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Account of a Visit to the Tsunami Disaster Area ©

Bhavana R
Chennai, India
4th January 2005

I just got back from Cuddalore, another area in Tamil Nadu which has been badly affected by the tsunami disaster. This is an account of what the people need there.

Cuddalore - a week later According to the initial plans we were supposed to leave on the 3rd morning for Nagapattinam. So I left with the girls to the city to celebrate the New Year. But on the evening of December the 31st, we were told that the trip had been postponed to the 1st of January (this time to Cuddalore). Amongst the girls [info]Shinimenon and I had decided to go. New Years Eve was good though simple. Went out for a movie and then dinner.

It was morning soon and we had to rush back to college, pack and get going. Luckily we got a lift with our professor from the city. This gave us just 10 minutes to pack our stuff for one week and soon we were on our way to Cuddalore. We drove via the East Coast Road.

We passed Mammalapuram on our way. The exteriors definitely suggested why it was said to resemble a ghost town now. We reached Pondy at 2:00pm and drove past the 'Marine Drive '(yes it's called that), which looked pretty normal. Then we ate packed lunch in the garden of a simple resort at Pondy. We finally reached Cuddalore at 3:00pm after another two hours driving.

We first reached Cuddalore city (or town). Here we stopped at the Cuddalore Town Hall. The main hall on the ground floor was overflowing with old clothes. We then met the main official in charge of relief operations. He briefed us about the relief efforts. Cuddalore district was not in need of physical help - this is something we heard again and again from various people throughout our trip. We had gone there thinking we'd be able to provide some physical assistance in carrying out relief work as well as find out what relief supplies they needed. A second team from our college was to leave after us with the supplies we'd tell them to bring.

Amongst the supplies that were needed, the official gave us this list:
  • Metal boxes for keeping things in (villagers who lost their homes had no storage space for supplies etc.)
  • Plastic bags again for the same reason
  • Sugar
  • Lanterns
  • Fishing nets
  • Stoves
  • No old clothes, grains or blankets for Cuddalore - thank you.
He said everything was needed in great numbers (thousands) and so we could focus on one or two things alone. We thought we would give out the supplies ourselves but he warned us against that too. He said only a group of 500 or more volunteers could handle this type of operation by themselves (we were less than 20). In spite of assuring the villagers of the quantities, they would pounce on us, he added.

Not being able to do anything much so far, we decided to tour the villages and camps on our own and find out what they needed. Our first stop was at a small village. There we met the village president (or something like that) who traded in wood. We went deeper into his area where the backwaters were. The huge trunks of wood that had been cut up were now almost touching the waters. The tide had swept them there. A hut 50 metres inside was damaged. Since it was the backwaters, the damage here was less (comparatively).

There was another village on the other side of the water, with a manmade concrete strip jutting halfway down to our side. We were told that the village on that side faced the sea's fury on its other shore. The villagers ran towards this side which was along the backwaters. Many of them came running and stood on that strip to be saved, only to be washed away by the backwaters. Many children lost their lives then. This man said that 20% of the Cuddalore population had been affected by the loss of life but every person had been affected in one way or another.

We then visited a fishing community in Devanapatnam. That was a sight to see. You won't believe how far the sand had reached. There was a road starting 300m or more away from the shore which didn't look like a road anymore. The walls on the sides were broken. Some of the guys who went on ahead to the shore, saw a building uprooted right off its base and standing at a weird angle. There were boats 200m away from the shore, turned upside down. Although there were a few people around in the fishing village, it had a deserted, abandoned look. There were few villagers around.

In many places villagers are scared to go back to their houses near the sea. So they came there during the day to search for their things and went to their camps to sleep in the night. There were some army and police people around. Somebody was saying something to villagers under a shamiana - probably the address of some camp giving relief supplies. A train of say, 7 VIP cars, came rushing in as we started to leave.

We decided to see some more places, make our list and head back the next day. We got a reasonably sensible hotel to stay in, considering we came thinking we'd be in tents or worse. Cuddalore is just like any other town - crowded, traffic, everything. According to the Internet, the Cuddalore district has a population of 22 lacs. Next morning we drove towards Chidambaram.

On the way we stopped at a relief camp. Cuddalore has set up 22 relief camps, most of them in Kalyanmandaps (marriage hall). The camp we went to had 3000 people (not all in one building of course) - 800 women, 700 men and 1500 children. We asked them about the relief work. They said they hadn't eaten breakfast till then. There was no milk for the babies. Day after day and meal after meal they had to eat the same rice and sambhar - they were fed up. The plight of this camp was that the only link to their village - a bridge - had been washed away. They were desperate to get back to their village and see the state of their homes, but they just couldn't. They had lost 26 lives in their village. One woman, almost close to tears, said 'I don't care about anything else - just get us a bridge'. I had a tough time understanding Tamil (Shini was a great help there) but their actions and faces told numerous stories.

We drove on. Chidambaram was quite a way off. Here the relief efforts were being well coordinated. The villagers had taken it upon themselves. They had converted a temple into a storehouse of relief supplies. The men would sleep there at night, while the women slept in their homes. I believe they wanted at least some part of the community to be safe. Here we saw sacks of rice being emptied into tractors to be distributed amongst the villageers. The villagers emphasized that all they needed now was a means of livelihood - i.e. their fishing nets. We went with them to the shore to see the kind of nets that they needed.

This shore was deserted too, except for some people burning some rubble near the sea and some others digging a pit. (It wasn't for burial - they seemed to be searching for something). There were these fragments on the beach everywhere - a sari, a chappal, a little girl's dress, a black plastic hairclip and a netted nylon bag to carry fish. I've never seen beaches so deserted you know. We also saw small golden fish lying dead, some with their heads broken, around 250m away from the shore. Again, the remains of huts are strewn everywhere.

Most of the roofs and bamboos had been recovered but there were little piles of rubble everywhere. There were small bundles tied in whatever remained of the blue fishing nets. Maybe that was some useful stuff gathered later from the beach. For the size of this beach the number of boats huddled together on the sand was very small. The villagers showed us the kind of nets they wanted. They didn't want the more expensive blue ones, but a lighter variety in white. "These are for Rs. 450 a kilo and we'd be grateful if you got us even 10 kilos", they told us. They needed hundreds of kilos in all.

Everywhere we went there were so many children looking at us from their huts, most were smiling, others were curious. Some people looked much sadder than others - they were probably the ones who had lost their loved ones. After Chidambaram we headed back. This time we stopped at Pondicherry. We went to the ashram to the samadhi too. The Gandhi statue on the beach was intact. Finally, towards evening, we left to back to college.

Our final list:

In addition to the previous items we added milk, bedsheets, fishing nets and utensils to our list. Some of these are probably being arranged for now by the SSN funds.

Quite frankly I wish we had gone to Nagapattinam as previously planned - they need lots of help there. Cuddalore, being closer to both Bangalore and Chennai, has gotten more volunteers. I guess we'll have to be content with supplying the relief material only.

Note:

The relief efforts are obviously quite uneven across all areas. The list of things I've put down for Cuddalore, may not be the same for other areas. Nagapattinam is definitely in need of volunteers as well as the basic relief supplies.


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