The first dead cow was easy to miss, just a pale blob floating among the reeds like a wad of storm debris. But then there was another, and another. As the road crisscrossed the cyclone's path, through the watery rice fields and flattened coastal villages of Orissa state, hundreds of bloated shapes dotted the landscape.
Some were too small to be cows. Several of those floating near the roads had metal bracelets on their wrists or ankles. Not far off, women were washing clothes in the water, children were playing and animals were drinking. But no one wanted to touch the bodies of the dead, someone else's dead, that had been carried from other villages by the lashing wind and rain.
So they lay in the shallows, most of them drowned during the 72 hours between Oct. 29 and 31 when the most powerful cyclone to strike India in three decades swept in from the Bay of Bengal and hammered the coast of Orissa, with 200 mph winds and 24-foot tidal waves.
An estimated 15 million people have been affected, mostly rural villagers in one of India's poorest states. By early this week, the official death toll had exceeded 3,400, along with more than 25,000 livestock. But in the 48 hours ending tonight, the human death toll had been raised to 7,600 and the number of livestock killed to 193,000.
Today, as hundreds of survivors waded for miles through swampy fields to obtain bags of cooked rice at an emergency feeding center in Ersama, about 75 miles southeast of the state capital Bhubaneshwar, they brought more tales of untallied death, disease and devastation. Some said marooned villagers were eating cattle fodder, leaves and raw vegetables, and children were falling sick with diarrhea.
The Indian army has sent troops to distribute relief, and air force helicopters have dropped food and medicine to stranded villages throughout Jagatsinghpur district, where Ersama is located. But military officials, fearing epidemics, recommended this week that the district be evacuated; civilian authorities have made no decision.
"In my village, many children are dead. All the cattle are dead. My parents are dead. All I have left is my sister," said farm laborer Hari Pradhan, 33, as he waited for his ration of rice. When the cyclone struck, he said, "we sat on the roof of our hut but it collapsed, and my parents started flowing away with the water. We never found them. There are many other bodies in the village, but we don't know whose they are, so what can we do?"
A few miles away, on the far side of a concrete bridge that had cracked and sunk, dozens of people waited, some with bicycles, for a canoe to ferry them across so they could reach the feeding center. One was a rice farmer named Suhash Naik, 30. Like many people, he said he had heard a warning on the radio, urging everyone to take shelter in a concrete building, but he did nothing.
"We didn't think it would be so bad, and we didn't want to leave with our crops ready. Besides, even the schoolhouse is made of mud." Now, Naik said, not a house is standing and at least 25 people are dead. "There is nothing left, only bodies floating everywhere. There is no hope for life."
If the people of Ersama were unprepared for the cyclone, it appears that the government of Orissa was too. Many roads and services were already marginal, and initial relief efforts were hampered by poor coordination as well as driving rain. The first supplies were sent by train from neighboring state governments. In the entire coastal area there were only 23 cyclone shelters, which were built by Germany.
Since the storm, foreign governments and agencies have provided tens of millions of dollars in aid and supplies, but damaged roads and flooding have hindered them from reaching remote areas. The Indian government has pledged more than $50 million in aid, but officials in Orissa, which is governed by the opposition Congress party, complain that is far from enough.
"We have been working day and night, but this was a millennial disaster," said Prasanna Hota, Orissa's appointed representative in New Delhi. He noted that the state was virtually without telephone or electrical service for four days after the storm. "We have a survival economy, and even a prosperous one would have trembled," he said. "Those who were supposed to be sending relief needed it themselves."
Conditions near Bhubaneshwar were only slightly better than in rural areas. In one health clinic today, families with children suffering from diarrhea lay in crowded corridors, and one doctor said he feared a "mini-epidemic" at least. In a slum called Salia Saih, hundreds of mud shacks lay crushed by trees, and residents were trying to rebuild the walls by hand.
In Niali, a prosperous dairy center, carcasses of cows were piled along the roads. Keshav Chand Parida said four of his seven milk cows had died. In his debris-strewn yard, a cow with two broken legs struggled to rise, while her injured calf lay nearly still. A sheep farmer, Kanchan Bala Barik, wept as she described how all 50 of her lambs had been crushed in their shed.
From the capital, the road leading to Ersama was clear of debris but lined with twisted and tortured wreckage. Huge trees with root systems 12 feet wide lay on their sides, ripped intact from the ground. Thousands of coconut palms had smashed through huts and yards. Steel power poles were bent like swans' necks. Village after village had become a swamp of soggy thatch, tangled branches and red mud.
Human efforts to rebuild seemed hopelessly puny. Men chopped with axes at massive fallen tree trunks. Women dug with bare hands at mountains of mud that filled their homes. Some enterprising residents stripped branches into poles to sell or fashion into new roofs, but other people sat despondently along the road.
Government trucks and army jeeps passed, carrying sacks of rice and boxes of medical supplies, but volunteers were doing much of the relief work. A private power company set up at the Ersama feeding center, and the grim but urgent task of corpse disposal was taken on by a grass-roots Hindu organization whose young members rode from village to village in jeeps, looking for bodies to cremate.
"Yesterday was my first day. I helped with 10 bodies, and I felt scared and speechless," said Sunil Kumar Bera, 19, a volunteer wearing orange rubber gloves, khaki shorts and a bandanna over his nose. "But I also feel happy because this is a crucial task, and nobody else wants to do it."
At noon, Bera's team reached a village called Bhua Sahi, where they spotted two corpses lying in shallow water near the road. Dragging them to higher ground, they poured kerosene and piled branches on each body. Then, as one volunteer tossed a match on the pyres, the others raised their hands and shouted, "Ram Nam Satya Hai!" ("The name of Lord Ram is the only truth"), a Hindu prayer for the dead.
A little farther on, someone led them to a baby's corpse in a yard. The house owner said he had not felt "brave enough" to touch an unknown body, so he had simply pushed it to the edge of his property. People gathered to watch as the boys covered the tiny corpse with straw and lit it, but few joined in the volunteers' prayer. They had their own losses to cope with, their own grief to bear.
"All that night I heard the water and the wind, and in the morning I started looking for my family," said Sukudev Malik, 35, a farm laborer. "On the second day I found my wife and son's bodies by the road, but there was nothing I could do; the water was too high. I just watched and they slowly floated away."
Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi contributed to this report.