Tar road between Edayanchavadi and Kuilappalayam. (Photo by Manohar)
The full force of Cyclone Thane hit Auroville at approximately 3 am on the 30th of December, 2011, with wind speeds gusting up to 150 kms/hr and only dying down around 9 am. When residents could once again safely emerge from their homes, they were met with the sight of what looked like a war zone: an estimated half a million trees down, electrical poles snapped like toothpicks, electrical cables hanging low or across paths and roads or tangled in trees and branches, access and movement was severely compromised, with some residents being unable to leave their homes let alone their communities. The entire region was without electricity, and therefore often without water.
An immediate response to the worst cyclone since 1972 came from both the field and the offices. The Working Committee convened a first meeting on the 31st of December to coordinate the various necessary actions. By the 1st of January an Auroville Response Team with members from Working Committee, Housing Group, Unity Fund, L'Avenir d'Auroville, AV Security, Energy, Water, Forest, Farms, Land Resource Management and other individuals was quickly in place, with a Help Desk created to field questions and requests regarding the most immediate and urgent needs related to tree cutting/clearing, water supply and housing.
While the winds were still high the noise of chain saws clearing the blocked roads was taking over. Auroville volunteers cleared the public road from the ECR to Tindivanam Highway within hours. Major internal roads were also quickly cleared. Next came clearing access to and from communities and houses. Within the first 2 days all access points were clear. Nearly 100 Auroville volunteers and an equal number of laborers worked day and night on this. In order to make this possible there was an immediate purchase of 40-50 chainsaws by individuals and Auroville's central administration.
Electricity restoration was the next major challenge. The entire infrastructure had completely collapsed, with fallen trees, broken poles and wires intertwined like spaghetti. Behind the army of tree cutting teams that was needed to clear the masses of fallen vegetation from the lines, Auroville's Electrical Service started working on one of the most difficult missions - restoring electricity. Timely help came from Gammon India and Suzlon who offered their JCBs and cranes to help our efforts. In spite of some difficulties in procuring poles and other supplies from TNEB, after nearly 3 weeks of non stop work from about 150 people from Auroville and TNEB staff, 90% of electricity has been restored to Auroville and the surrounding villages. (See detailed energy report attached.)
The winner of the energy options during the cyclone was solar energy. Despite 150 km/hr wind speeds the solar lights kept working, as long as trees had not destroyed the solar panels. Most of the approximately 300 households in Auroville using solar energy had one less challenge to face in this time of multiple challenges – at least there were no power cuts! In fact, most of the houses using solar energy turned into charging points for mobile phones, emergency lights and laptops. Our solar units, such as Auroville Energy Products, Sunlit Future, Auroville Solar Service, along with few private providers, installed about 30 KWp of solar energy, energising about 100 more houses.
Water supply was another major undertaking. With no electricity, storage tanks were going dry. With tankers and then with several generators, teams went from community to community, and into the surrounding villages, to fill water tanks. Nearly 30 people were working to provide emergency water relief.
In the meantime, clearing teams continued the work of clearing roads and the most used pathways and cycle paths. Minor damages and obstructions were taken care of within days. However, most of the cycle paths are still buried under debris and will only be cleared after the urgent work is done.
Housing was, and will be, one of the biggest challenges. As a priority, the Housing Service started dealing with emergency cases; a damage assessment team was set up along with people who could provide immediate repairs. One of the consequences of this natural disaster is that many people are either unable to or are afraid of staying in their original locations and need or want to be relocated. There is damage to approximately 200 houses, estimated at a cost of INR 1.5 crore.
In addition to individual houses, public structures like the new library and the newly renovated Last School building, along with most of the other schools, suffered damage, and there was damage to several of the commercial units. There are about 15 public facilities that need minor to major repairs; work in most of them is underway but some are awaiting much-needed funding.
Very early in the response time line, a liaison team was busy meeting local officers from state government, TNEB officials, central government teams, and making endless phone calls to ensure that Auroville's voice was being heard.
It was clear immediately after the cyclone that Auroville would need a lot of financial support from all possible sources. One of the first things the Resource Mobilisation Team did was to create a column on the Auroville website to inform people in the world at large and solicit help from well wishers. All the AVI's (Auroville International centers) have responded quickly and with great sympathy, and many individuals have contributed generously through the AVI channels - within 2 weeks Rs.50 lakhs was collected. This amount is far from sufficient to cover the overall requirements but it is still very precious because it strengthens our connections of goodwill all over the world. There have also been attempts to tap into funds from various government sources such as the Foundation Office, HRD Ministry, the Prime Minister's Relief Fund and the state government of Tamil Nadu. Unfortunately, so far no money has come from these sources.
A Finance and Accounts team has been busy disbursing money from Auroville's reserves to cover the immediate and urgent needs of the community, and is keeping careful account of these transactions and the generous donations that have been sent in by individuals, institutions and businesses around the world. (Please see attached financial report.)
Next steps and cost estimates:
- The most pressing and challenging work in front of us now is to clear the twisted and broken remains of the vast number of effected trees. One of the reasons for this urgency is that as they are drying they pose a high fire risk. At the same time, protecting the wood from theft is a major challenge. In spite of the high cost of the collection process, clearing it fast is the only solution to both of these issues. In order to achieve this quickly and efficiently we would need to higher large scale labour and would need heavy machinery like JCB's, large tractors, fork lifts and small cranes. The cost of such an operation would be INR 1 to 1.50 crore, but would be worth the investment when compared to potential loss of assets to fire and theft.
- So far only urgent housing damages have been addressed. In the long term, we need to carry out the remaining repairs and relocate people, either temporarily or permanently, who are living in vulnerable or downright unsafe structures. Short term needs come to about INR 1.5 crore and the long term requirements could be INR 3 to 4 crore in order to provide houses with high safety standards to all who are living in huts and semi-pucca houses. In addition, public buildings will need approximately INR 1 crore to repair.
- Electricity infrastructure has mostly been restored but lots of work will still be needed in order to revisit the many temporary repairs done at high speed. The extreme damage to the electrical infrastructure in the region has emphasized the already identified need to install underground cables to avoid similar situations in the future. All of the electrical works outlined above will cost an estimated INR 2 to 3 crores.
- The trees are an important Auroville asset, and about 30% (670,000 as a conservative estimate) have now fallen. Many of the green communities depended upon this resource to sustain the activities carried out in these areas, but the income from consciously harvested timber is now lost for the next 7 to 10 years. Apart from that there will be the need to rehabilitate the forest. The ecological damage is still being assessed, but preliminary estimates show 6-7 crores.
- Another sector of Auroville's Green activities that have been hard hit are the farms, which lost crops to a tune of INR 50 lakhs. In addition to the crop loss that the farms have suffered, there is a loss of infrastructure. The cost of rehabilitation of Auroville's farms will be about INR 1 crore.
- General infrastructure like fences, cycle paths, roads, street lights, etc. needs a heavy injection of funds as well - around INR 2 crores.
- Many of Auroville's workers have been effected as well, and provision is needed to be able to offer some assistance to those who work with and for Auroville.
- The enormous amount of wood which is now lying all over Auroville needs to be managed well. The FAMC, the Forest Group, LRM and other groups have started actively exploring the possibility of storing and processing the timber for Auroville's future use, and the auctioning of the smaller material (branches and twigs). Possibilities of setting up various facilities for wood processing and use are currently being explored. Of course, all these would need investment. It is expected that this investment could be recovered eventually from the sales of products from these facilities, but at this time it is very difficult to give a realistic estimate of such income. Initially, capital of INR 57 lakhs would be needed to set up the infrastructure.
- Overall, we envisage a total need of INR 5 crores in the next 1 year for the emergency and relief phases, and another 13 crores for the major rehabilitation work. The internal economy of Auroville cannot bear this economic shock, and therefore we need to tap external resources.