Natural Disasters

Bulbul ‘more dangerous than Aila’: Affected people

One week after the cyclone struck the Sundarbans, Down To Earth travels to the area to take stock

By Jayanta Basu
Published: Monday 18 November 2019

The West Bengal government has confirmed what people in the Indian Sundarbans had felt: Cyclone Bulbul, that had hit close to Sagar island on the night of November 9, 2019, before entering Bangladesh, was “more dangerous than Aila and caused greater damage”.

Sindhu Mondal, a middle-aged fisherman who lives with his family near the Frazergunj sea beach, said he had not experienced anything like this when Bulbul hit late in the evening and continued till early morning next day.

According to India Meteorological Department (IMD), the storm had made landfall in the Donchi forest area, which is hardly 25 kilometres from Frazerganj.

“We did not go to the nearby school but turned into a cyclone shelter, as nothing really had happened the last time during Fani. But this was different ...more dangerous than Aila and caused greater damage. We lost everything,” Mondal said.

Mondal, still traumatised, had part of his house’s roof and wall blown away during the cyclone as he, along with his eight-member family, took shelter under two wooden cots for four hours.

Almost all of Mondal’s neighbours had similar tales to tell. Urmila Barui, along with family members, had to run to a neighbour’s home late at night risking life as “trees were falling all around like ninepins”, after her one-room home collapsed in the face of the rampaging Bulbul. In this case, even the cot was not spared.

“Almost all 57 houses and more than 30 khatis (fish drying centres) have been badly damaged in this area,” Niranjan Patra, a local fisherman, said.

“A large number of shops and khatis have almost completely blown away,” said Mrityunjoy Sardar, another local, pointing towards the completely barren beach, scattered with remnants of blown structures.

The impact was similar, if not worse, in Mousuni. The island close to Frazerganj is already severely impacted by climate change with an ever-rising sea; inundation of salt water and erosion.

Due to Bulbul, the island appeared a battlefield with hundreds, if not thousands, of large trees being uprooted, often with part of roads and lampposts. Almost all semi-pucca and mud houses have been damaged, with many walls altogether blown away or caved in; and paddy permanently tiled in water.

“I am 75 and in my lifetime, I have never felt a stronger cyclone...most of the houses have been damaged,” Sk Montaj from the Kusumtala area of Mousuni island said while standing beside his damaged hutment.

“Look at my house. All the back side walls were blown away by Bulbul,” complained Golam Mustafa, a farmer. Sk Safiuddin was emotional as he described how he lost the betel orchard, his only source of income.

Mustafa’s and Safiuddin’s stories were the rule rather than the exception in Mousuni post-Bulbul. “Already, our island is sinking like Ghoramara, with areas like Baliara and Kusumtala being regularly affected by sea water and erosion...Now this Bulbul has happened. We really do not know what the future holds for us,” Sk Adalat, a local political leader, said.

Similarly, interior areas in Sagar island like Jibantala, Bankim Nagar, Mondirtala, Purshotampur and Boatkhali have been badly affected, with similar trails of devastation. 

An elderly local, who has seen both the cyclones closely, offered a comparison.

While Aila was more dramatic, with the breakdown of embankments and spread of salt water into the villages and had a long-term impact with agricultural fields being salinised, Bulbul brought an immediate impact on the local economy by affecting all major livelihood sources of people.

“Bulbul has left nothing unscathed with paddy, betel, winter vegetables and fish — all four major livelihoods of Sundarbans natives have been lost,” the elderly person said, pointing out that harvesting of paddy would take place between November-end and mid-December.

State too agrees

“The overall impact of Bulbul seems to greater than Aila, with huge losses in paddy as well as other agricultural modes along with infrastructure like houses, electricity poles and roads,” Manturam Pakhira, Minister for Sundarbans Affairs minister in the West Bengal government told this reporter.

Pakhira said about 12 of 19 blocks in the Sundarbans had been affected due to Bulbul, while during Aila, less number of blocks were affected. The minister claimed that during Bulbul, the fatalities were less as the state government evacuated about 1.78 lakh people from the most vulnerable areas.  

The state government’s initial assessment, which has been shared with the Central team that recently visited Bengal to assess the damage, also underlines greater damage in Bulbul compared to Aila.

A senior government official said according to primary estimates, the value of Bulbul-triggered damage was close to Rs 24,000 crore, which affected about 3.5 million people, damaged 517,000 houses and 6,000 electrical poles and felled hundreds of thousands of trees. 

According to an unpublished report of the West Bengal government’s disaster management department, the gross loss in Aila was about Rs 1,800 crore and the storm damaged about 126,000 hectares of land.

However, an estimate prepared by Tuhin Ghosh of Jadavpur University’s Department of Oceanography pegged the Aila reconstruction figure to Rs 5,000 crore which includes contributions from the state and Union governments as well as humanitarian agencies.

IMD’s regional director GK Das pointed out that Bulbul not only had greater maximum speed than Aila — 135 km per hour to 120 km per hour — but it also progressed west to east of the Sundarbans; unlike Aila which moved south to north.

“Aila wandered over the Sundarbans for a long period and maximised damage,” Sugata Hazra of Jadavpur University’s Department of Oceanography, said.

Locals however pointed out that Bulbul also spent close to six hours — from November 9 night to November 10 early morning — over the region. 

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