The hour-long bus ride into Cuddalore went quickly despite the bus being slightly more packed than usual. On the surface, the town looks normal– no outward signs of disaster. Snigdha asks a local shop where people need help and we’re directed to the government general hospital.
Turning down the road, we detect a growing antiseptic odor. A man on a megaphone is describing the age and gender of an unclaimed body, and occaisionally telling the crowd of people to go home unless they have lost a loved one. We walk into that complex, now a make-shift morgue, and speak to Sridhar, the local AIDS Council worker who has taken charge of this operation. He tells us that today is a good day, only 26 bodies found as opposed to the 200 yesterday. A brightly covered canopy shades cots on which several partially draped, sari-clad bodies lie while a small army of flimsily-masked policemen and medical workers linger about. White bleach powder is sprinkled everywhere, and I consider myself lucky to be assailed by a strong anti-septic odor rather than that of the nearby bodies. The occaisional ambulance dispatches to destinations close, presumably responding to calls of more bodies. Sridhar tells us that he has this operation under control, and that the marriage halls and hospitals may need help.
The first marriage hall is occupied by about 50 women and children. They have food and water, and tell us that the men have all returned to the sites of their dwellings to assess the habitability there. Heartening to hear that local shopowners have adopted this marriage hall, and are seeing to most of the basics. Everyone is well here, but they have no soap, and because there are many children, I part with 20 packets of biscuits and soap as we head for the hospital.
The government hospital’s chief physician tells us that 173 people are interred at this hospital–full capacty, and their food and health is being adequately taken care of. The hospital has no shortage of supplies. Most of these people will be staying here until the government provides them some benefits. The physician here directs us to another marriage hall down the road.
All in all, the town has about 11 marriage halls, all of which have been used as the emergency shelters for those hardest hit. Passing a WorldVision SUV filled with international aid workers, we approach the largest marriage hall in town, walking along is bleach-powdered entryway to the desk up front.
Medicine bottles and syringes lie on the table and a man is getting an injection of something that stings a lot judging by how much he rubs his arm afterwards. The people staffing these desks are doctors and nurses that rotate between the 11 marriage halls in town. This one held 1000 people yesterday, and played host to a talk by the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha, as she promised each family 100,000 Rs. aid. Today, it holds only 50 people, as most have either gone home or been hosted by next of kin in nearby unaffected regions. We learn that most people are being treated for cuts and scrapes, and general pain from the frantic struggle with the tsunami. There are no outbreaks of cholera yet, and the physician here tells us that she’s tentatively prepared to handle a mild outbreak. Still, she gives us a list of medications that she might need to cope with a bigger outbreak, and tells us that gastritis is also something she’s on the lookout for. Before leaving, we take down a list of the worst hit areas, and the contact info for municipality’s chief medical officer, Dr. N. Kalu Sivalingam, who has a higher lever picture of the medical situation in Cuddalore. This spot gets all my oral rehydradtion salts, in preparation for a potential cholera outbreak.
A rickshaw driver tells us that Silver Beach is a “problem area”. We know, that’s why we’re going there. The road is unusually packed. Five minutes in, we get to what first looks like a traffic jam over a low-lying bridge, but quickly reveals itself to be a police roadblock. Quite chaotically, we learn that cenral government ministers are visiting the area, and hence the tighter security. Moments later, a motorcade thrusts its way through the motley of traffic and Snigdha recognizes at least one of the ministers. Though the ministers are gone, we’re still not permitted to go past. The police are trying to keep out the morbid tourists who are piling into the area to catch a firsthand look at someone else’s loss. Our rickshaw driver, now fully on our side, engages in a heated Tamilian exchange with the police, informing them that we’re entering to assess how to help, as well and deliver supplies. Do we have official ID? My CA drivers license and HealthNet insurance card almost make the cut, when our driver hatches a plan.
Bumpety-bump down unpaved and rocky backroads to backroads gets us about 600 meters behind the police checkpoint, only to find another checkpoint 300 meters in front. THis time we don official looking faces and just push through.
Upon entering a flattened sandy beach area, I notice downed power cables lining the road. They’re de-energized, and must have tripped before they even fell over as there is no sign of current damage anywhere. Ten men have tethered a pole with rope and are raising it Amish-style as other men are sorting out how to re-string the poles. A line of distribution poles are each capped with a red-turbaned man per pole who apparently climbed unaided and is manually working to put the power cables back up. To our left is ditch in the sand where wrecked boats, a car, and other debris have washed ashore. The press is here, and television news trucks are interviewing the head of the Tamil Nadu Fisherman’s Welfafre Association.
Pushing through to the main settlement, Devanapatanam on Silver Beach, the roads and gullys are again doused with an incredible amount of white bleach powder. The environmental ramifications are clearly, and perhaps rightly, secondary to the concern about runaway disease rampaging through this ruined settlement.
As I start distributing biscuits, and peanut-brittle, I’m mobbed and over-whelmed by 20-30 people, each with a hand in my face. Should have broken up these biscuits, brittle and soap into smaller packages so that more can get some. The spirit of cooperation I witnessed before is consoling, and I worry less about one family getting too much because hopefully they will band together and share.
Minutes later, our ears are assailed by honking and shouting as a column of men and vehicles is attempting to push past us on the narrow street. Its a truck with a full bed of collected clothing followed by a backhoe. Men in the truck bed haphazardly throw clothing to the growing flock of residents who line the truck. A young boy hardly 8 gets a shirt bigger than his entire body, while an elderly woman gets a small shawl. Pre-sorting hasn’t been done, and nobody has done a needs assessment house-by-house.
The neighborhood smells foul and there’s still someone missing. The backhoe is here to dig for a suspected body beneath the sands.
Arul, son of Ramasomething, is a local leader, and our guide. The narrow lane approaching the beach is lined with mortar houses, each with greater damage as we get closer to the water. Several buildings are totally collapsed. Tangled and damaged fishing gear line the road, and further down we see wrecked boats amidst the downed palm trees. We have no idea how many huts were lost along this beach, though there are quite a few ten-foot-high piles of hut debris. The beach has strolling crowds of spectators from the town have come to catch a glimpse of all the damage. The villagers tell us that they don’t want to clean up, as they’re concerned that the government will then say that they’ve lost nothing. Still, people scour the rubble for usable bits of whatnot.
Arul tells us that a fishing boat with full equipment costs 80,000 Rs. People’s livlihood here has been totally destroyed, and they are completely dependent on outside food. Combined with the intertia of waiting for the government to acknowledge and compensate them, there is a dangerous helplessness in the air.
On the way out of the village, the backhoe still hasn’t discovered the source of the bad smell. A tanker rushes in bringing vital drinking water. The men in the back of the truck have given up and departed, dumping tons of clothes onto the road to let the villagers sift through it on their own. Abandoned meals on banana leaves are being eaten by powder-speckled goats. Darkness is descending. The people don’t want to live this close to water anymore, though they know nothing but fishing. As we pass the news truck with its camera still rolling, I wonder how many people will stay here tonight. On the ride back to Pondy, I digest the overwhelming experience and try to clear my head so that I can be smartly useful. I think probably a bath is best — I’ve touched too many things for my still-American immune system, and being sick makes me useless.
At the internet cafe, a computer error wipes out the digital picture I capture. Probably for the best. Too many horrible images flooding out– no need to add my own to the mix.
My entry to follow will contain actionable ideas.