Force of Nature

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Deb Mohanty has lived by the sea for all of his 70 years. He is accustomed to the fury of the cyclones that regularly churn out of the Bay of Bengal and rip through the coastline. So when storm warnings were issued in Orissa late last month, the wiry fisherman decided to stay home. On the evening of Oct. 29, winds (reaching speeds of 260 km/h) hurtled inshore, sending trees into the air and blowing away thatched roofs. But this hurricane was extraordinary: instead of moving on, it hovered in the same area for more than 36 hours, whipping up the sea and raising tidal waves that slammed 15 km inland. I have never seen anything like this, says Mohanty. I thought the day of destruction had arrived, that God had finally decided to end the world to punish us for our sins. He took shelter in a shop, until its tin roof was blown away. As the winds howled, he managed to cling to a wooden pole for almost 24 hours; thousands of others were washed out to sea. By last Saturday, the official death toll had climbed past 1,300.
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Mohanty survived the storm, but he is staring at death again as disease and starvation spread through the land. It took the army a week to clear the road to his village, and food, water and medicine still haven't arrived. Most of the 15 million people affected by the storm remain unreachable because the roads are flooded or covered with uprooted trees. Grain stored in homes was ruined in the deluge, wells are clogged with filth and there is no fuel to boil drinking water. Villagers like Mohanty have to drink from ponds piled with rotting animal corpses. Aid workers fear the outbreak of a cholera and gastroenteritis epidemic. We have the food but cannot get it to the people, says Julian Francis of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. If food does not get to these places soon, people will be susceptible to disease.

Food riots have erupted; trucks carrying supplies have been looted. Desperate villagers have held up soldiers and journalists, demanding food. Defense Minister George Fernandes was mobbed in Paradip, the port town worst hit by the storm. We are very angry because our children are hungry and the government is doing nothing for us, says fisherman Arjun Kumar Behera. They fly over us in their helicopters as if there is a circus going on. Officials in Bhubaneshwar, the state capital, say there is little they can do. Laments D.N. Padhi, head of the Relief and Rehabilitation department: It is a disaster of unmitigated proportions, and we are helpless.