THEY SAID THAT Phailin will be destructive. Brian McNoldy, a hurricane expert said, “You don’t get storms stronger than this anywhere in the world.” American meteorologist, Eric Holthaus, accused the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) of underestimating the severity of the calamity as IMD refused to categorise it as a ‘super cyclone’ and instead termed it as a ‘very severe cyclone’
In the end, IMD had the last laugh. Most of the predictions about the cyclone - be it about the location of the land fall, wind speed at the time of land fall and areas that would be devastated, were spot on. It proves that our scientists are second to none.
In negotiating the 1999 super-cyclone the then Chief Minister, Giridhari Gomango, failed; prompting people to change Gomango to “Go-man-go”! 14 out of 30 districts of Odisha were ravaged; about 10,000 precious human lives and 5 lakh heads of cattle perished; 20 lakh houses and 18.4 million hectares of crop were damaged. Transport, telecom and power systems got completely paralysed and this state of paralysis continued for days on end.
While Odisha, in 1999, did lack the political will, it was also the lack of institutions and established practices to handle such calamities that was responsible. for the failure to save lives. Odisha learnt from the lessons.
The Government of India enacted the Disaster Management Act, which envisaged the creation of the National disaster management Authority (NDMA), headed by the Prime Minister to spearhead and implement a holistic and integrated approach to disaster management in India. So in line with the national plan Odisha State Disaster Mitigation Authority (OSDMA) was created and under its auspice was created Orissa Disaster Rapid Action Force(ODRAF). Now there are 10 units of ODRAF stationed in many strategic locations of Odisha. Over the years ODRAF has earned many accolades and they are maturing as a dedicated force for disaster management.
By building such dedicated institutions and training personnel for such tasks Odisha has moved one step ahead of the age when calling the army into action, in the wake of every calamity, was the order of the day. Now army has become another line of support and not the only recourse.
Before the 1999 super cyclone there were only 23 Red Cross cyclone shelters. These saved the lives of 42,000 people. This prompted the government of Odisha to construct many more multi-purpose cyclone shelters along the Odisha coast to provide safe shelters to the vulnerable people during floods and cyclones. Today, there are 203 such multi-purpose cyclone shelters.
Each cyclone shelter is equipped with 32 types of sophisticated equipment required for disaster management. These include: power saw, siren, free kitchen utensils, flexi water tank, solar light, stretcher, life jacket, inflatable tower light, generator... The preparedness is regularly reviewed and skills learnt are practiced on 19 June every year. About 5000 schools, most of which have been constructed in the last 15 years, were used as make shift disaster shelters for the 1 million evacuees. In these schools 11,000 teachers were called in to man the free kitchens and they discharged their responsibility commendably.
The government of Odisha issued the highest alarm level to meet the impeding calamity. It did an unprecedented evacuation of a million people from coastal areas to safe houses and shelter homes. Puja holidays of all the government officials were cancelled and all those who hady gone on leave were asked to join duty immediately.
The IAF deployed 24 aircrafts along with 18 helicopters. The Defence Minister directed the armed forces to be on high alert and asked them to be ready to move in for relief operations when required. Army moved its command and control element to Bhubaneswar.
Nature always wins!
Though the loss of human lives was averted, there has been colossal loss of property. 14,514 villages in 12 districts and 90 lakh people have been affected. Houses of about 2.34 lakh people have suffered damages in Ganjam district, which is the worst affected. Over five lakh hectares of standing crops were destroyed by the gushing water causing a loss of Rs 2400 crore. 4685 elementary schools, 1135 high schools and five teacher-training institutions were damaged. Almost 3 million trees have been uprooted. It will take years before the lost green cover is regenerated.
Flood, which is natural, came in the aftermath of the cyclonic rains and complicated the rehabilitation process. Now some of the evacuees will need to spend weeks instead of days in shelter homes as their habitats are inundated with water.
There are three stages to managing similar disasters: (I) Warning and precautionary measures. (II) Facing the challenge. (III) Relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction.
A combination of accurate predictions, a pro-active government and willing support by the people has resulted in a very successful negotiation of this calamity in stage-I. The scale of mobilisations and alacrity displayed in saving people’s lives is unprecedented. There have been issues in feeding the displaced multitude and it would take months before alternative arrangements are made for the destroyed infrastructure. In any case, rehabilitation of the people who have lost their houses and their standing crops is going to be a lengthy process. But, at this point, praise is due for Naveen Patnaik. The UN has been so impressed with the efficiency and effectiveness of the measures that they’ve decided to study and document the process for posterity.
Patnaik continues to be the sole darling of the crowd; for, as the citizenry matures they are able to distinguish between bland political rhetoric and the people who walk the talk. We are now close to being fully prepared even for a super cyclone.
From dream to reality
Negotiating cyclone Phailin was a demonstration of human preparedness in standing up to nature’s fury. India has come a long way in disaster management. Now, we, as a nation, are among the very few countries, which have developed such institutions and have established such practices to face the Nature’s fury. What lies beyond is the process of consolidation.