|Friday, 22 November 2002|
The cyclone of November 23, 1978, which blasted Batticaloa
by Prince Casinader
When the people of Batticaloa faced the dawn of the 22nd of November 1978, they little knew that the entire face of the area would be so changed within the next twenty four hours.
There had been incessant rain and by the evening of the 22nd the populace were in utter fear as they heard the continual fiendish whine of the winds as it grew lauder and louder bringing utter panic.
This was accompanied by the tumult of giant trees, buildings crashing down, and adding to the misery of the people, as their fall plunged the area into utter darkness, distrupting the water supply. One wondered whether a team of parachutists were landing, for a number of roofing sheets on modest houses parted moorings from houses and were seen floating skywards. The fearful whine of the winds, the sounds of falling buildings scared even the bravest hearts.
One wondered why it was Batticaloa's fate that every time the cycle of cyclones targeted Batticaloa and the East, for in the past this area had been in the wake and eye of the cyclone in the years 1845, 1907, 1921 and again in 1978.
I sat as a helpless and frightened spectator when one of Batticaloa's oldest buildings named 'Burleigh House' of colonial times, with its two storeys swayed and gave up the ghost as though breathing its last, accompanied by an ear splitting cacophony.
Batticaloa suffered utter devastation and its economy, in just a few hours, was downed to smithereens. A count taken after days after the cyclone had abated, revealed that out of Batticaloa's 31,500 coconut trees, about 28,000 had been rendered hors de combat, smashed almost to matchwood. Some of them lining the lagoon and sea coast had fallen into these waters where fishermen found their fishing impeded by these trunks entangling their nets. It was reported that about 240 schools had been almost flattened, and well over hundreds of miles of electric cables in tatters.
One highlight of this sad event was the action of forethought and valour, in the midst of falling debris, of a Sinhala Sub Inspector, then stationed in Batticaloa, in rushing to the Power House to get the supply switched off to lessen the causalities who would have stepped on live wires and got electrocuted. All my efforts to trace the name of this gallant officer who deserved a medal, have been futile.
Among the casualities were cadju plantations, coconut plantation and paddy crops and estimates revealed that 1/5th of Batticaloa's fishing fleet had been affected. A happy feature was how some doctors working at the General Hospital, faced with the lack of water, were seen rolling up their trouser sleeves and personally carrying water to the upper wards.
The historic landmark, 'Burleigh House' facing the Batticaloa Esplanade was so named after a ship's surgeon Dr. George Burleigh, who had been in the English 2nd Regiment and taken part in the Kandyan Insurrection of 1817 and 1818, and at the time of the cyclone this building was used as the Y.M.C.A. hostel, where at the time of the blast, 3 hostellers one an Education Officer, the other a Probation Officer and a Karate coach of the YMCA just managed to jump off and save their lives and found refuge in the official bungalow which was the quarters of the Principal of the oldest college in the East, Methodist Central College, Batticaloa, which served as the tragic band stand from which I sadly saw the demise of this ancient and stately building. One of the very few buildings which stood up to this terrific blast was the ancient Dutch Fort which even now houses the nerve centre of the Batticaloa administration.
A former State Council Member in his book entitled 'Monograph of the Batticaloa District' writes that in building the walls of this doughty Fort a former chieftain had donated about 300 pots of honey, which went into the mix used in building the walls of this Fort. This same Fort figured when the major floods over ran Batticaloa with the breach of the major tank of Unnichai and the floods had risen to very high levels with canoes careering over the town bridge. On the Fort walls, a nail had been driven to mark the height to which the floods had risen but alas the nail seems no more.
(The writer is a retired school principal and former Member of Parliament)
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