be more [casualties], many more," Mr Gamang told the BBC. "It's horrible. There's been great devastation." Hundreds of villagers driven from their homes stood on the road yesterday begging for food. Relief helicopters and supply trucks cannot move till the weather clears.

Witnesses said some hungry villagers wielding sticks forcibly stopped passing cars and looted shops and a mill on the highway linking Bhubaneshwar and the town of Cuttack, taking potatoes, wheat and flour.

An aide to Mr Gamang said: "Three warehouses of the FCI (Food Corporation of India) have been emptied but there is still looting. They are hungry and they have no water."

The last cyclone to hit Orissa two weeks ago claimed 150 lives and left hundreds of thousands homeless. This one has destroyed road, rail and air links and brought down communications lines, making it impossible for rescuers to determine the exact scale of the damage or the loss of life. Many towns and villages in the path of the cyclone were still cut off yesterday.

Winds of more than 160mph were recorded on Friday and Saturday. These had dropped to about 40mph yesterday but there was widespread panic among survivors amid reports that another cyclone was heading for the region.

But India's national Meteorological Department said those reports in local media were wrong. Officials said the cyclone had weakened considerably and was centred as a depression over the north Orissa coast at 11.30 hours (06.00 GMT). It was likely to move northeastwards slowly and weaken. Rescuers are also being hampered by the widespread looting, power failures and the continuing bad weather, which had been officially classed a supercyclone. Eighty people were confirmed dead in the Bhubaneshwar area and witnesses said thousands were clinging to rooftops.

In the fishing port of Paradip, which was reported to have been devastated by tidal waters, at least 400 fishermen were missing, although some fishing vessels were rescued. Coastguard vessels will continue searching today for other survivors after nearly 200,000 people were evacuated from the islands in the Bay of Bengal. "Heavy loss of life and property is expected," Central (federal) Relief Commissioner Bhagat Singh said. "It is difficult to quantify when you have had such devastation."

Mr Singh said several thousand troops from the neighbouring states of Bihar and West Bengal had started moving in to clear highways and start relief work. "We are trying to send rescue and relief teams from the southern side, which has been less affected."

Mr Vajpayee announced a one billion rupee (pounds 15m) rescue package but government ministers said international help was also required. Aid agencies say vaccines and polyethylene sheets are urgently needed.

Asim Kumar Vaishnav, the senior administrator of Baleshwar district, said reconstruction would take years. "The cyclone has set back the state by 20 years," Mr Vaishnav said, estimating the damage so far at 100 billion rupees (pounds 15bn).

He said the cyclone severely damaged the industrial town of Cuttack, demolished a steel plant and wiped out crops along an 85-mile coastal area.

Initial aerial surveys suggested the destruction could be even worse than in 1971. The shallow Bay of Bengal is prone to cyclones.

The worst on record was in Bangladesh in 1991, when an estimated 130,000 people were killed.