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Cyclone damage blocks aid effort

On India's east coast, an estimated 15 million are affected by one ofthe worst storms this century.

Neither Pradhan nor his family of nine in the tiny port village of Gogapur has eaten for three days. Pradhan owned four cows. He doesn't know where they are. His house is flattened, and his family is staying in a wet dirt hut that is not insulated from an early cold. Today, police chased away a gang that tried to break into a local flour mill. Mostly, Pradhan thinks about food - and has no idea when it will arrive.

Four days after a monster hurricane laid waste to the coast of Orissa on India's Bay of Bengal, officials are still assessing the damage to lives and homes and have not yet formally declared a national disaster. The 150-mile-per-hour cyclone is the worst storm to hit Orissa since 1971, when 10,000 people were killed.

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So devastated is the region, one of India's poorest, that federal and relief officials in New Delhi could not say yesterday exactly how much aid had been sent, and whether it will be enough. The Red Cross estimates 20 million people are affected by the storm, which made landfall Oct. 29 while much of India began early celebrations and gift giving for the popular festival of Diwali. Orissa officials, however, pleaded for international aid.

"It's still chaos, let's be honest," says N.K. Singh of the Indian Red Cross. "We can't decide whether to launch an international appeal until we get more information."

Yet critics say a calamity so extensive that no assessment can be made is itself a yardstick for declaring a national emergency. "It is surprising that the prime minister has not declared this a national emergency," argues Orissa member of parliament K.P. Singh Deo. "That act would facilitate relief."

Estimates of homeless top 1 million. Phones and electricity are mostly out. The number of dead won't be known until it is clear whether a reported 20-to 30-foot tidal wave hit the coastline. Roads to the worst hit beach areas, where 80 percent of the trees were uprooted, are blocked. The Army and Navy arrived yesterday, but many truck drivers for food aid from neighboring states refuse to make the dangerous trip. Most of the aid that has made it through has come from neighboring Andhra Pradesh.

Lack of disaster policy

While India is one of the most disaster-laden nations in the world, with a constant surplus of floods, landslides, earthquakes, and storms - it still lacks a national disaster-management policy. Without such a policy, aid does not automatically flow out to places of distress but waits for teams of clipboard-holding officials and publicity-seeking politicians to declare a crisis. In the massive train wreck in West Bengal this August, equipment to cut into crushed carriages waited for an official assessment of the accident before being delivered.

In the politics of calamity, tensions often rise between the state and New Delhi - especially when the federal and state ruling parties are different.

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This is the case in the Orissa tragedy. The state is run by the Congress Party, and the center by the Bharatiya Janata. Over the past 48 hours, for example, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has announced the release of some $69 million in relief funds. Orissa Chief Minister Giridhar Gamang has said the funds have not reached the state.

India also mostly eschews the kind of open-door assistance policy seen recently after an earthquake tore apart cities in Turkey. Most aid, assistance, rebuilding, and recompense is done on an ad hoc basis and often is delayed.

"It is only too well known," states an editorial in the leading Hindu daily paper, that those entrusted with helping refugees, "especially if they work for government departments - do not respond with a sense of urgency ... to those who badly need their help."

Although warned of an approaching cyclone, the second in 10 days, the Orissa population was not prepared for the scale and magnitude of the winds, which matched those of hurricane Floyd off the US Eastern seaboard in September. Unlike the hurricane-brewing south Atlantic, which averages 25 storms a year, western north Pacific waters average two big storms. "This is a total apocalypse; the city looks war ravaged," says Soumwajit Pattnaik, bureau chief of Asian Age in Bhubaneshwar.

The initial post-storm problem is fear about food and starvation. This in turn has brought law-and-order problems, say local reporters. Groups of armed men are setting up roadblocks along the main roads and entering houses and shops in search of food. Some are stealing to eat, some to resell. Police are stationed in a three-mile perimeter around the capital. But there are not enough to send into the villages.

Desperate looters

"These gangs are stopping every car and truck, looking for scraps, any food," says Mr. Pattnaik, who traveled 55 miles north of Bhubaneshwar. "They took our last bottle of drinking water. If relief doesn't get here soon, you may have a worse problem of looting."

With 31 million people, Orissa has a high density of tribal populations. It contains rich mineral deposits and steel plants, and grows one-tenth of the nation's rice. Dense forests and animal reserves maintain the dwindling numbers of Bengali tigers and host the only white tigers in the world. The coastline is famous as the nesting destination of a rare breed of sea turtle.

*Willi Germund contributed to this story from Gogapur, Orissa.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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