Friday, October 24, 2014



11 October 2014

The wind had started fanning anxiety gently a day prior to the cyclone that was heading towards the East Coast. The intermittent burst of gust that subsided and rose again reminded me of labour pains. I recalled bracing for a similar situation last year—securing windows, putting away garden chairs, and stocking up candles in anticipation of the storm. Cyclone Phailin (that hit Odisha instead, exactly a year ago) turned out to be a damp squib­—no gales or gusts of wind, only suffocating stillness. Cyclones, originating in the Bay of Bengal, are an annual feature on the East Coast, but none had touched Visakhapatnam since 1890. They invariably altered course and made landfall either north of Andhra Pradesh and/or into Odisha or south towards Tamil Nadu. A sense of déjà vu prevailed this time too.

12 October
Sunday morning

There were announcements and advisories prohibiting people to step out of their homes from 7 a.m. onwards. At 9 a.m. Hudhud began fluttering. Winds picked up and were soon accompanied by rains. Being on the first floor, I was under the impression that we would be safe from water ingress. How wrong I was! Rain water started seeping in from underneath the doors and windows and soon a part of our living room and kitchen began flooding. In the initial enthusiasm I got after the water with vengeance, proud of my achievement of beating it at the game. Three hours of lashing winds and rains had us holed up in my son’s room which was on the leeward side of the wind. The flood inside our home had won. The bolted windows seemed vulnerable and we started tying them up for additional backup. India Meteorology Department had predicted that landfall would be anytime 9 – 12. Not aware of such things we expected that the cyclone would hit hardest when ‘landfall’ takes place.

Sunday noon

But by 12 o'clock it was all over. People heaved a sigh of relief, got out of their houses, exchanged notes, surveyed the damage (few trees had toppled), and set about clearing the water inside their homes. I remember thinking, ‘it wasn't that bad after all’.

And then—at 2 p.m.­—the fury unleashed. Suddenly, a stray gust of wind came rushing in and before we could comprehend what was happening it attained ferocity and we were in the eye of the storm. The tandav that began then went on unabated for the next ten hours. Windows rattled, glass panes smashed, awnings went flying through air like missiles, roof tiles were flung about and onto cars parked outside; the wind itself, howled and whistled, moaned and groaned. I have never experienced a cyclone before but a sixth sense told me that the wind speed must be 200 kph. I learnt later that the gusts measured 220! This time the winds came from the opposite direction and we sat huddled in our bedroom, waiting for it to end, hoping and praying that the roof over our heads stayed put. It dawned on us then that landfall was the lull before the storm!

Those ten hours can be best described by Rachel Carson’s portrayal of formation of oceans in her seminal book, The Sea around us: “As soon as the earth’s crust began to cool the rains began to fall. Never have there been such rains since that time. They fell continuously, day and night… They poured into the waiting ocean basins, or falling upon the continental masses, drained away to become sea.” Only this did not feel like a beginning, but the end of the World!    


Stressed out by the suspense and with nothing to do but wait it out in the darkness that had enveloped us we drifted into a drowse. By the time we woke up the next morning the wind had died down. The scene outside was overwhelming. Everything around us lay in shambles. Electric poles and mobile towers had keeled over, so had lamp-posts. All around us we could see buildings—naked and exposed—which until now had been cloaked in green cover. Trees were razed to ground, some bent and broken—the winds had shorn them of their foliage. Even the low-lying shrubs and hills looked bald. It was exactly what a newspaper described it: a war zone. But what struck me most was the silence. ‘Sannata’ as the Hindi word describes it aptly.

There was no electricity, no water, no fuel, and essential items such as milk and bread and Maggi (some success story this) dried up instantly. We would have to rely on our larder with its provisions and dry foodstuff for the next few days. Mercifully, we still had the cooking gas.

Roof tiles and awnings blown off
Only sticks and twigs

The first lesson I learnt in this natural disaster was the importance of water and its indispensability. We could live without electricity, sweltering in the heat, but it was unimaginable to go on without water. On the first day, post-cyclone, my son scooped mugs full of rainwater—collected on the terrace—into the overhead tank. We did not have the luxury of waiting for clean water. With no fresh water flowing through taps we were back to basics—to buckets and cans.

Somewhere, a source of water was discovered (we were told that gravity aided its flow at that water point) which was tapped by all. Navy’s is a hierarchical structure, but for once you found everyone standing in line for water with no privilege for rank or position. The second lesson:  Crisis such as this can be a great leveller.

If you can't have water, drink coke; if you can't have coke, drink champagne. That was the situation in many of our homes. The bar was choc-a-bloc and there was no dearth of good company after sun down! 


I have seen natural disasters played out on television news and what struck me odd was how people went about salvaging their possessions. I would wonder how could anyone think of something so trivial as picking up meagre items from debris after such life-threatening calamity; do possessions matter more than one’s life? But now I realize that it is when you can hold onto the most inconsequential or smallest thing in life, find comfort in it, you feel ‘alive’.  

We were lucky: we had few broken windows, a damaged washing machine, dish antenna beyond repair, and some soaked-to-bones wooden furniture, books, clothes and mattresses. We did not have the hurricane pass through our living room stranding us in the bedroom and severing access to the kitchen like our neighbours! We were spared the ordeal of holding onto entrance doors for dear life. People had their cars smashed, air conditioners sucked out, garage gates gouged out, front doors coming off their hinges, grilled windows detaching from their frames, glass panes shattering sending shards into the house, rooftop water cisterns and solar panels blown off. Even more unfortunate were the denizens of Yarada village from where come our domestic helpers and security guards. Their entire rations of rice and modest belongings rotted in water as they did not have a roof left over their heads.

True to the military motto of ‘Service before Self’, the Indian Navy jumped headlong into relief and rescue work in town, in setting up community kitchens for Vizagites, and getting electricity and airport services operational. In the absence of menfolk, in Dolphin Hill­­—a naval enclave of more than 1000 families, women soldiered on regardless. Mothers with children in tow were seen ferrying water bucket by bucket on Scooty from a central water point. This while being the 'handymen', tackling ‘cleanship’ of home and neighbourhood, and providing food for the family—some with babies, small children, and aging parents.

Not the ones to be cornered or pinned down, the ladies also found an innovative pastime to while away the gloomy evenings: spontaneous tea parties by candlelight extending right up to dinner time. 

A fantastic symbiotic relationship surfaced between the DH community and the Yarada denizens that saw each other get on to their feet quicker than would have been possible otherwise.


On Dolphin Hill, we were cut off from the outside world. Of course, we had our parent service—the Indian Navy to look after us. But for all practical purposes we were quarantined. The entire 10-km stretch from our residences to the main gate at the base of the hill was unrecognisable. Hillsides had eroded and trees had blocked the roads at every bend. With roads carved out of hills to make way for this residential colony there was already threat of landslides; this will only get worse come summer of 2015.

For a day, the fallen trees remained green but soon the landscape has started resembling a ravaged savannah. With the tree cover gone, the sun bears down harsh and the glare is unbearable. The dry bush poses a fresh hazard: that of forest fire. Fireworks have been banned this Diwali; not a bad thing at all, I would say.

We now stare into smoggy winters and sultry summers. What horrors of climate calamities wait ahead, no one knows. Some suspect that cyclonic disturbances will only rise with the rise in temperature and absence of carbon sinks. The industrial pollutants now have no buffer and we are all the more at the mercy of greenhouse gases and coal dust.

It is ironical that in all these years Vizag was shielded from cyclones by this very Dolphin (Nose) Hill!

What saved us from Hudhud’s wrath as we were holed up in our bedroom was the ficus right outside the window. It had spread indiscriminately like a giant darkening my room but providing privacy. That day it bore the onslaught throughout— twisting, turning, contorting, and protesting; not a leaf was left on its dense crown. It stood its ground and kept our windows on.

A similar feat was enacted by the coconut trees outside the living room windows. The twin palms had blocked my bayview, earlier. If it were not for them, I would have a brilliant view of the bay from the low-lying windows from the luxury of my couch.  This day they took the lashing, swayed this way and that, but did not yield.

The ficus and the coconut—both of Indian nativity and antiquity—had saved the day for us. Ironically, I now get an uninterrupted view of the Bay (it looks forlorn) from my living room window and the patio, but I miss the trees. On DH, trees survived due to their flexibility as they are of relatively recent vintage, but the veterans of Naval Park (some more than 50 years old) at the base of the hill were uprooted viciously.   

BEFORE: Ficus outside my bedroom window
AFTER: Not a single leaf left

The biggest casualty of this cyclone was the trees. Vizag has lost 80% of its green cover according to an estimate. I feel a tremendous sense of bereavement at this loss. I hope people realise that Vizag’s trees were sacrificed in the process of protecting the buildings and the people. But now the city lies defenceless. It will be years before the green lungs emerge robust enough to protect us from the industrial pollution that is Vizag’s bane. The hill took pride in being a 'silence zone', but now noise pollution is making itself heard. Without trees as shock absorbers, I am suddenly more aware of clattering vehicles and braking buses.  

Artificial plantation, at best, has been a controversial issue. Usually, exotics such as copperpod or eucalyptus are preferred for swift greening results but their roots are not strong and they are water guzzlers. It is the native banyans, neem, mangoes and coconut that are good for the soil and the habitat. Naturalist M. Krishnan believed that afforestation was not necessarily a good idea; a denuded forest or hillside is best left to its own devices for it to regenerate to its original vegetation. It is not trees alone, but even shrubs and scrub that hold soil together and prevent erosion.

Given the circumstances I am not sure what the best solution is. But it is heartening to see that most of the standing trees have started sprouting leaves. The same spirit of resilience is evident among men and women who have risen up to the task of rebuilding their lives.

In the aftermath, bird calls fell conspicuously silent, but their presence is being felt like never before. A plum-headed parakeet strayed from its flock and was walking dazed under the staircase. A young bunting—or was it a juvenile munia—wandered into our verandah flapping exhausted, seemingly, after a long flight. A mynah was curiously examining her regular shrub trying to assess the damage. “What were the birds trying to salvage?” I wondered.

The ficus outside my window had been home to two pairs of spotted owlets. Now there are only three and they have shifted camp to a thicket by the compound wall. In the harsh daylight, in the absence of natural shade, the pixies take refuge in a hollow pipe embedded in the wall. Territorial and spunky, they have been shooing away crow pheasants and treepies—birds twice their size—from their territory with a belligerence that belies their size.

BEFORE: Spotted owlet on ficus
AFTER: Shifted base to a nearby thicket

Bluejays, shrikes, shikras, treepies and even the usually skulking coucals can be seen perched atop tree skeletons. I saw a paradise flycatcher wander about openly which is a rare sight indeed. Like insects and rodents, they have been flushed out of their habitats. It is ironical, but I have photographed more birds in the last ten days than what I have seen in the past one and a half year of my birdwatching here!

With no place to hide they are exposed, but they also seem to be more trusting of humans now. After trees, they were the hardest hit in the Hudhud havoc. Newspaper reports tell us that nearly 30,000 birds perished in that gale. Even more ironic is the fact that Hudhud, the ogre that preyed on the birds, was named after a gentle, hoopoe-like bird !

When it returns it is the incessant chattering of the mynahs that breaks the spell of doom first, reassuring us. The chirp, chip, and caw of the birds ring out like a balm.



The other comforting sound after the stunning silence was that of hack-saw cutting fallen trees and the voices of men at work.  All of us chipped in with shramdan in clearing the avenues and public spaces. It was a humbling and numbing experience. Gandhiji’s words came to mind: “Intellectual work is important and has an undoubted place in the scheme of life. But what I insist on is the necessity of physical labour. No man, I claim, ought to be free from that obligation. It will serve to improve even the quality of his intellectual output.” Physical labour of this kind has been missing from our lives in excessive pursuit of an intellectual path.

Normal life as we knew it seems distant. No walk, no run, no gym, and no swim—there is simply no time; even the trail and pool are not open for these activities anymore. More time is spent in doing household chores. I am relearning the art of cooking fresh meals in view of shortage of provisions and absence of refrigeration.

Clean potable water has become a luxury. We have to filter and boil water for drinking and cooking; for other household jobs we manage with a mucky, smelly cocktail. Water now is conserved like never before. Milk is still rationed and so is electricity. No television, no washing machine, no air conditioners, and no computer or cell phone connectivity. I, for one (can't say the same of my family), do not miss electricity as much as I miss the sense of security of life. We have a roof over our heads, we survived, but something changed forever that day.

Day after day, we wake up despondent to a treeless existence at the mercy of the elements. We have to deal with new menace in the form of rats and stray monkeys. DH has had civet cats, porcupines, monitor lizards, and mongoose, but no monkeys. Wildlife from other wilderness areas of the city and outskirts has taken a hit and animals that survived would naturally be looking for ‘greener’ pastures. Snake-bites are on the rise, we hear. Snakes too are bound to wander about listlessly. In the event snakebite is a real danger, but I fear for their safety more. Butterflies have all but vanished. DH's biodiversity has taken a beating. 

And yet, in a strange sense, I feel privileged to have been in the eye of the storm. I felt that Nature had honoured me by showing its ‘other’ side. Till now, I had been basking in its beauty and glory, now it let me into its fury.


Newspaper reports proclaim Hudhud to be the first urban cyclone disaster. Given that tropical cyclones originate in the Bay of Bengal regularly and that East Coast falls in the line of its ire every year, Vizag has surprisingly escaped unscathed for nearly 125 years! The city’s unique topography and the feature of Dolphin Nose Hill are touted to be reasons for this.

The fall of the pressure at the centre of this ‘very severe cyclone’ (Category 4 Hurricane) was 950 millibar. Seamen tell us that, at sea, when the barometer starts showing a dip below 1000 their hearts start racing. They know thatto use a Conradian phrase—"uncommonly dirty weather" is round the corner.  

During the cyclonic winds, I recall a moment when suddenly out of the blue, the rough weather—lashing winds and rain—cleared and a shaft of pure sunlight streamed through. It seemed unnatural and out of place, almost surreal... some sort of divine intervention. But in technical terms it was nothing as fancy. This was literally the eye. Wikipedia tells me, in strong tropical cyclones, the eye is characterized by light winds and clear skies, surrounded on all sides by a towering, symmetric eyewall. The eye of Hudhud was narrow, approximately 20 kms, which is another indication of the severity of the storm.  I wouldn't have dared to peek outside to check the cylindrical eyewall!


A spotted owlet seeks shade from the sun