For more than 48 hours, C Dilli had not slept. He was visibly exhausted on Tuesday afternoon when he stepped out of his two-room house in Nettukuppam, one of the six fishing hamlets at the Ennore Creek, the estuarine mouth of the Kosasthalaiyar river in North Chennai.

Dilli had spent all Monday morning transporting residents to relief camps set up in a high school nearby. And he had spent all evening trying to secure the village boats along with the other fishermen. But despite their efforts, the cyclonic storm Vardah – which swept through Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh on Monday resulting in 10 deaths – caused massive damage to the village’s 120 boats, the repairs for which would mount up to a few crores, he said.

“For the boat having the least damage, repairs will cost at least Rs 10,000,” said Dilli, the president of Nettukuppam Fishermen’s Cooperative Society. “For others it may take up to Rs 60,000. And this is excluding the damage to the engines and the nets. We might have to spend a total of a lakh on each boat.”

Cyclone underestimated

The eye of the cyclone had been expected to cross the coast along the stretch between Ennore to Pulicat. The fishermen of Ennore knew that a storm was coming their way. They had seen warnings displayed on television about Cyclone Vardah.

“But we never even expected it to be this intense,” said RL Srinivasan, the president of a fishing cooperative in another village, Kaatukuppam. “After the flood last year, people are fearful of water, but they hadn’t seen the effect of a storm. They just thought it would be slightly windy for a short while. Although we were alert, we were still not entirely prepared.”

Fisherfolk at Nettukuppam testing their boats.

A Venkatesh, a resident of Mugathwarakuppam village, said that the damage caused by Cyclone Vardah in a single day was greater than 2015 flooding disaster in Chennai. “At that time, water came into our houses, but not as many boats were destroyed,” he said. “But this time, each and every one of them will require repairs worth thousands of rupees.”

Dilli said that last year, the government had given up to Rs 30,000 for the damaged boats. “But we had spent out of our pocket for the rest of the repairs,” he said. Many of the houses built with aluminium sheets have also toppled in these villages, not to mention the countless number of trees.

Financial disaster

T Siva, another fisherman, said that he would now have to take loans or pawn jewellery to fund the repairs. “There’s no money in ATMs, and sometimes the banks also run out of cash,” said Siva, who lives in Nettukuppam. “How do we withdraw the little savings we have to repair our boats?”

For the fishermen who go out to the sea to catch fish, like those of Nettukuppam, this is one of those months when they go out to fish only rarely since the sea is usually rough this time of the year. These fishermen depend on the little they have saved over the year to survive this month.

But the inland fishermen who fish along the river – like those of Kaatukuppam – face another kind of financial crisis.

Damaged boat that has sunk into the river.

Normally at this time of the year, an inland fisherman can easily make Rs10,000 a day, said Venkatesh. He said that during December rains, the river had plenty of prawns and was one of the very few profitable months for inland fishermen.

Srinivasan agreed. “Sometimes we catch so much that we store them in ice and send them off to the market in Kasemedu harbour. But for most other months, sea fishermen have more catch.”

But now the fisherfolk say that it will take at least a month to get the boats repaired. Dilli said it would take him almost three months to actually assess the repair costs of each of the fishermen, submit them to the Fisheries Department, get the reimbursement, if offered, and distribute it to the food fishermen.

“Last evening, the Chief Minister O Paneerselvam arrived at our relief camp to assure us that we would be taken care of,” said Dilli. “But with the cash problem and our badly damaged boats, they should give us more money this time.”

While most citizens of Chennai stayed indoors during the tempestuous weather, Srinivasan, Dilli, Venkatesh and a few others were driving from one villages to another, bringing people to safety and dragging their boats to shelter.

“It was terribly windy, wet and cold but we had no other choice,” said Srinivasan. “If we don’t have our boats and nets, we don’t have anything.”