It was a Category 3 cyclone and headed right towards the coast. From the time it had formed in the middle of the ocean, it was being tracked and its path was heading straight towards the mountainous coastline on which I happened to be present. I was tracking it’s movements through the naval channels and open media a little worried about my isolated detachment a few hundred kilometers from nowhere as it was likely to pass right overhead. My memories of the other severe cyclones that I had witnessed cautioned me to take this one seriously. The bibles on Seamanship and Navigation written by the British Admiralty and engrained into our subconscious brain during ab-initio training in our initial years was throwing back images on the various chapters on dealing with tropical storms and about how to ride out a storm and the how to avoid the ‘eye’ of any storm.
But that was when one was at sea and had the option to manoeuvre away from the ‘eye’. I was now going to bear the brunt of this storm as a helpless land lubber. The chapter on “survival on being marooned” was perhaps the most relevant to my present condition and doing a memory recall. I was the Best in Seamanship and Navigation during my training period, having earned the coveted Book Prizes of a full set of Seamanship and Navigation volumes which occupy pride of place display on my book shelf at home and whose dog eared pages I had read and reread so many times over the years.
With my band of about a 100 merry men, I was not on familiar terrain of the sea on which I had spent one score and ten years till then but on alien mountainous land adjacent to the sea. We were positioned there on a special assignment which was in the process of being executed. In preparation for the onset of heavy devastation, I had directed that all our instruments and equipment should firstly be dismantled and secured properly so as to avoid damages from the expected devastation.
Ominous clouds had already started gathering and the wind speed had started picking up. I went around in my Gypsy to inspect the site once again to satisfy myself that all precautions to protect our high tech equipment had been taken, I even ordered taking down of my electronic surveillance cameras and equipment in order to protect these from damage. Safety of my men was also my primary concern and also our stock of food and water. I was informed that we had food for about 4 days only, for water we had an abandoned sweet water well nearby. There was no time to get this stock replenished now as our next ration dump which was expected in about three days would not materialize and getting replenishment air dropped to us was out of the question as this increasing bad weather would not permit helicopters for air operations.
I knew that this would only be the trailer of the main show that would ensue if the storm continued its path.
The weather was increasingly becoming aggressive as the approaching storm kept its path progressively. It had started raining steadily with wind speeds picking up. I was constantly on the communication channel both naval and open media to listen in to the elaborate preparations being taken by both the Navy and civil administration in preparation for evacuation and disaster relief. It appeared that the entire town and adjacent city in the vicinity had battened down and coastal population was in the process of being evacuated. Rural population was being directed by the civil administration to take shelter in designated storm shelters in the form of government schools or other buildings inland which were pre-existing at different high grounds and vantage points. Looking out of my window I could see the palm trees bending a little in the wind and the rain falling in slanting sheets. I knew that this would only be the trailer of the main show that would ensue if the storm continued its path.
My lookout sentries on my perimeter started reporting large migrations of villagers moving about near our periphery trying to reach the nearest designated storm shelter by the civil administration which must have been at least 12 kilometers away. They would have to trudge all that way with their personal belongings tied in cloth bundles on their heads with women, the elderly and children as they had decided to leave their farm animals behind having set them free. Meanwhile, the intensity of the storm kept increasing, I could now see that the palm trees were bending dangerously swaying madly and that the rain sheets were lashing our position in near horizontal waves. Our satellite TV dish had long since given way, cellular data was very weak, my Optical Fiber Cable (OFC) hookup on the land lines had become very scratchy and appeared on the verge of breaking down. All the communication that I had was my reliable HF radio circuit with my base authorities and of course my satellite communication briefcase which anyway would have been useless in such weather conditions. Just before the final breakdown of all my communication, I could gauge from the open media that the storm had changed path just a little by a few kilometers and would be hitting the town and city directly but likely to pass right overhead my position.
I had to make a very critical decision weighing the fact that being on a special mission with strict orders to avoid contact with the local population
As we were already on high ground, I was not very worried about inundation due to the large volumes of water by the falling rain as it was draining off easily. Just when I thought that things were in my control with my mission, my perimeter sentries told me that a horde of villagers desperate to seek shelter were in disarray and running helter-skelter to reach some kind of safety. I had to make a very critical decision weighing the fact that being on a special mission with strict orders to avoid contact with the local population, should I give shelter to these poor villagers on foot who could not make it to any shelter during this devastating storm?
All my communication lines were down and there was no superior authority available nor time to take permission. Looking out of my window again I could now see that the palm trees were now bending double and nearly touching the ground due to strong winds and that the sheets of rain did not appear to have any direction and were just falling in huge deluges. I decided on humanitarian grounds to give refuge to this body of people, our very own countrymen in distress left to fend for themselves by the civil administration. Mentally I thought to myself that I would explain to my higher ups about the critical circumstances in which I had given shelter much against my written orders to avoid contact with civilians due to the nature of my mission. I swiftly gave permission to provide shelter to these distressed villagers simultaneously telling my staff to prepare food and water for the crowd.
After these people were taken in, sitting in my control hut, I got the message that they had let in about 300 people into my perimeter, maybe an entire village, it appeared to me. I was astounded at the number reported and immediately went into deep thinking as to how we would survive this event with the limited food for 100 men that I held for 4 days, the available shelter space and share it with 300 additional bodies. At this rate even with rationing imposed, we would merely last out for 2 days. I went and met the village elder who was extremely grateful to me for providing shelter and also who was apologetic too that he had to per force seek shelter with us being the nearest establishment of the armed forces to his village which was operating there. He mentioned that they were from a village further on and had been walking already for at least 10 kilometers in that lashing rain and that his group would not have been able to survive anymore movement. His faith and confidence in the capability of the Indian Armed Forces made my decision worth taking, after all. I literally had to shout out to him with the whistling winds and roaring thunder, amid flashes of lightening and keep my ear to his mouth during this conversation.
They were in the ‘eye of the storm’ and that the storm after about an hour would resume with redoubled fury.
Back in my control hut drinking coffee as black as sin, I decided to wait it out for the storm to end. After a day and a half of continuous battering, keeping a watchful eye at this cyclone of the century and certainly the most ferocious of all that I had ever experienced in my lifetime, there was a sudden calm as all noise died down mysteriously. In fact, the sky cleared out a little and brightness descended like some celestial favour. Some of my men and the villagers came out of hiding wondering about of this mysterious phenomena, when, I, the only grey haired ‘old man’ amongst my merry men told the greenhorns that they were in the ‘eye of the storm’ and that the storm after about an hour would resume with redoubled fury. In naval parlance. the head of any organisation or the Captain of a ship is usually called the ‘Old Man’ lovingly by his crewmates.
The ‘eye’ is a phenomenon in a tropical storm comprising of a ring of a few kilometers diameter where there is calm and good weather, it is the centre of the storm. This phenomenon is so rare to experience at sea as ships try to avoid the ‘eye’ of the storm by steering courses keeping out of its path. It was destined that we had the fortune to be in the ‘eye’ of the storm and actually experience this strangest and deadliest of all climactic phenomena.
Cautioning all to be vigilant and to take the opportunity to batten down further, the other half of the storm within an hour hit us with redoubled fury. This time due to the change in the direction of winds, the roofs of some of my structures just flew away and we had to redistribute the people accordingly. Rain and winds were relentless and the old jungle saying of “survival of the fittest” is true with both flora and fauna alike. The strong trees survived even bending double in the wind and the weak and old just got uprooted. I could see that we were surrounded by uprooted trees and dead carcasses of weak animals, but with the blessings of Lord Varuna, the God of the seas, my men and the detachment remained safe from the furious churning sea which was as violent as ever just a stone’s throw away and could have destroyed us with ease.
This went on for another day when the storm started abating. My second in command came and told me that food was precariously low and that they had provisions for only one last meal for 400 people. They had stretched the rations by limiting quantity of distribution. By this time, communication circuits started to get operational and the TV media was all abuzz with the devastation that has wreaked upon the city and the disaster relief measures being taken. I too got on the line with my base telling them about my urgent need for food and water. They assured me that they would send a consignment of food by road which would start in an hour or so and reach me after six hours. I thought that my woes were over, when after four hours, I get the message that because of road blockage due to inundation and fallen trees, my food consignment was not going to be delivered.
Immediately, I got on the HF radio and tried talking to various control centers to divert some helicopters to drop food and water to my location forthwith. All the replies I got was they were very busy helping the civil administration in dropping food supplies to the affected villages as a part of aid to civil power which the state government had invoked from the armed forces. The Indian Army was requisitioned for road clearance and rendering help to the survivors with the Indian Air Force flying in much needed water and supplies from the rest of the country in their heavy lift aircraft for the city dwellers whose water sources had got contaminated. The Indian Navy being the main force on the scene was rendering all assistance to the ravaged countryside and was the prime coordinating service between the three armed forces. Amongst all this happening, my detachment had run out of our food and had to skip one meal.
Invoking my bonding and camaraderie from my National Defence Academy days with members of the Army and Navy, I was able to divert 4 naval Chetak helicopters to my location for air drop of food and water to this large body of 400 people who thought and believed that we Navy personnel were messengers of God sent on this earth to save them from this devastation. My good relations and personal liaison with the Army clearance teams who had descended with their heavy equipment could get a path cleared after nearly three days to my location when my consignment of food and supplies were delivered by the Navy.
I guess the ‘survival of the fittest’ rule of the jungle would have applied there too, but it would have been on my conscience
Of course, during the post mortem, I had to be strong in my conviction of going against written orders for not making contact with civilians. The ‘paper tigers’ from the headquarters staff were very skeptical of my action claiming that their order was not followed in letter and spirit. However, the Commander-in-Chief was the first to acknowledge the predicament of a local commander and commended me for the humanitarian assistance rendered to our very own countrymen. I shudder to think what would have happened to those poor villagers had they been left all on their own. I guess the ‘survival of the fittest’ rule of the jungle would have applied there too, but it would have been on my conscience, had I declined giving shelter.
Now, that is an experience I would classify as riding out the “Eye of the Storm” both physically and symbolically in the corridors of power.
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