Caroline Brennan, CRS’ regional information officer for South Asia, writes from Bangladesh, where she is traveling with CRS-Caritas assessment teams following the devastating super cyclone, Sidr:
So, two ferries, one rickshaw, two motorcycles and kilometers of walking later, we met with several families living in the Chandpai village of the Mongla district, where an estimated 500 families endured serious damage to their homes and assets just more than a week ago, in a span of an overnight superstorm. Sidr, the name of the cyclone, is now a popular name here — even a baby born in the night of the cyclone was named Sidr! — and the emphasis on articulating each word of the phrase “super” “cylonic” “storm” seems to be people’s desperate attempt to convey just how powerful this was.
What was striking in Chandpai is the level of damage we didn’t see. The storm’s winds at 155 miles an hour uprooted trees that could envelop several houses, and tore corrugated iron from their wooden frames like sheets of notebook paper; the thatched roofs didn’t stand a chance. CRS’ partner Caritas is supporting about 500 families (or 2,500 people) here with food distributions and essential living supplies, and had started distributions within 36 hours of cyclone. Across the country, we are supporting 51,000 families, and tomorrow we’ll visit the eye of the storm’s devastation in the neighboring district of Barisal. But today, people’s resilience was the real story, with how much they’ve done to put back the pieces of their lives left amid the debris.
Community disaster preparedness is a big part of it. Our first stop this morning was at a cyclone evacuation shelter that housed 1,200 people the night of the storm. During better times, and even on this day, it is used as a primary school. Caritas built this shelter back in 1992, the year after a super cyclone storm hit and took an estimated 100,000 lives. The 2,100 shelters that have been built across the country since that disaster made for a huge part in the lives saved in this one (though 3,300 people are reported as killed). The government of Bangladesh played an enormous role in facilitating the shelter construction over the past 10 years; Caritas helped to build 221 of the shelters.
Today when we arrived at the shelter in Chandpai, about 150 people were standing at the top of the steps. They were ready to talk. The team represents a community-disaster volunteer group trained by Caritas on disaster response. Over the past two years, they have learned methods for preparation—storing food and important papers in dry places; purifying drinking water; establishing clear warning systems; and having on hand key equipment (life flashlights and life jackets)—and for rescue. In the hours leading up to the cyclone, the team went from house to house with information on places of refuge. They also had a flag system: in the center of town, one red flag was raised as a warning, two for danger, three for great danger. Meanwhile, the Mosque offered its loud speakers to communicate to the entire village. Teams also managed the cyclone shelter, making sure vulnerable people were helped first, and that it didn’t turn into a scene of chaos. At daybreak, the team’s members were among the first to walk the streets. Thankfully, no one perished in Chandpai.
“We have been living with each other. If any of us has got hurt, or any lost property, or injuries, that will be painful for all of us. This is why, rather than not be painful, we just lean forward to provide help each other. If I can eat, but my neighbors’ children cannot eat, that will be pathetic,” said Asholata (Hope) Sordar, 34, whose house was damaged by the cyclone.
I visited Asholata’s home and heard more about her experience during Cyclone Sidr, including how she made fried rice for about 60 children who took shelter at the nearby church (where her husband also works).
“That whole night [of the cyclone] I was cooking rice in a big pot and we were just sitting around, waiting. Outside it sounded like an airplane. But we couldn’t even eat the food that night; we had prepared it, but couldn’t eat it,” she said.
All afternoon people’s stories abounded with what they had done, practices gone well. From what I understand about tomorrow, we may see areas that crumbled before the storm. But, much like the day began with seeing so much recovery, it also ended on an unexpected note.
I thought I was mistaken when one of our field partner staff told me that someone had been waiting for me to name her baby. I was confused. “Was this about Baby Sidr?” I asked. “No, not Baby Sidr, another baby. Please come.” For some reason, I followed. Asholata came with. Situated on a narrow strip of land between shrimp ponds was a two-room, corrugated-iron and thatched-roof home. In the context of the area, it was a big home, and even had a porch. When we arrived, a woman pointed to burning incense on the floor of the porch and gestured for me to hold my hands above it to sanitize myself for the baby. As I was doing so, the mother emerged from her door with what was clearly a baby who had just been born. When she said she delivered two days ago, no doubt it was true. She handed him over to me and I just stared in disbelief at his tiny size. She had more pressing issues at hand.
“So, what is his name?” she asked me. I was dumbstruck. Beyond feeling out of place, I insisted that really, truly, I did not know any good names for a Bangladeshi boy. They then said they wanted a name from my place, from my home. They persisted until it was made clear I was not going to be let off this woman’s porch unless she had a name. I looked down and, without pause, suggested Patrick, after my dad who passed away from cancer last year, our own family disaster. People’s responses to the name were enthusiastic: “Patreek!!” “Pukrick!” “Tavrick” — any and all variations on pronunciation were used. Relieved that everyone, especially the mother, seemed pleased, I thought about my own family and mother who know I’m in the areas hit by a super cyclone, and how I couldn’t wait to tell them that Dad has a namesake in Chandpai village.
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