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Boats in backyard, harbour in town

Nagapattinam (Tamil Nadu), Dec. 29: The harbour has moved into the town.

As survivors picked through piles of rubble and debris, a legacy of Sunday's giant waves, one word kept coming back amid the ruins ' 'titanic'.

Lifted by the deadly swell, dozens of fishing vessels had rammed into each other. When the water receded, they remained stuck in backyards of houses, on roads and on a vital bridge close to the shoreline. 'In one line, the good old fishing harbour has moved into town pushing the coastline inward,' said Palani, one of the survivors.

'Mangled fishing boats are seen every 10 feet,' said state information technology secretary and zonal relief commissioner Vivek Harinarayan, as he supervised rescue operations with Thanjavur collector J. Radhakrishnan and army officials.

A huge 15-foot-long motorised fishing boat almost knocked down C. Palanivelu's kitchen. The modest official residence of the assistant divisional engineer of the highways department is deserted, except the front room, which is used for keeping relief material.

Amid twisted wires, uprooted trees, silted debris and the stench of rotting corpses, the seafront looks like a dwelling of ghosts. Far above the debris, kites and vultures circle lazily in the hot tropical sky.

'Nearly 750 big, motorised fishing boats have been destroyed, besides 1,000 traditional craft,' said G.R. Apparaj, president of the state-level Parvatharaja Kulam Meenavar (fishermen) Sangham. Fishing activities have come to a standstill, and the loss in monetary terms is about Rs 8 crore a week, he added.

'A tragedy of this nature, India has not seen,' said a pensive Harinarayan, as he surveyed the wreckage of overturned fishing boats that blocked an entire stretch of a vital road bridge connecting the port-town with the adjacent fishing village, Akkarapet. In the first two days after the tragedy, the village, which has so far accounted for 300 to 400 deaths, could not be accessed.

At some places, up to three boats had collided under the tsunami's impact, forming 'artificial triangles'. People had to crawl under the hanging debris. 'We have been able to clear this land bridge,' said an army officer.

The army used electric arc-cutters to disentangle the boats. Soldiers also extricated some of the huge earth-moving equipment that had stuck in the slushy terrain.

Another bridge on the East Coast Road, north of the harbour, connecting Nagapattinam with Karaikal is also severely damaged. 'We are building a temporary bridge there now which will be completed tonight,' the army officer said. 'But we are not involved in the physical retrieval of bodies which are done by local volunteers,' he added.

The toll in Tamil Nadu crossed 6,000 this evening. Harinarayan said 4,300 bodies had been retrieved so far in Nagapattinam district alone.

A large number of the missing were yet to be accounted for, while 76,000 people had been accommodated in relief camps, including those in neighbouring Tiruvarur and Thanjavur districts.

The courtyard of the 200-year-old Neelasakshmi Amman temple also houses a camp for the survivors. A large open kitchen has been set up on the temple premises.

With the state government relief machinery still sluggish, there is a scramble for food and other relief material that private individuals and organisations have volunteered to reach Nagapattinam and the adjoining 33 fishing villages.

Teams of doctors, including some from private hospitals like the Apollo in Chennai, are doing the rounds at relief centres and ensuring that inmates are given tetanus shots.

'The survivors suffer from mostly multiple injuries which are not very serious,' said Dr M. Shanmugham of the Government Hospital in Karaikudi and now on deputation here. 'Though 10 per cent of the cases I have seen so far suffer from infectious disease like diarrhoea and dysentery, we are trying our best to ensure there is no major epidemic outbreak,' he said.

Dr Pai, who is heading a team from the Jawaharlal Institute of Medical Education and Research in Pondicherry, said they had brought with them analgesics, antibiotics, and oral rehydration solutions.

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