The inhabitants of the sinking island of Mousuni woke up to a bright sunny morning and an unusually calm sea on Friday, two days after Cyclone Amphan wreaked havoc on the island. As the residents of the boat-shaped island, with a population of about 30,000, started clearing the debris, they noticed something unusual about the trees. All of them had turned yellow, their leaves withered and sporting a lifeless look.
“All the trees have burnt,” island resident Subhas Bhandari said. Mr. Bhandari, who had refused to move to a cyclone shelter on Wednesday, watched the storm from one of the holiday homes he manages at Salt Bheri, the southernmost tip of the island on the Bay of Bengal.
“After hours of wind and rain, it suddenly turned all quiet at 4 p.m., when the eye of the storm passed. Then the rain ceased and gusts of very high speed winds lifted water [droplets] from the seas,” Mr. Bhandari said.
Affirming what Mr. Bhandari had described, many other islanders said the gale was so strong that seawater droplets were carried and deposited on the trees by the wind. Every tree on the island, even mighty banyan trees that had stood their ground, had turned yellow and appeared dead.
About 90% of houses had suffered damage, said Serafat Ali Sheikh, a resident. Mr. Sheikh had just finished washing the leaves of two guava saplings with water from a deep tube well in a bid to revive them. “We were able to evacuate 10,000 people from their homes and keep them in cyclone shelters,” said Mr. Sheikh, who is the husband of the panchayat pradhan. “This helped us ensure that nobody died.” Successive high-intensity cyclones — Fani followed by Bulbul and now Amphan — had made people on the island more cautious. The islanders said the latest storm was far more destructive.
“I wasn’t able to complete the repairs of the portions affected by Cyclone Bulbul and now my home is completely damaged,” S.K. Ajharuddin, a resident, said. “Whatever little we are earning we are putting in building and rebuilding homes.”
The impact of the cyclone was so powerful that the sheds of the newly constructed holiday homes were not only blown away but smashed into little pieces. The island, which is located about 120 km south of Kolkata, had found a chance to stay afloat with these holiday homes that were built a couple of years ago. Facing the bay, 42 such “resorts” and homes had sprung up, providing a steady influx of tourists.
Swapan Koyal, who was clearing debris from the roof of one such “resort”, said that after the lockdown, the cyclone had struck a major blow to the new-found vocation of the islanders. In a few resorts, the damage is so extensive that the residents are at a loss about which part of the debris to start clearing. In one resort, a solitary mule stood forlorn, surrounded by fallen trees .
About 35 km from Mousuni is Lot No. 8, an important intersection for connectivity in the Sunderbans. Vessels from this point leave for Sagar Island and Ghoramara. Behind the massive electricity pylons meant to transmit power to Sagar, a small habitation of a dozen houses has been razed to the ground. The residents, who said that they were fishermen, were cooking in the open. “As many as 536 people had taken shelter in our school and medical centre from Tuesday to Thursday,” said Swami Adhyatmanand of the Bharat Sevashram Sangh. “The storm was so strong that a part of the roof of our structure was ripped off,” he added.
The monk, while discussing what relief could be provided, said that 90% of the houses in the Kalikapur region had suffered damage. Economic activities such as betel nut cultivation had also been badly affected.
Particularly galling for the region’s residents is the extent of destruction in what they have believed to be ‘sacred land’ — a place where millions of pilgrims descend every year during Makar Sankranti, to cross the river to Sagar. The most visible signs of the havoc wrought by Amphan are the trees along the entire road leading to the Sunderbans: many uprooted, some snapped in half and yet others dangling perilously atop electric poles.