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Grim view from top

A view from high in the skies is always pretty, even if one is looking at death and destruction. Soumyajit Pattnaik reports.

india Updated: Sep 23, 2008 22:31 IST

A view from high in the skies is always pretty, even if one is looking at death and destruction.

In Orissa’s Kendrapara district — the worst affected by the Mahanadi deluge — nothing much was visible from the Mi-17 relief helicopter of the Indian Air Force (IAF) as it hovered over Naganpur and Arakhakuda villages on Tuesday. We could see a few rooftops and a vast seething water body.

But as the chopper climbed down closer to the houses, the marooned people on rooftops started becoming visible — waving red and white clothes attached to bamboo poles. They were trying to show exactly where the relief materials were to be dropped. There were some women and children, raising their hands in desperation.

Flight Lieutenant KP Singh reacted quickly and brought the chopper to a complete standstill. The support staff, sitting in the rear, started dropping the foodstuff and other essentials like candles and matchboxes in waterproof containers on the rooftops.

But it’s easier said than done. There was very little margin for error, as the two villages were practically under water, except a few rooftops. Many were still desperately waving even after all the food packets were dropped. The demand far outstrips the supply.

Flight Lt Singh told Hindustan Times, “Pin-point air-droppings are more challenging than dropping food packets on embankments or open places, but not difficult. We have been trained to meet all requirements.” The only problem is that the chopper generates so much air turbulence that some of the household items stored on rooftops get blown away when the chopper gets closer.

Air force pilots said, “Rooftop air droppings pose two problems. First, we don’t know the strength of the roof of a submerged house and second, the helicopter has to generate extra power to remain in a static position.”

Although floodwaters have receded, several areas in Cuttack, Jagatsinghpur, Puri and Kendrapara districts still remain completely cut off. Since it’s difficult to reach out to the marooned people in those places, the IAF has been asked to chip in. On Monday, 17 sorties airdroped relief materials.

Pratap Mishra, a state government official coordinating the air relief operations, said, “Twenty sorties have been planned for Tuesday. Block development officers inform the special relief commissioner’s office about the marooned places. After the spots are selected, we pass on detailed information culled from the geographical information system (GIS) to the pilots.”

Since questions are being raised over whether it is possible to equitably distribute materials through air-droppings, the choppers are also doing ‘food landings’ — going to pre-determined places from where relief materials are carried further by boats.