The one-year anniversary of Cyclone Gaja that devastated Tamil Nadu on 16 November 2018 approaches. A year on, many of those affected are still piecing their lives back together. The Tamil Nadu government’s handling of the disaster showed it had learnt from the lessons that the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2015 Chennai floods had taught it. Ahead of the cyclone, officials swung into action, evacuating people in the storm’s path and shifting them to relief centres. While lives were still lost—58 according to official figures—it cannot be denied that the toll would likely have been higher without swift action.
However, the Tamil Nadu government’s efforts after the cyclone hit the state were limited by the huge, and perhaps unanticipated, scale of destruction to electricity infrastructure, with more than a lakh electric poles down, and fallen trees and logs blocking roads. The initial days after the disaster saw furious and frightened people gheraoing ministers and relief workers, as they were cut off from the world with no means of communication. The state government responded with alacrity, stationing ministers and top officials in each affected district to oversee distribution of relief. Civil society groups, too, pitched in. Still, it took months in some places to restore electricity to the entire region.
It is in rehabilitation—what happens once the immediate needs are met—that gaps remain. Over 60 lakh coconut trees were felled by the cyclone, wiping out entire families’ livelihood in minutes. The trees take six to seven years to give yield. Too many are still waiting for seedlings promised by the state. Similarly, fishermen, some having been hit by multiple disasters in their lifetime, are struggling. Several have gone into debt, while some who were poor to begin with may be worse off than before, having to rebuild their damaged houses. Rehabilitation must be long-term in its nature and efforts must be sustained till affected communities are resilient and back on their feet again.