On December 29 and 30 2011, Cyclone Thane hit the coast of Tamil Nadu on the southeast tip of the Indian subcontinent, destroying livestock, livelihoods and lives with waves reaching heights of 1.5 meters (5 ft) and winds up to 135 km/h (83 mph).
To date, the cyclone has killed more than 45 people and many animals due to collapsing infrastructure and falling trees and power lines. Displaced coastal fishing and farming communities sought refuge in makeshift relief shelters set up in schools. Water scarcity due to damaged water pumps and wells, combined with blocked roads, added to the impact of the storm.
Fortunately, grassroots women-- trained to reduce and cope with the impacts of natural disaster-- have been mobilizing to respond to such crisis situations. Their early alert system helped prevent casualties, their assessment visits provided logistical and moral support to affected communities and their interaction with authorities continues to facilitate the recovery process.
A needs assessment recently released by the Women's Federation in Cuddalore, supported by Swayam Skikshan Prayog (Self Education for Empowerment, or SSP) highlights grassroots women's efforts to identify priorities for immediate disaster response.
Learning from past disasters
Following the 2004 tsunami and Cyclone Nisha in 2006, groups of grassroots women participated in training programs offered by Huairou Commission member organizations SSP and GROOTS International, focused on disaster risk reduction. Through these trainings, women gained skills and experience in understanding community needs, negotiating with government, and preparing their communities in search, rescue, warning and rehabilitation techniques. SSP facilitated the formation of disaster task forces in many villages, starting with Keelamoovarkarai village, Nagapattinam.
Recognizing the ongoing need for such knowledge, groups of grassroots women then decided to continue their relief work on a more long-term basis. They organized Women's Federations in Cuddalore and Nagapattinam. Since successfully intervening in Cyclone Nisha, these Women's Federations have begun to provide training to other village communities. As Cyclone Thane approached in late December 2011, organized grassroots women were prepared to respond.
The delegation of Women's Federation members was headed by Chitra, the leader of Nagapattinam Women's Federation, along with B. Gouri, Rani, Maheshwari, Padmavathi and Annalakshimi, all nominated from the Nagapattinam Women's Federation. Mohana and A. Vijaya represented Cuddalore Women's Federation. The groups visited the villages of Nochikadu, Singarathoppu, Kandankadu, Tsunami Nagar and Thazhankuda.
The calls before the storm
In the days leading up to Cyclone Thane, Women's Federation leaders from Cuddalore used an early warning system to reach out to local villages likely to be affected. According to Mohana, leader of the Cuddalore Women's Federation, "We sent SMS messages and made phone calls to many [of] our group leaders to alert their communities on the cyclone." This strategy helped to save several lives.
Grassroots women take the lead
During the cyclone, grassroots women played a pivotal role in meeting the needs of their communities, for example by obtaining food and water supplies from other organizations to distribute to people in need.
In many cases, grassroots women took it upon themselves to intervene where the government was unable to respond to crises. In the fishing village of Singarathoppu, where heavy wind and rainfall destroyed many houses, Women's Federation leader Mohana helped evacuate families in a low-lying area rather than waiting for government officials. In the village of Kandankadu, women took more drastic measures when their water supply was threatened. When the local women's group's request for a village officer to arrange for drinking water fell on deaf ears, they locked the officer in the room until later that evening, releasing him when higher officials promised to address the problem.
Assessing the Damage
In the aftermath of the cyclone, on January 7, 2012, Women's Federations visited affected communities to see the storm's impact firsthand.
According to estimates made by women's groups, out of a total 2,450 houses in 5 villages, 1,500 houses were damaged by the cyclone.
Families living in thatched houses faced the most destruction, many losing their entire home. Communities continue to struggle with a lack of drinking water and electricity from the storm damage, along with food shortages-rice, milk, vegetables and other supplies cannot reach those in need due to road blockages. Transportation remains at a standstill, as fuel is unavailable. In Nochikadu village, which depends on cashew nuts as a cash crop, many cashew trees were uprooted and the majority of houses were damaged. Women and young girls staying in shelters face vulnerability in public facilities lacking privacy.
The state government of Tamil Nadu has announced relief packages for fully and partially damaged houses and certain fishermen will qualify to be compensated for damaged boats, but no relief for crop damages has been announced.
In order to bring stability back to the lives of disaster-affected people, SSP is helping to facilitate post-cyclone initiatives along with Women's Federation in Cuddalore. They are addressing food and water shortages and trying to identify alternative livelihood options. With the evidence they gathered, grassroots women also met with Panchayat (local government) leaders to jointly evaluate the response and plan of action to for rehabilitation.
Grassroots women's short-term recommendations include involving women-led task forces in overseeing relief and rehabilitation and replanting lost trees, organizing health camps, distributing relief according to their needs assessment and increasing house compensation, compensating farmers for lost crops, providing basic sanitation in temporary shelters, and addressing drinking water issues. These recommendations coincide with the longer-term goals of providing livelihood support for affected community members, handing over management of the early warning system, building permanent houses for affected people, and ultimately forming and strengthening disaster task forces in all coastal villages.