|Trees bear the unmistakable scars of Phailin as a cow slakes thirst from a rivulet on a road on Sunday at Gopalpur, the Odisha coastal town where the cyclone made landfall on Saturday. Picture by Sanjoy Ghosh
There was nothing we could do in the pitch dark but wait for the fury to pass.
We measured out countless anxious hours while a vengeful wind howled around us, punctuated by crashes that hinted that another familiar tree had come down.
We prayed that when the cyclone passed, we would not have to step out and face corpses and bad news all around as we did in 1999.
That is what a day’s tryst with Cyclone Phailin felt like: a pointless game of blind man’s buff.
The better part of Saturday morning, October 12, passed in frantic preparations for the impending storm as the wind slowly but surely picked up pace and the cyclone drew closer to the Odisha coast.
Thankfully, I had been able to reach my home in Cuttack to ride out the storm with my mother and father just in time before the flights to Bhubaneswar were cancelled.
The high winds and rain were a grim precursor to the time ahead.
The electricity was cut off at dawn that day, hence preserving power and water was a priority. The birds in our aviary shrieked at the top of their voices while our gang of stray dogs steadfastly refused to eat.
Text messages from friends and the radio ensured that we were not completely cut off. However, the anxiety about most people on the coast and my ailing grandparents remained.
Once the cyclone began making its presence felt around evening, we were forced to sit around in enforced idleness by lantern light. There was a small army of insects, birds and strays that had taken shelter in our compound.
Around nine at night, we heard that the cyclone had struck at full force in Gopalpur. Of course, the sheer pitch of the wind was enough to warn us of that.
At night, when Phailin struck, the weather was relentless.
Peering into the blackness outside, the dominant feeling was of resignation and sheer déjà vu — of another time when we were similarly confined to our homes for a helpless wait, way back in 1999.
Moreover, we could not bear the thought of wading through waterlogged lanes and feeling the touch of cold corpses against our feet again. It was a horror I was unwilling to live through.
This time, however, there was a vital difference.
Unlike then, this time we were aware — and relieved — that most of our friends and family in Paradip and Puri and elsewhere had been safely evacuated.
We reminded ourselves of this small mercy each time the wind struck, rattled the doors and windowpanes and — as we found out later — smashed our garden to bits.
Although we had nothing to do but wait for updates, we could not sleep a wink.
The wind howled like a demon let loose and we kept praying and hoping for the least damage out there. Our main fears were for the ailing.
The darkness and random unknown noises did not help much, adding to the uncertainty. Already the air was rich with the smell of fresh sap from broken trees.
Thanks to strict instructions given earlier, the phone connections were still on, though erratic. So the feeling of isolation was somewhat mitigated.
Finally, we were informed that the cyclone would weaken around dawn. In the morning, we woke to high winds and heavy rain but the intensity had reduced.
Venturing out of our homes, the most heartrending sight was the trees fallen around and carcasses of small birds that could not withstand the wind.
However, there was one tree that stood a mute witness to the devastation. Called karanja in Odia, it was a survivor of three cyclones.
While it still rained, we could at least step outdoors. The worst was apparently over and, almost immediately, we prepared ourselves for repairs, putting behind us the uncertainty of the night.
I have to admire the quick emergency response on the part of the forces. We heard that the streets were being cleared.
The ritual burning of Ravana’s effigy for Dussehra on our Mahanadi riverbank had been abandoned as well, the money set aside for rehabilitation.
People were forming themselves into small groups and clearing out debris in front of their houses. All around, repairs had begun with a grim determination. Having been through the supercyclone and other minor storms earlier, we knew what we had to do almost instinctively.
Till the electricity was restored, we spent another day in darkness but there were signs of normal life reasserting itself. The unpredictable wind had died down and the sounds of cooking and people moving on the streets could be heard. It is amazing how reassuring sounds of normal life can be.
Our indomitable neighbour was back to practising his guitar as on every evening. Even while the cyclone had raged, he had apparently carried on with his strumming.
The rain still rages but we are reassured that everyone out there is safe. That’s what ultimately matters.
(A journalist with The Telegraph in Calcutta, Alipta Jena was at her home in Cuttack for the Puja holidays when Cyclone Phailin struck)