Pat da Silva, a proud Anglo-Indian with 40 years of service as an engineer on Indian railways, was due to take the northbound Tamil Nadu Express out of Madras last Saturday morning. Just before his huge red and white engine got under way, an official thrust a message into his hand: Storm warning for the Andhra Pradesh coast, it said. Possibility of obstructions on the line. It proved to be a great deal worse than that.
When Da Silva reached the coastal village station of Chirala, it was just after lunchtime, and the storm was sweeping in from the Bay of Bengal. Visibility was down to a few yards: driving rain was flooding into the cab; hurricane winds were rocking the train from side to side. There was nothing to do but to stop the express.
For 10 hours Da Silver kept his train at Chirala. "There was quite a bit of panicking among the passengers," he said later. "The whole thing was swaying in the wind, the wheels lifting up off the rails and hanging down again as the gales blew off the bay."
In the end the train did manage to chug off again, early on Sunday morning, picking its way gingerly through the mess of trees, dead cattle, boats, smashed cottages and people blown onto the railline.
Nearly a week after the storm made its brief and savage pass across the low Andhra coast, the extend of the extent of the disaster is becoming apparent: Thousands of people dead; a million or more head of cattle drowned or swept out to sea; tens of thousands of acres of good farmland ruined.
One old man, discovered at a refugee camp told a tale typical of the communal agony.
"It was late in the evening when the wave hit us. Our whole house collapsed and we had to run ahead of the water to higher ground. All my brothers died. My six buffaloes were swept away. The two acres of land I own are ruined by mud and salt. Every house in the hamlet has been smashed. I have my wife and baby. I have no money. There is nothing I can do."
Despite such displays of fatalism, stoicism and patience, the state government has been working to ease the suffering of the storm victims. Clinics have been set up, and tens of thousands of doses of cholera vaccine have been administered. In refugee camps, volunteers have been ladling out soup and chilis to the needy.
Indian air force helicopters, some from as far away as the western deserts of Gujarat, have been ferrying thousand of triple-wrapped bags of cooked rice and vegetables to stranded villagers. It is a home-grown rescue operation of considerable competence, and some of the suffering, at least, is being minimized as a result.
In New Delhi, however, there was criticism in parliament of the relief effort by the state government, run by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's Congress Party. State elections are to be held in February and the ruling people's Party would like to win Andhra. People's Party members of Parliament accused the state government of failing to take action to prevent the heavy casualties and damage when they first learned that the storm was coming.