When winds of fury flattened Batticaloa

30 years on, Prince Casinader recollects the Nov. 23 cyclone

It was one of Batticaloa's blackest days. When the citizens of Batticaloa went to sleep on November 22, 1978, little did they know they would, in a matter of hours, be facing the worst cyclone that ever battered our shores.

It is a mystery why so many target the Eastern coast for we have been lashed by cyclones in 1845, 1907, 1921 and then 1978. Other natural disasters too have hit Batticaloa and its environs, like the major flood when the Unnichai Tank breached, and I saw for myself the spectacle of canoes whizzing past the town bridge. The worst disaster in recent times was the December 2004 tsunami.

Coming back to the cyclone, metal sheets which served as roofing, were mercilessly wrenched off by the strong wind and were seen airborne in parachute-fashion. My 78-year-old father and I cowered in utter fright, the terrible sound of the cyclone seeming like the baying of hundreds of the hounds of Baskerville.

One had to laud some doctors who with the hospital in total darkness, tucked up their trousers and were seen climbing stairs with buckets of water. The Principal's bungalow of the oldest college in the East was fronted by an ancient and historical bungalow named Burleigh House.

I watched in dismay as it wobbled and fell with a crash. This stately landmark was a Methodist Mission building named after Dr. George Burleigh. It had links with the times of the Irish Rebellion in the U.K. and Lord Howe. Dr. Burleigh had been serving as ship's surgeon under Lord Howe and later in the 2nd Ceylon Regiment and his remains lie buried in the Dutch Cemetery in Jaffna. Dr. Burleigh's daughter Eleanor who married Robert Atherton of the Ceylon Civil Service, lived in Burleigh House.

The building served later as the YMCA, and three residents on that fateful night escaped from the collapsing building in the nick of time and sought refuge at my residence.

The 1978 cyclone wreaked a deadly path. About 700 lives were lost. Around 28,000 acres of a total of 31,500 coconut plantations were devastated, some 240 school buildings and one-fifth of Batticaloa's fishing fleet, 11 paddy granaries and 130 miles of electric cables destroyed. It was only the brave action of a Sinhalese Sub- Inspector who rushed to 'off' the main power station that prevented a higher death toll.

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