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Post-Gaja, focus shifted from rescue operation to removal of uprooted trees

Notwithstanding their prolific exposure to emergency missions arising out of natural calamities, firefighters involved in the restoration process after the recent cyclone found themselves in a different situation. More challenging than rescue operations was the immediate task at hand: clearing thousands of uprooted trees.

Although firefighting teams in the coastal districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam and Pudukottai districts were in a state of preparedness, they did not anticipate the high velocity winds, which caused immense destruction to plantations, crops, livestock and civil infrastructure.

Armed with ropes, life jackets, life buoys, rubber boats and other paraphernalia, they were all set to carry out rescue missions anticipating heavy floods. However, the situation at the ground level turned out to be different once the cyclone unleashed its fury and passed.

“Our focus from then on was removal of trees, many of which were giant-sized, that had uprooted and fallen on highways, main roads, residential localities, narrow streets, bylanes, village roads, and on electric posts. The rescue mission was minimal as people had sought shelter in safe places heeding the advisory given by the official machinery on the eve of the cyclone,” said a senior fire officer.

In a briefing held a couple of days before D-Day — November 16 — firefighters in the central region were informed of their assigned tasks and directed not to avail leave from November 15. They were deployed in teams at various spots to carry out their mission, said another official.

Post-Gaja, it soon became clear that there would not be much use for the rescue paraphernalia.

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Clearing the uprooted trees became the primary task. Trees in large numbers were littered along Velankanni-Kodiyakkarai, Pattukottai-Madukkur and Pattukottai-Muthupettai stretches. Similar scenarios were being reported from several towns including Peravurani, Adhiramapattinam, Pudukottai, Alangudi, Aranthangi and Orathanadu.

The destruction in the coastal districts of the central region was immense in terms of human lives, cattle, livestock and poultry. Hence, firefighting teams from other districts were pressed into service in the delta region and Pudukottai to clear uprooted trees and carry out relief work.

Any wonder that the power saw was much in use than lifebuoys, life jackets and rubber boats. Clearing the uprooted trees took priority, as the roads had to be cleared to enable vehicles on relief duty to reach the affected areas. The firefighters worked simultaneously in removing uprooted trees that had fallen on roads, streets, bylanes and residential localities. “In some cases, cutting and removing a gigantic tree took half-a-day,” said an officer.

Firefighting teams were accommodated in wedding halls, schools, temples and fire stations to carry out their task without a break. “It is difficult to calculate the number of uprooted trees removed by our teams,” said another officer.

In some cases, firefighters helped in rescuing residents trapped in their houses due to tree fall in Pudukottai district.

“Dealing with the extreme crisis situation was a challenging task for us,” said field-level officials.

The extra manpower drawn from other districts were being sent back as the major task of clearing uprooted trees had been accomplished. However, there were still plenty of uprooted trees that were lying on farmlands and groves in interior pockets of the cyclone-hit districts, they added.

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