NEW DELHI — After successfully helping to evacuate 1 million people from the onslaught of India’s worst cyclone in more than a decade, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and local Church agencies are still coping with supporting thousands of survivors who saved their lives but lost their livelihoods.
Cyclone Phailin ripped through the Bay of Bengal less than two weeks ago and rammed into India’s eastern coastline on Oct. 12, with winds exceeding 190 mph. However, unlike the 1999 cyclone that left 10,000 Indians dead, this time, the death toll is much, much lower, thanks to a massive evacuation effort.
But the scene to welcome survivors is bleak. Those in hilly regions have returned to their homes flattened by winds; many in the areas along the coast cannot return due to flooding, which is being made worse by rain.
“The rain is adding to the sufferings of the people,” Father Mathew Puthiyadom, director of the Society for Welfare, Animation and Development (SWAD) in the Ganjam District, told the Register by phone.
The priest explained that SWAD has been working with Catholic Relief Services to provide food and temporary shelter to more than 10,000 families displaced by Cyclone Phailin. He said the government’s rough estimate is 100,000 homes destroyed.
“Practically all the houses that are thatched with grasses are destroyed,” he said. But the death toll is astonishingly low: 51 deaths was the government’s latest count.
Still, the number of lives saved is an enormous success. John Shumlansky, the country representative for Catholic Relief Services, said disaster preparedness was key. The government recruited the churches, CRS and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) across Indian society to help the military evacuate 1 million people from the low-lying coastal areas in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh to nearly 250 emergency shelters.
Shumlansky said the huge effort to evacuate the people involved the collaboration of the local Church, local Church agencies and CRS to get the word out. CRS also had disaster-relief sites in place to absorb the cyclone’s refugees.
“They contacted the sisters, the priests, and everyone they knew got into the villages, knocking on doors to get everyone out of there,” he said.
Although the Church played a key role in saving countless lives, Catholic efforts now turn to meeting the short-term needs of the cyclone’s refugees, and later they will address the long-term challenge of helping them rebuild their lives.
CRS is helping take care of 18,300 families in the region. Shumlansky said each family has an average of five members, meaning CRS and its local Church partners are responsible for taking care of more than 91,000 persons.
He said the Ganjam district received the brunt of the storm’s devastation. But he said aid officials have to respond to two realities.
“Our response varies on the need,” he said. On the one hand, the villages at geographically higher elevations are largely dry, and many can still obtain water through their pumps.
“We’re providing temporary shelter and mats that people can lay on, as well as a small cash grant,” he said. “The idea is that they can have shelter as they rebuild their thatched roofs, bamboo houses and have something to get back on their feet.”
The coastal areas, however, are a different story and have an increased need.
“There is water everywhere,” Shumlansky said. When Phailin made landfall, it covered nearly the entire Bay of Bengal. Shumlansky said he was told Phailin was four times the width of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. He pointed out that rain from the cyclone overwhelmed dams and waterways upstream that have flowed back and flooded other areas even more.
“In these flooded areas, we’re also providing water-sanitation items,” he said, including soaps, clean clothes and water-filtration kits. CRS and its local partners also are engaged in promoting hygiene techniques to avoid illnesses.
CRS is working with Caritas India, SWAD and other local Church structures to help deliver aid. Shumlansky said CRS provides technical support, oversight and training to its local Church partners, but it’s the local volunteers that have been carrying out the work. Father Puthiyadom said the cooperative relationship between CRS and SWAD, both before and after the disaster, has been invaluable.
“We have taken care of two blocks [or subdivisions in the Ganjam district] with the help of CRS, where we are building the shelters,” he said, adding that the area will take years to recover economically.
“Fisher folk are affected the worst,” he said. Nearly 600 boats with their nets have been destroyed, he said.
Local farmers who harvested cashews, coconuts and plantains have also been devastated by Phailin’s destruction. Father Puthiyadom said the government estimates that 8 million trees in all have been destroyed. Both the farmers and fishermen, he said, will have to take out new loans in order to rebuild their livelihoods.
Shumlansky said CRS expects to wrap up its immediate aid distributions in the next couple of weeks. But now they will have to face the challenge of picking up the pieces.
“They’re going to need something right away, because they are not going to have an income or have a yield of food,” he said. “We’re doing our assessments right now, and we’re seeking donors to help support this.”
Shumlansky added that prayers especially for the affected people of India, and the Church’s volunteers helping them, would help enormously.
He said, “Please pray for these people. They had nothing, and now they have even less.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.
Donations to assist victims of India’s Cyclone Phailin can be
made through Catholic Relief Services here.