17032015Tue

Last updateTue, 17 Mar 2015 2pm

Millions in urgent need of aid after Cyclone Phailin

Millions of people in eastern India need relief and rehabilitation after the most powerful storm to hit the country's coast in 14 years destroyed their homes and livelihoods, aid agencies said on Monday.

Cyclone Phailin made landfall from the Bay of Bengal on Saturday night, bringing winds of more than 200 km per hour, 3 metre-high tidal waves and thrashing rains to Odisha and Andhra Pradesh states. At least 15 people have died.

While India has successfully minimised the death toll through mass evacuations ahead of the storm, authorities now face the challenge of ensuring survivors get adequate support in the aftermath, say aid workers.

"While reports of casualties are low, we shouldn't underestimate the scale of this disaster. There are millions of people who will need support to rebuild their homes and livelihoods," said John Shumlansky, India country representative for Catholic Relief Services.

Before the storm struck, Indian officials had estimated up to 12 million people living in the Phailin's path would be affected.

There has been no official figure since.

Close to one million people were moved to cyclone shelters as the storm hurtled towards the coast, with some forecasters comparing it to the super cyclone that struck Odisha in 1999, killing 10,000 people.

The human loss was much lower this time, but the storm appears to have left a similar trail of destruction.

Gale-force winds ripped apart hundreds of thousands of mud-and-thatch houses, and storm surges and heavy rains submerged large swathes of farmland. Power lines and telecommunications towers have been damaged, and thousands of trees have been uprooted.

Aid workers fanned out across the worst-hit district of Ganjam on Monday, assessing the damage and interviewing survivors about what relief they require.

Initial estimates suggest more than 230,000 mud-and-thatch homes were destroyed by the storm in just one district alone, said aid workers, adding that poor communications and roads blocked by fallen trees where making assessments difficult.

Some of the displaced will not be able to return home immediately and may have to remain in overcrowded shelters where poor sanitation and a lack of clean drinking water could bring disease.

Outbreaks of water-borne illnesses such as diarrhoea, dysentery and typhoid are common after disasters, when clean drinking water sources can be contaminated.

"There are a lot of displaced people, and they are very unlikely to return home over the next few days or week," said Unni s9knan, head of emergencies at Plan International. "There are key challenges ahead, including hygiene, water and sanitation for displaced families."

Basic emergency items such as water purification units, hygiene kits, stoves and blankets are needed, as well as tarpaulin sheets and tents to give the displaced temporary shelters.

The long-term needs of people who have lost their homes and livelihoods also need to be addressed quickly as affected populations - who are largely from poor fishing and farming communities - have nothing to fall back on, said aid workers.

Many have lost their homes, coconut trees and cashew nut crops, livestock and fishing boats and nets, say aid workers, adding that it will take them many years to recover.

"From the early reports we've received from our partners on the ground, it appears that damage to crops, nets, boats, kuccha (non-cement) houses and other small infrastructure appears extensive," said Ghasiram Panda, programme manager for ActionAid India.

"The main challenge facing the government and civil society now is to rebuild livelihoods for the people primarily dependent on agriculture, since the loss of crops has been tremendous."

- Reuters

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