Severe Cyclone Bulbul wreaks havoc across Coastal Bengal

Early warnings of Cyclone Bulbul brewing and subsequently intensifying in the Bay of Bengal set off alarm bells in the region in the first week of November this year (2019). Anticipating the severity of Cyclone Bulbul and the high possibility of damage to property and lives, the Government of Odisha and West Bengal took all preventive measures to ensure that damage from the storm was minimized, even as the Centre assured of assistance. 10 battalions of the NDRF, 6 battalions of the SDRF and 1,335 civic volunteers were deployed, 94 boats engaged, to conduct rescue operations and evacuations. Fishing operations were suspended along the West Bengal — Odisha coasts, and the fisherfolk out at sea were advised to return to the coast, with a cyclone warning issued to refrain from venturing into the sea till further orders. In view of inclement weather, schools and Anganwadi centers remained closed from Friday of that weekend. Operations at the Kolkata airport — the busiest in eastern India, were suspended on Saturday night for twelve hours.

The ’Very Severe’ Cyclone Bulbul made landfall on Sagar Island in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal on the night of 9 November 2019 (Saturday). The powerful storm system persistently barrelled through Bengal’s coastal belt for three hours, indiscriminately tearing apart everything in its pathway across several districts in the region, including the Sundarban mangroves — the famed UNESCO World Heritage Site. It wreaked havoc across the coastal districts of West Bengal, gradually moving north-eastwards into the neighboring Khulna district of Bangladesh. Cyclone Bulbul then gradually weakened into a cyclonic storm and subsequently a depression as it moved through the districts of coastal Bangladesh through 10 November 2019 (Sunday). It also brought light to moderate rainfall in many places across Kolkata, Midnapore, Howrah, Hooghly and Nadia districts, as well as sporadic showers further North-east over the weekend.

Along the West Bengal coast, Cyclone Bulbul — with heavy gale force winds of 120–135 kmph, ravaged through North and South 24 Parganas, East Midnapore and Nadia districts, claiming 12 human lives in the state. People residing in the region braved that night of devastation as best they could, as howling winds and icy rain tore through their villages and hamlets. As dawn broke, they hoped it had brought with it some respite. Sadly, the remains of a Cyclone Bulbul battered region that lay before them, screamed otherwise — colossal damage especially to ready-to-harvest agricultural lands, houses, and livestock.

Thatched houses ravaged — in several cases blown away altogether, phone towers and electric poles mangled, trees uprooted, cable wires snapped, window panes shattered, animals lying lifeless in their sheds and fields, thousands of acres of cropland razed to the ground and submerged in floodwater — all common sights the morning after, particularly in the most affected areas of Sagar Islands, Namkhana, Kakdwip, Patharpratima, Jharkhali Basanti, Gosaba, Canning and Mathurapur blocks of South 24 Parganas, and Sandeshkhali, Hasnabad, Bashirhat, Hinglajganj blocks of North 24 Parganas.

Humanitarian Response to prevent impending downward spiral for cyclone Bulbul ravaged Coastal Bengal

Oxfam India’s Humanitarian Response Team set about closely monitoring the situation early as Cyclone Bulbul approached land, through regular coordination with local partners and media sources. Oxfam India’s Kolkata-based National Humanitarian Hub deployed a Humanitarian Programme Coordinator (HPC) to initiate a rapid needs assessment of the situation, supported by a local partner, INSS, even as disrupted ferry services and poor weather conditions continue to pose challenges in the process.

Humanitarian Program Manager — Oxfam India (IHPM), coordinated with the state IAG for monitoring of the situation and participation in Emergency Coordination Meetings. West Bengal State IAG conducted an urgent meeting with IAG Executive committee members on the preparedness for Bulbul, while Oxfam India’s Humanitarian team continued to jointly monitor the cyclone along with the Oxfam Bangladesh Humanitarian Team.

Significant destruction to thatched houses and disruption of communication due to fallen trees and snapped cable wires, damage to standing near-ripe crops (betel vine, rice, vegetables, pulses, and orchards) caused by localized flooding — especially in low lying coastal settlements, due to storm surge and damaged embankments now poses unimaginable struggle and hardship for the worst affected people in the worst affected districts of South 24 Parganas and East Midnapore.

Oxfam India’s Humanitarian staff, supported by local partner — INSS, conducted a rapid needs assessment in two blocks of South 24 Parganas (population of 15,420 in 2,570 families), through interaction with men and women of affected communities in mixed as well as separate groups, and discussions with Block officials. Field observation also formed part of the assessment, including water and sanitation facilities for women, condition of relief centers, damage to shelter and livelihood assets in affected villages. Oxfam India has also participated in the joint rapid needs assessment (JRNA) and are exploring the worst affected areas requiring immediate support, with a plan to extend support to 10,000 households addressing their immediate and recovery needs.

Severely damaged and contaminated water sources, destroyed toilets, inaccessibility to sanitary pads and menstrual hygiene items pose the imminent risk of disease outbreak, even as women have reported cases of stomach ache, fever, and chest congestion among children and aged people in the affected villages. Oxfam India’s Humanitarian staff also observed that debris submerged in floodwaters has given rise to swamp-like surroundings particularly along village arterial roads. Most of the marginalized scheduled castes and other backward caste families reside in the Sundarban delta region. They are mainly dependent on agriculture, horticulture, pisciculture, fishing, collecting honey and wood from the surrounding forest for their livelihood — all of which have now been disrupted. With their homes, livelihood, livestock, clothes and other belongings lost, the people of coastal West Bengal have been rendered homeless and jobless overnight in the aftermath of Cyclone Bulbul.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee conducted an aerial survey of cyclone Bulbul-ravaged areas of South 24 Parganas district on Monday (11 November) and announced a compensation of Rs. 2 lakh for the families of each of those killed in the storm.

As people struggle to return to normalcy, the key findings have underpinned a dire need for shelter material (such as tarpaulins, groundsheets, blankets), WaSH interventions (particularly village and pond cleaning) and livelihood restoration at the earliest. Saving lives is central to any disaster response, and we are aware that in a situation such as this, women and girls, the aged, the differentially-abled and other marginalised sections are the worst sufferers. In the post-cyclone phase, they will need essential supplies, especially relating to temporary shelter, clean water, sanitation, hygiene kits (WaSH kits), solar lanterns, and dignity kits for women and girls, among others.

To enable this, the global community will need to flex their generosity muscle and promptly provide liberal support to these worst-affected communities.

Author Bio: Laressa Antonette, working as a Programme Coordinator — Humanitarian Communications, Programmes, and Advocacy at Oxfam India.

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