Cyclones are not new to India. In recent years, their frequency has increased and almost every year now, the eastern coast of the country faces the nature's fury causing a major damage to life and property. October 12, 2014, like October 12, 2013, was one such date.
It was the day when Cyclone Hudhud struck. And struck really hard. And this writer had a close encounter with the menace.
I was in Kolkata when I first came across the news of the cyclone developing off the Andhra coast. Since I was scheduled to leave for Bangalore by car and had no tickets for either train or flight, the tension was slightly building up for it was the same route of the storm that I had to take back home.
I tried my best to leave Kolkata by October 10 so that I could get past Visakhapatnam (Vizag), where the cyclone was set to make landfall, at the earliest. But things got delayed as I could not finish off my work by then and finally left at 4 am on Saturday, October 11. The cyclone was just a day away then.
Bad road and weather slowed down
It was a decent start and a clear dawn hinted at a beautiful day ahead. I began to feel confident that crossing Vizag by night wouldn't be a problem. But as soon as I approached National Highway 60 ahead of Kharagpur (57 km from the Odisha border), the weather began to show its ugly face. It started to drizzle and add that with the under-construction highway and frequent diversions, the car's speed was hardly crossing 60 kmph.
The road was no more a concern once I hit National Highway 5 (to Chennai) near Balasore in Odisha, but the weather showed little mercy. The wipers kept on waging a losing battle against the heavy downpour and it was a big ask negotiating with the poor visibility. The rain stopped and resumed at frequent intervals and all this took a big toll on my time schedule. It took nine-and-half hours to reach Bhubaneswar (442 kilometres) and the chance of reaching Vishakhapatnam (another 443 kilometres) by night was fading out fast.
Flat tyre after Bhubaneswar further delayed things
Once I crossed Bhubaneswar, the weather was getting really gloomy and it was just the afternoon. The excellent road running parallel to the eastern coast gave me still some hope of reaching Vizag, even if by late night, but just after covering 50-odd kilometres from Bhubaneswar, one of my car's tyres burst. It was indeed an explosion and I discovered that the tyre was completely gone. There was no way it could be repaired. I looked up at the sky. More than the God, I remembered Hudhud.
I managed to unscrew one of the nuts of the deflated tyres but the other three were too tight. It was an empty road with vehicles zooming past. Nobody cared to stop. I was wondering how to get out of the trouble when a local boy passing by me told me there was a tyre repair shop nearby. I went to the shop but the man said he only repaired two-wheeler tyres.
However, the man did me a favour to get the punctured tyre changed with the spare one and advised me to go the next petro pump where four-wheeler tyre repair shops would be available. I followed suit but the worry was big... How can I manage without a spare tyre? The upcoming distance was all hill and forest and a long night was approaching fast. If I had another flat tyre, then God was the only hope for me.
Buying a new tyre in a nearby town
There were a couple of boys in the next tyre shop. They told me there were a few tyre shops in the nearby Khorda town and I could test my luck there. I asked one of them to get the deflated tyre repaired to whatever extent he could and left for Khorda for a new tyre. The other boy accompanied me and we two, with some help from the luck, found a suitable tyre in the third shop. I bought the tyre and as we left for the shop where I gave the punctured tyre fo repair some 20 kms away, it started to rain heavily again. Hudhud was approaching fast.
Locals advised to stay in Berhampore
As I waited for the fitting of the new tyre, I asked some local people in the shop about the approaching storm. "It will be big and I would suggest you not to proceed much tonight. It has already started to rain heavily you can see and it won't stop soon," one of them said. "Is there any lodge or hotel on the way ahead," I asked. "You can stay put in Berhampur tonight. It has some good hotels," they told me. It took about 30 minutes to get the work done. When I started again, the clock said it was 4 pm and it was already dark.
Few vehicles towards Vizag
The rain made me go slow. Berhampore was another 120 kilometres ahead and as I ventured more into the hilly and forest track, I noticed not many vehicles were there on the road. A few of them were fast returning home on the opposite route. Only a few trucks were covering the uncertain journey like me. Train and bus services on the route were already stopped.
As I went past the Chilika Lake, I could feel the lull. Time was running out fast and I needed to reach a shelter for the night. Plan A of racing past of Vizag before the storm failed. Now, it was time to think out an alternative plan.
Berhampore by night
Night descended when I was about 20 kilometres from Berhampore. Only the signboards kept me on the track as nothing else could be visible, not even the carelessly moving cattle on the road. The recipe was perfect for a disaster and as soon as a signboard indicated Berhampore town to the right, I decided to halt there for the night.
But where to halt? As far as the headlights took me, there was no electricity anywhere. I had never been to Berhampre before and there was hardly anybody out in the rain to guide me. I found a half-open shop to ask about a hotel for the night stay and he just asked me to drive further ahead. But where to?
"No other person in the hotel"
However, after about five to six minutes of driving at a snail's pace, I found a few shops and some pedestrians. I asked a couple of them about the availability of a hotel and a couple of youngsters told me where to find a hotel inside the town. There were two hotels I spotted first but they didn't look satisfactory. I drove a little further to see a decent one called the Kama's Inn. I parked my vehicle, dragged my tired body out of it and walked nervously to the hotel reception.
"Do you have a room for a night?", I asked.
"I am sorry sir. We are not receiving any guest. All bookings have been cancelled. The storm is approaching fast," the manager said.
"But I need a room. I am not a tourist. I am going to Bangalore and got stuck in the bad weather," I urged him.
"Bangalore? By car. I must say sir that you have taken a big risk. Anyways, you can't go out for the next few days. It will be extremely bad out there," he said.
"Okay. In that case I would like to stay back till the weather clears. But please give me an accommodation," I pleaded with the manager again.
"Okay, you can stay here. But let me tell you that there could be power failure anytime and you have to bear with whatever we can offer. Please don't complain," he told me.
"Nothing sir. It will be enough if your hotel has running water and food to provide," I said, feeling assured.
I parked my car inside the premises and checked in. The air-conditioned room was decent. I took a light dinner and kept a watch on the news about the storm. The coastal areas of Andhra and Odisha were really panic-stricken. Exactly a year ago, it was Cyclone Pailin which had devastated Odisha. Will it be the same again?
I informed my worried family about my stay in the hotel and soon fell asleep. I woke up around 4 am and a thought of resuming the journey for Vishakhapatnam then flashed across my mind. But I was so tired that I fell asleep again before I could think about it seriously. Hudhud was still seven hours away from Vizag.
D-Day: The rough sea at Gopalpur
Next day was D-day. It was otherwise a lazy day and with frequent power failures, staying inside the room also became a pain. I walked up and down the three-story hotel building which had no other boarders. The hotel staff members, too, were few in number and just about responded to my need for food and candles.
Around 10 am on Sunday, I drove to the nearby Gopalpur sea coast with a few hotel staff members. I had never seen such a rough sea till today. The entire beach was eaten up by the wild waves and policemen were deployed along the coastline to stop excited public from going closer to the sea. I wanted to capture some photos but they stopped me as well.
It was only after I showed them my press card that they allowed me to get a close look. While returning to my car, I noticed the policemen charging at the ambitious local crowd with their lathi to dissuade them getting closer to the sea.
We returned to the hotel and the rest of the day just passed by. I saw on television the devastating effect the storm had already left in Vizag, about 277 kms from Berhampore. In the evening, when I went to the reception thinking of taking a walk, I noticed that the entry was shut. When I asked the reason, the hotel staff members said: "Hur hur a raha hain yaha. Isliye..." (Hur hur will be here anytime... that's why). I returned to the room and had my dinner early. Soon after the dinner, the power went off.
No power, candlelight, storm outside... an unforgettable night
It was a night I won't forget all my life. With no power and a companion in the entire hotel and with wind blowing at 100 kmph outside the hotel, shaking the building and its windows in the process, I had little sleep the entire night.
Facebooking was an option but that too became difficult as the mobile phone battery started losing its charge. The mosquitoes too refused to show any mercy and finally, I left the bed thinking to embark on the journey again as soon as the first ray of the sun reached the earth.
Hit the highway as the first ray of the sun reached the earth
I took bath, dressed up and went down the dark stairs to wake up the hotel manager. I asked him to prepare the bill and settled everything before starting for Vishakhapatnam at 5.30 am. The manager with sleepy eyes told me the danger was no more there in Vizag and I shouldn't have a problem.
As I hit NH-5 again, I could feel strong winds pushing hard against the car. It was again raining on and off and I kept on driving slowly. As I neared the Odisha-Andhra border, I noticed a long queue of trucks. When I asked one of the truck drivers, he said the traffic on that route was halted by the storm. Nobody knew when it would start again.
Alternative route through forest didn't look safe
Gosh! Now what? I saw the route map to see if there was any other way to go past Vizag. I saw another route (NH-221) starting just before Berhampore which goes all the way to Vijaywada via Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh. It would be a long route but what else is the option. I found the diversion comes at a place called Nirmaljhora, around 60 kms ahead of Berhampore and I drove for an hour to discover the small diversion. But when I saw the road, I felt little excited. It was a narrow highway running through deep forest and hills and I had heard earlier that Ganjam district (where I was at that time) is known for the Maoist disturbance. So I kept on thinking whether it would be a wise decision to take that route.
I found two local men and asked them about the road. One of them said: "Why do you want to take this road? They might rob you."
That was enough for me. I returned to NH-5. Plan C was ready. If I couldn't go past the truck queue, I would stay in Berhampore for another day. Or else, I would return to Kolkata to keep my car there and take a flight.
Fortunately, the queue had cleared up by then and I saw it was not because of the storm but the border check-posts. Finding the road clear, I accelerated and reached Vizag around 4 pm.
Devastation... the only word that came to my mind to describe the situation in Visakhapatnam. Traffic lights, petrol bunks, hoardings, trees, electric poles... the property found damaged was incredible. The toll plazas let the vehicles go by as their systems weren't functioning. It was a complete anarchy.
The weather cleared once I went past Vizag and drove towards Rajahmundry and Vijayawada for Bangalore. The devastation was soon behind me but the memories could never be forgotten.