As news of yet another cyclone heading towards Australia hits the morning headlines, I'm reminded of the last bad one to hit Chennai. Was it 1985? All I remember is being stuck at home, bored and waterlogged, after exhausting all options of electricity-less entertainment.
For Rom, however, at the Croc Bank, it was a harrowing 48-hour drama. At dusk on the first day of the cyclone, he remembers trying unsuccessfully to stand upright on the beach; the wind gauge was clocking 120 kmph and rising. The skies looked ominous and serious weather was hammering the shore.
Then, for 24 hours the rains belted down. The water level in the croc enclosures began rising steadily until there was no high ground left. The crocs were swimming round and round along the edge. Some of the enclosure walls were only of single brick thickness, not strong enough to withstand the pressure of the water. Before they caved in, Rom and his staff punched holes to relieve the strain.
There was no predicting what else was in store, so 20 trusty villagers were hired to keep a watch on the crocs. Each was armed with an aptly-named ‘hurricane' lamp and a stout stick. It was a long tiring night of deafening wind, pouring rain and menacing surf.
By noon the next day, the wind had died down, but the Croc Bank was strewn with piles of debris. On the beach, enormous trunks of trees from far off shores lay washed up like beached walruses. The Kovalam bridge was under a rushing torrent of water, and the road to Kelambakkam had disappeared. Apart from the thin strip of road, the predecessor of the East Coast Road, a sheet of water covered everything. The Croc Bank was marooned for three days. Had high tide coincided with the cyclone hitting the coast, Madras would have been devastated.
The crocs seemed bewildered by the sound and light show that had changed the profile of their enclosures. But, the worst was over and now it was just a matter of cleaning up. The following night, after a long day of back-breaking work, a deeply-asleep Rom was woken up by the incessant barking of Balu, the watch dog.
A large male gharial had escaped and was pushing its way through the casuarina grove to the sea. Rom picked up a fallen branch and fenced with the 13 foot crocodile to keep it at bay.
Balu was barking and excitedly prancing around, staying just out of reach of the gharial's tooth-lined snout. Rom shouts for help were drowned by the roar of the surf. Man and dog could only slow the reptile's progress to the sea.
As Rom considered his diminishing options, the watchman finally showed up. With additional manpower and gear, the gharial was hauled off to the safety of his enclosure. It transpired that the receding water had left a convenient pile of sand at one corner which the clean-up crew had failed to notice.
So the intrepid gharial had merely climbed up the pile, jumped over the wall and followed the sound of waves to the sea.
In the meantime, a village tom-tom messenger had announced that a thousand crocodiles had escaped from the Croc Bank and cautioned people not to go near water. Yeah right! How exactly does one do that when the whole place was flooded?
Just to be sure, the Croc Bank staff went out into the surrounding villages to eye-shine for crocs (since crocs' eyes reflect torchlight at night, this is the standard method of finding and counting them), and scan the land for tracks. There wasn't even one loose, never mind a thousand! Rom never found the source of this misinformation, and eventually everything went back to normal. The city hasn't been hit by a big cyclone since, but it's good to be prepared!
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