On November 16, Vedaranyam, the tip of the nose of peninsular India stretching into the Bay of Bengal, was in the eye of a storm when Cyclone Gaja made landfall and swirled through the fertile Cauvery delta in Tamil Nadu. The cyclone left the delta battered like no other in more than half-a-century.
The cyclone with high velocity winds gusting up to 120 km an hour sheared trees, huts, tiled houses and every other structure in its path. Almost the entire delta spread over Nagapattinam, Tiruvarur and Thanjavur districts, considered the granary of the State, the neighbouring Pudukottai and even interior Tiruchi and Dindigul districts staggered under its impact as the cyclone made its way to the Arabian Sea in Kerala.
What was the impact?
The cyclone swept in wind and water, destroying lakhs of trees, including coconut, banana, cashew, mango, jackfruit, casuarina, betelvine, eucalyptus, teak and sugarcane on thousands of hectares. The paddy crop of the samba/thaladi seasons was also damaged in some places. Boats and huts of fishermen were destroyed. The Point Calimere Wildlife Sanctuary, a Ramsar site (a wetland of international importance for conservation), was ravaged. Carcasses of blackbuck, spotted deer, feral horses and birds were washed on the shores of Karaikal in Puducherry. Scores of villages were wiped out and thousands rendered homeless. The steel roofs of petrol stations, grain storage godowns and other buildings were blown away. Nearly a lakh tonne of stocks in salt pans in Vedaranyam were washed away. Over 3.41 lakh houses with thatched or tiled roofs were damaged, according to an official estimate. More than 3.78 lakh persons were accommodated in over 550 relief centres. Over 92,500 birds and 12,200 heads of cattle perished.
How bad was it?
Many residents in Vedaranyam said they had not witnessed devastation of such magnitude in their life. A few elders compared the devastation to a cyclone in the 1950s. Every family was left counting its losses. The coconut growing belt of Pattukottai, Peravurani and Orathanadu in Thanjavur district took a severe beating. “Coconut growers are ruined. We have lost everything,” said V. Veerasenan, a farmer of Pattukottai. Official estimates said coconut trees raised on over 30,000 hectares were uprooted. In Pudukottai district alone, over 5 lakh coconut trees were destroyed. The electricity distribution network crumbled with more than a lakh poles uprooted, severing over 53 lakh connections. More than 800 transformers and 180 sub-stations were affected. Absence of power left villages and towns without drinking water supply. Tangedco, the power utility, has deployed more than 22,000 workers on the massive restoration effort.
How did the government respond?
Sixty-three persons lost their lives in cyclone-related incidents. More lives would have been lost but for some well-coordinated action by the State Disaster Management Authority, from its headquarters in Chennai, to evacuate people from coastal hamlets. By the time the cyclone made landfall, officials in the districts had moved more than a lakh people to relief centres. The pre-emptive action came in for some praise even from DMK president M.K. Stalin, though the rare show of goodwill did not last long. Left without food and essential supplies, mobs turned their ire against the visiting Ministers and other elected representatives. Nevertheless, several Ministers continue to soldier on along with scores of senior IAS officers sent from Chennai to oversee relief and restoration efforts. Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, after an aerial inspection of Pudukottai and Thanjavur districts, called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and sought ₹14,910 crore in assistance.
How long will it take to recover?
Officials concede that it could take more than a month to restore normality. But as Mr. Veerasenan says it could take a decade for farmers to reclaim their livelihood.