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WHOOSH!
Calcutta May 25 2009: Hiss of Aila at 120kmph
The day a 250-km-wide beast tossed around our city and terrorised it

IS CALCUTTA SAFE?

Yes. Calcutta has been declared safe after Severe Cyclone Aila brushed past with less than 50km to spare at 6.30pm on Monday.

“The cyclone is beyond danger now, it is on the wane and moving in a northerly direction,” Gokul Chandra Debnath, the director of the regional meteorological centre at Alipore, said on Monday evening.

As night fell, the cyclone was moving towards north Bengal but at a much lower speed.

At one point, the cyclone came as close as 15km from the city. Although the cyclone did not “hit” Calcutta in the full sense of the term, the peripheral or outer spiralling winds of Aila began lashing the city since morning. These outer winds had speeds greater than 120kmph. The size of the cyclonic system was so large — swelling to a maximum diameter of 250-350km — that when the core crossed the coast, the city was already reeling under its winds.

Had Aila actually ripped through Calcutta in its full fury, the damage to life and property would have been far worse. The Great Calcutta Cyclone of 1864 — the last such recorded phenomenon — had killed 60,000 people.

WHAT THE WIND DID

The mad-dog winds led to the death of at least 35 people in Bengal, 15 in Calcutta and Howrah and 20 in other south Bengal districts.

Over 2 lakh people were affected in Calcutta, North and South 24-Parganas, Howrah, Hooghly and East Midnapore.

Calcutta found itself immobile — on the ground, below and in the skies. Roads were blocked by uprooted trees, public transport collapsed, the airport suspended flights for five hours from 1.30pm and several trains got delayed by power outages. The city’s dependable lifeline — the Metro Railway — also packed up for some time.

Attendance at both government and private offices was very low and several companies, including the 24x7 IT companies in Sector V, declared a holiday after lunch hour. Most schools were closed for summer vacations.

HOW IT FELT

A growl — retching deep from an unfathomable, insatiable belly.

The rumble kept knocking on homes through the day, the wrenching whistle certain to stay with Calcuttans long after the storm has passed.

Wherever modern masonry and engineering stood up to the wind, it found a weak spot to smash through. The wind shattered windowpanes, crushed windshields, hurled at least one television set off its pedestal and tore apart many other everyday symbols of life that Calcuttans had found no reason to batten down for the past 145 years.

The last recorded cyclone that had ravaged the city had struck on October 5, 1864. Similar wind speeds were recorded 28 years ago but the event did not merit worldwide classification as a cyclone, which requires a high rate of fatalities.

Today, the menace of the howling wind was amplified by flying billboards, clattering tin sheets and flapping plastic sheets.

The speed of the wind at some points during the day — 120kmph against 10-15kmph on a normal day — was such that technically, it had the power to blow cars off the road.

Hear it from Priyadarshini Gupta, a 15-year-old: “What really spooked me was when the car started shuddering on the Bypass. I have never felt so scared.”

WHAT WE SHOULD LEARN

75 civic personnel were at work in the evening with 26 axes, 30 machetes and one gas cutter. Their target: hack away over 1,800 fallen trees. The mop-up operation will be scaled up and the CMC has promised to work through the night.

However, lack of preparedness was evident through the day. The state government was officially alerted at 8pm on Sunday but the first meeting between civic officials and city police bosses took place only at 12.10pm on Monday.

An example of the absence of co-ordination: customary warnings were sent to officers-in-charge of all the 48 police stations by Sunday night. But no “requisition slips” were sent for arranging trucks to ferry personnel for rescue and for removing trees.

More police personnel at key intersections to divert traffic away from tree-clogged areas could also have helped. But little such effort was in evidence on Monday afternoon.

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