For some people in the St. Antony's Matriculation Higher Secondary School cyclone shelter in Vedaranyam, cyclone Gaja came as a rude shock. Though they knew of the impending storm, little did they know that it would hit their humble town after reports stated Pamban would be the possible target of the landfall.
St. Antonyâ€™s school is one of the biggest relief camps in the vicinity. A two-storeyed concrete building has been allotted as a temporary cyclone shelter by the government of Tamil Nadu to house the people living in the surrounding five villages â€“ Arcottuthurai, Ramakrishna Puram, Kollitheevu, Nagathoppu and Ambedkar colony.
Around 6,000 people live in these areas and the school saw around 2,000 people spend the night of November 15 here when the cyclone destroyed the town.
"We reached the school at around 6 pm on Thursday. The weather was fine at that time but then since I had to bring my four children here, I reached here early," says the 48-year-old Vedhayyan, carrying his two-year-old daughter in his arms. He is now on his way back to check his house in Ramakrishna Puram.
Vedhayyan is a daily wage labourer whose survival depends on the money he manages to earn every day. His face reflects the worry that he has for the near future since Vedaranyam has been shut down after the cyclone.
"It will take some time for people to get back to their normal lives. Where will I find a job now? Right now my children and I have a roof over our heads and food to eat, but for how long can we stay here?" he asks.
This is not just Vedhayyan's concern. Almost all the people living in the school echo his thoughts. Though a major share of the people who took refuge in the school for the night have left to check on their houses or have gone to their relativesâ€™ places, around 300 people still have nowhere else to go.
"The storm hit very late. Till 10 pm on Thursday, there was no wind in the town. That gave people some time to prepare themselves and come here. Also, constant warnings and instructions kept blaring in our village through the day and hence we all knew about the cyclone. In fact, many came here once the winds outside started becoming rough and noisy, like how wolves howl," he adds.
24 hours in the relief centre
For many in Antony's school, the relief centre caters to their needs just fine.
â€śWe get food, water and decent bathroom facilities here which is a rarity,â€ť says Vijaya, who reached the centre on Thursday evening. Also from Ramakrishna Puram, Vijaya and her husband are grateful for what they have in the centre.
"They gave us food from the nearby Amma unavagam. We survived, which is a big deal. But we have lost everything to the cyclone," says Vijaya.
For Vijaya, the 2004 Tsunami was the worst disaster she had seen so far. With water in the village reaching her waist, she had fled to a relief camp even back then. "I thought the tsunami would be the last one. But this cyclone was worse. We saw big branches of trees flying like dry leaves in the gale that blew last night," she adds. Vijaya also shares Vedhayyan's concern over a permanent home to live in.
'The 1955 cyclone was kinder to us'
For a few old-timers in the shelter, cyclone Gaja has been very unkind.
"During 1955 cyclone, I was six or seven years old. All I remember was our house getting washed away due to rains and the sea and the loud roaring winds. Many people died back then. A lot of my relatives also died," recalls the 70-year-old Selvaraju. He lived in a house built by the government after the tsunami washed away their fishing village, Kollitheevu, in 2004.
"Gaja has swept away whatever little I had. Now I am alive without anything to call mine. Isn't it better to die in a single stroke than to be alive with nothing?" he laments, losing his humble abode to nature's fury.
For Thanapaakiyam, who has spent over 40 years in Kollitheevu, Cyclone Gaja is something she would struggle to recover from.
"The 1955 cyclone and the tsunami destroyed our lives, but the government gave us something and we also had the strength in our body and mind to work and recover from the setback. Now I am old and have my health issues to take care of. How will I regain whatever I had lost in the cyclone?" she asks.
The government can do better
However, not everybody in the shelter shares the gratitude of Vedhayyan or Vijaya. For instance, the 25-year-old Dileeban says that the shelter did not have facilities for infants and young mothers.
"Most of us came here after the wind started so we did not have enough time to pick and choose what we needed to keep ourselves safe from the cold wind. There are no bedsheets here. We had to make do with old sarees and shirts to insulate ourselves," he says. He also adds that there is no milk powder or milk available for infants.
"Many people with infants really suffered through the night because though some food was available, it was not fit to be consumed by an infant less than a year old. The government could have at least provided milk powder," he adds.
Electricity across Vedaranyam was switched off by 6 pm on Thursday and by 11.30 pm all communication lines were suspended as well. With no means to contact anyone outside, Dileeban says that the least the government could do was to visit them after the disaster. "District level officers visited us at 7.30 pm on Thursday and till now nobody else has visited us. They should at least come and visit us, see the place and check if everything is okay," he states.
The road ahead
With their homes falling prey to Cyclone Gaja, all that the people in the shelter need is a strong roof over their heads. A dignified life and a daily job is a far-fetched dream for most of them right now.
"First priority is to rebuild whatever we have lost. We can do that only with the help from the authorities. I hope they hear our plea. We are helpless since the entire town is also in a situation like us. To go and ask someone in this situation is not correct, right?" asks Vedhayyan.
"After the tsunami, the government gave us small cement houses. Those have now been destroyed in the cyclone. We hope they do something for us this time as well," rues Vijaya.
While Vedaranyam is limping back to normalcy, the people in relief centres are eagerly waiting for the government to do something for their survival.