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Mike

My experience with Hurricane (Cyclone) Thane, Pondicherry, India

Rating: 2 votes, 4.50 average.
by Mike Myers

December 29 & 30, 2011

Until it was far too late, I knew practically nothing about this hurricane which was to go directly over my head. The day before, Thursday, I read something in The Hindu, the local newspaper, that a cyclone was coming to Chennai, India, and it covered this news in a fairly small article. There were no warnings, and nothing I read seemed to be anything to be alarmed at. As I read the article, I remember thinking that there would be a lot of rain, which would probably affect the activities planned at Aravind Eye Hospital for the upcoming New Year’s weekend.

I spent Thursday at the hospital working on helping create a video. There was nothing at any point up until then indicating that anything unusual was going on. There wasn’t a single word spoken to me about the weather, nor did anyone seem concerned about it. I finished work that morning, had lunch, and a little after 3pm took the local bus to “downtown Pondy”. I then took a small 3-wheel "Auto" to the beach area. From there I would walk around, ending up at Don Giovani’s, one of my favorite restaurants.

When I got to the beach, something was very unusual. The beach was packed with spectators, watching some huge waves. The water looked absolutely nasty. I got the best photos I could, then walked towards the Gandhi statue to take a few more. The police by then started walking down the beach, asking people to move back.

I got to the statue, and noticed there were people on the rooftop of “Le Café”, a small café located on the beach. I figured if they were there, I could go there as well (at least until someone told me otherwise), so I found the stairs, and finally had a good vantage point, getting photos that showed how nasty the weather was getting.

It started to rain about then, so I packed my phone in a plastic bag, and headed for Don Giovani’s – only to find it closed. I found out later that since it was a rooftop restaurant, the police had asked the owner to close for then night. So, I took another Auto, and had a steak dinner at Satsanga, one of my other favorite restaurants. I then took an Auto back to the hospital, and after a bit of posting on the internet, headed off to bed. There was nothing on the internet that gave me the impression that anything bad was about to happen.

STORM HITS
Around 3am, I woke up to the sound of crashing and banging outside. In my half-awake state, I tried to ignore it, but it just got worse. About then, I got a phone call telling me not to go outside – which I had no intention of doing anyway. This got me a bit more awake, and I realized what was going on outside. I figured that if the storm came into my room, my things were likely to get ruined, so I packed everything in my suitcase, and stuffed anything left over into my closet. At least the camera and computer gear were somewhat sealed up for now.

Since we walk around the Guest House without shoes, and since I figured that the windows were likely to be broken, I went downstairs to find my shoes. I figured breaking that Guest House rule was less important than the chance of getting my feet cut up should the wind get even worse, which it did, and if broken glass got blown all over the rooms. My room survived – other rooms had windows that got blown out, but out from the room, not into it. Being more or less awake, I spent the next couple of hours on the internet (which was still working), trying to find out what was going on, only to learn that the hurricane was aimed exactly where I happened to be. It was going to go directly overhead, if the map was correct. The Guest House was turning into a real mess. The structure of the building was sound, but many things were getting torn up, and the “open” area in the middle of the Guest House allowed the storm to come right up to our rooms.

At that point, the internet connection finally died. The TV had died long ago. My phones stopped working as well, due at least in one case to the phone tower being knocked over from the storm. It was now turning into daylight outside, and what was visible outside the windows was scary. There was destruction everywhere. Along with others at the Guest House, we sat it out until a little before 8am, when it seemed safe to walk over to the main hospital building. It was still raining, but the wind had backed off to just “bad”, not “scary bad”. We didn’t know for sure if the storm was past, or if this was just the eye of the hurricane going overhead.

The hospital building was shocking, and what happened to all the trees surrounding it was really sad. I think 80% of the trees in Pondicherry were ripped out by the storm, and near the hospital there were hardly any trees left standing – and those that were, were leaning at scary angles, as if they were just waiting to fall over the rest of the way. Inside the hospital it was a sea of broken glass, with everything scattered all over. I started taking photos, and continued on for the next several hours. Some areas looked like a small bomb had gone off. The building structure was fine, but anything and everything attached to it was damaged. The patients were all fine, and the hospital staff was trying to make things as comfortable and safe as possible.


FRIDAY AFTERNOON

By Friday afternoon, I was learning about more damage to photograph, including a tree that had fallen directly onto a doctor’s car, smashing the front. They think it can be repaired – in the USA, it would probably be “totaled” by the insurance company.

AC power was out all over Pondicherry and the surrounding towns. The hospital would have to make do with a generator until power was restored. I rode along as Dr. Venkatesh drove part way into Pondy to buy some food supplies – many things, including bread, were simply not available. The devastation was beyond words, and reminded me of scenes after hurricanes I had experienced in Miami. It seemed to me that the “basic structure” of many buildings survived well, but buildings that had added-on glass exteriors suffered greatly. The “thatch” huts that many people live in were flattened in many cases – leaving the people with no place to go, other than the shelters that were being set up for them.

We returned to the Guest House, and my friend Sudha wanted to take a short drive to his apartment near Cuddalore (south of Pondy) to get his computer, camera, and other things. We headed off in a small van. Yikes! It was pitch black – no lights anywhere. I know my night vision is poor, but I couldn’t see anything at all in front of us, other than the glare of oncoming headlights. I half expected us to crash, and wished I had stayed back at the Guest House, but obviously the driver saw more than I could, as we got there and back in one piece. Still, I was very happy to be back at the hospital. This was followed shortly afterwards by dinner, cooked by candlelight. We ate in a room with a single large “flashlight” providing illumination. The meal was warm, no, hot!, filling, and delicious! I probably ate far too much… I then headed back to the Guest House and sleep.

SATURDAY MORNING

Saturday morning Dr. Venkatesh wanted to take a drive to the City Center, where Aravind has a small extension facility. The more we drove, the more shocking everything looked. It seemed like all the trees were gone, with city crews trying to un-block the roads. The City Center facility was fine, other than for a lot of dirt and debris. We then went to what was left of the beach area. Much of the “sand” that used to be on the beach was now on the road beyond it. Many of the rocks that made up the “sea wall” at the edge of the beach had been picked up and moved up to, and beyond, the road.

To someone who had never experienced a hurricane, this must have seemed like the end of the world…. To me, it was very much like what I’d expect from a hurricane in the USA, except that the warning system in the US doesn’t exist here. There was none of the constant hurricane tracking, so people could plot the course, I saw no signs whatever that anyone had done anything to protect themselves or their homes and businesses, nor apparently did anyone do the common things in the US many (most?) people do, including buying up food, drinks, water, petrol, etc., ahead of time. Apparently there was a warning, but not expressed seriously enough, and most of the people I spoke to told me that while they knew there was a chance of a big storm coming, they either never expected it to happen, or were sure that the storm would go “somewhere else”.

SUNDAY
As this is being written, I feel very sad for the poor people who live in these “thatch” huts, or mud-buildings, which were pretty much destroyed, along with everything inside. When you barely have enough money to get by, day-by-day, and have to rebuild from the ground up, where do you start? This applies to the people living inland, and those who live and work in the fishing villages located along the coast.

Hurricanes are pretty rare in India, from what I’m told. I expect that this will become a distant memory to most people, alongside the tsunami and other disasters, which most people won’t expect to have to deal with again in the future.

Thirty one of my photos for Thursday night through Monday morning are now posted. Descriptions for each photo are being added. Important - since vBulletin has scrambled the order of the photos, start with the LAST photo on page 2, then work your way backwards to the first photo, which was taken Monday morning:


They’re not intended to be a story of the storm, only a record of what I personally saw and experienced. Again, start with the last image on the second page, and work your way backwards.

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