Root and Branch

The environmental devastation of Cyclone Fani

In Bhubaneswar itself, the government estimates that Fani destroyed 108,564 trees. dhiraj singh / bloomberg / getty images
01 October, 2019

On the afternoon of 30 July, I stood atop a watchtower inside the Chandaka–Dampara wildlife sanctuary, gazing at the recently transformed landscape. “We were not able to see them,” Brahmanand Behera, a member of the sanctuary’s anti-poaching squad, told me, pointing to trees in the distance. “Not even the mountains, nor those factories. But then, Fani came and took away all the trees surrounding this tower.” As per the estimates of Odisha’s forest department, 111,724 trees were destroyed inside the sanctuary due to Cyclone Fani, which hit coastal Odisha in May.

It was the peak of summer, and warnings of an imminent cyclone had already been issued. The state government took its customary precautions, moving people off the coast to shelter. On 3 May, along with the overcast conditions came the wind, howling louder and louder as the day progressed, taking down trees, hoardings, walls and roofs, twisting and turning the electricity and telephone poles at will. Fani is said to be the worst cyclone to hit India since the super-cyclone of 1999, which killed nearly ten thousand people in Odisha.

For the people of Odisha, the shocking memory of that unusual summer gradually faded. The government has managed to restore electricity, mobile networks and transportation services. Yet, it is impossible to reinstate millions of trees overnight.

Natural disasters, especially cyclones, have affected the environment in the past, causing substantial damage to biodiversity. Around eighteen thousand hectares of coconut trees and fifty-six thousand hectares of crops were damaged by Cyclone Gaja, in 2018, while over a hundred and seventy thousand trees were uprooted in and around Chennai, in 2016, by Cyclone Vardah. Similarly, thousands of trees were uprooted during the cyclones Hudhud and Titli, which hit the region bordering Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, in 2014 and 2018, respectively. The Kerala floods of 2018 caused large-scale soil erosion, leaving the soil below the ground hollow and creating the risk of sinkholes and further erosion.