India (MNN) — In the wake of Cyclone Phailin’s rampage through India, there is devastation.
Nearly one million people were evacuated from Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, and an estimated nine million people are victims of the storm in some way. The good news is that the casualty rate was low because of quick action by the government in evacuating people to safer areas. The bad news is that there is almost nothing left for the survivors to come back to…and the grief is etched in their faces.
In the absence of ordinary village noise, it’s clear that pain has its own language. Vice President of Gospel For Asia Danny Punnose explains, “The relief teams are seeing thousands of people just sitting on the roads. Most of the other areas are just submerged underwater. After the cyclone came through and flooded everything, there’s just standing water everywhere. Any kind of open wells are contaminated now; any rivers that they would drink [from are] contaminated more.”
The secondary wave of disease usually hits a couple of weeks after the initial crisis. “You’ve got dead animals and decaying debris everywhere, and there’s dirt and muck; and the possibility for disease to break out is a realistic thing. But what we’re seeing right now is that people are just hanging out on the roads because the roads are a little bit higher. It’s the only place for them to stay, so even finding a place to keep warm at night is a real difficulty right now.”
But those are just a few of the many problems. People also have limited food. Though government is distributing rations, it is not enough for everyone. “Most of these people affected are from the Dalit background. They are the lowest caste in the caste system. They are the Untouchables, and so they are considered to be nothing, or less than animals. They’re not worthy of help in a lot of people’s minds.”
Since they also live in rural areas, it’s unlikely that aid drops have any priority away from the cameras and city centers. Punnose says, “It’s only those who follow Christ who really see that there is value in human life. One of the things that we’re doing is going and doing relief work wherever we can.”
Gospel for Asia (GFA) Compassion Services disaster relief teams were among the first to reach victims on India’s east coast after Phailin made landfall as one of the largest cyclones ever generated in the Bay of Bengal. Immediate supplies of clean water and food were distributed to victims who have lost homes, livelihoods, crops, and livestock. Punnose says they’re committed for the long haul. “I think yesterday we were able to reach out to about a thousand families with food, shelter, and water. We’re still trying to do that. We’ll be here for many years, actually, trying to help people rebuild their lives.”
Why years? First of all, explains Punnose, “The houses and the way things are built are not made for heavy storms. They’re made for a very dry climate. When you have these houses that are made of mud hit with the extreme amounts of water, [they’re] just gone. And then there’s standing water, so there’s no way to rebuild until things have completely gone down.”
To put a scope on the devastation along the Odisha coast, Punnose compares it to Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. “The devastation is more than [Hurricane] Katrina, in terms of about 12 million people affected by it. We know at least 10,000 of our own believers in affected churches, and houses, and everything else–300,000 houses destroyed altogether.”
In terms of comparison with the tsunami, Punnose says that’s a closer picture, “where things are just wiped out, and you’ve just basically devastated the economic system there. People’s lives are just on standstill until anyone can help them with anything. That’s what we’re trying to do right now, just to encourage people, help them, meet their basic needs, medical treatment, and not give up hope right now.”
Wrecked fishing boats and nets, and one million acres of lost crops across Odisha and Andhra Pradesh mean loss of livelihood for thousands. “Most of our believers are dependent upon agriculture and do not know what they will do now,” according to one onsite GFA representative.
The agricultural loss in these states, especially of rice, is anticipated to affect the food supply throughout India. Downed power lines causing lack of electricity, communication, and transportation have created additional havoc. Medical aid is in short supply.
The government has guaranteed initial relief of a few days of food. GFA relief teams are working to meet basic needs by distributing clean water, medical supplies, clothing, and family food packs of rice, salt, oil, potatoes, and matchsticks.
Punnose notes that two things stand out to the people they’re helping. One, they can’t quite believe there’s any help at all. “A lot of them will ask, ‘Why are you doing this? We’re from a Dalit background. No one treats us kindly, and yet, you’re showing us love. Why are you doing this?'” And two, “You have people who have lost all hope, and yet some of the people within that community that have lost everything are our own believers. They have hope in the midst of losing everything, and they’re the ones bringing hope and healing to the people who need it the most.”
The contrast is powerful. A cup of cold water in Jesus’ name opens a lot of conversations, says Punnose. “It’s just simply telling people that ‘we’re doing this on behalf of the name of Christ, and we love you.'”
To learn more about the effects of Cyclone Phailin and to donate to the relief efforts, visit http://www.gfa.org/cyclone/phailin/.