Rare summer cyclone from the Bay of Bengal — Cyclone Fani hit India on 3 May. The type IV cyclone was extremely severe in nature, making landfall in Puri, Odisha. The wind speed reached 200 km/hr, tearing off tin roofs, snapping power lines and uprooting trees. The total loss has been pitched at Rs 500 billion with more than 500,000 dwelling units damaged. However, nature’s fury could not cause much loss to human life with only 64 dead. The robust disaster management plan cobbled up the eastern state has since been cited as a model for not only other states in India to follow but also the world.
The international organizations, including the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Deduction (UNISDR), hailed the efforts of 45,000 volunteers, 4000 National Disaster Response Team personnel, 2000 workers and 100,000 officials, and 3 million targeted messages played in a loop that ensured that the human lives were saved.
In the recent past, hurricane Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017 with wind speeds of 175 mph, causing a death toll of around 3000. The same year, Hurricane Harvey struck Texas with winds of 130 mph, causing devastating flooding. There was $125 billion in damage and 68 deaths. In March 2019, cyclone Idai hit Mozambique and ripped through Madagascar, Malawi, and Zimbabwe, killing more than 1000 people.
For Odisha, it was the 1999 super cyclone causing almost 10,000 lives that were the turning point. That time the intensity of cyclone was underestimated, its path miscalculated. The result was vast death and destruction. Three hundred fifty thousand houses were washed away, more than 200,000 animals killed, and 2.5 million people left stranded. There were only 21 state shelters with the capacity to only accommodate 2000 people. The state went out of contact with the rest of the world for an entire day. The government haplessly watched for 30 hours as the cyclone battered the state. This led to authorities buckling up in lessons of disaster management, the fruits that could be seen in the present context.
Technology, Armed Forces and Better Preparedness
Early Warning Systems in Place: Days before cyclone Fani formed, small yellow floating buoys deployed along the east coast and deep in the ocean knew that a storm was in the making. These twelve buoys assisted meteorologists in tracking the movement of cyclone in real time and estimate its path. Seven of the buoys along the coast were deployed by Hyderabad-based Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) and five far into the sea by National Institute of Ocean Technology. Data from these buoys was received every 30 minutes and disseminated after processing. This helped departments, including IMD, Coast Guard, Navy, fishermen associations, NDRF, tourism boards, and coastal state governments prepare for the storm.
Military and Disaster Response: Indian military’s disaster response and reconstruction were ready before the cyclone struck. INS Chilka was immediately deployed to provide emergency assistance in cutting and clearing trees in some areas and supplying food material, torches, batteries, disinfectants, etc. A naval Dornier aircraft carried out an aerial survey and found extensive damage to vegetation at many places around Puri. Indian Navy ships Ranvijay, Kadmatt and Airavat with three helicopters operating off Puri and coordinating aerial survey and immediate response through their integral helicopters. Chetak and UH3H helicopters positioned to launch rescue efforts and air-dropping of relief material to the inaccessible and remote areas. Three C-130J Super Hercules aircraft for used disaster relief. The aircraft carried approximately 45 tonnes of relief material including medicines for the locations affected by Cyclone Fani.
A robust relief infrastructure: There were over 4,000 shelters, including 880 specially designed cyclone centers. By 2001, the Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force was also set up to conduct rescue operations and distribute relief. These have been working with a clear command structure and have managed several cyclones in the past successfully.
A culture of resilience: People were sensitized about what was being done and how could they be actively involved in it. Empowering local population goes a long way in dealing with any natural calamity. Many community members have been made the stakeholders in maintaining the shelters in non-disaster periods.
The three-pronged approach by the state government– technology advances helping in the accurate forecast, robust disaster management in place, involving citizenry and culture of the resilience that helped in the timely evacuation of nearly a million people.
What Needs to Improve?
The post-disaster response in urban areas – including the capital city Bhubaneswar – has been under the lens. Electricity, water supply, lack of potable water, and functional sanitation has still not been restored in some areas. Felled Trees and animal carcasses were lying in the open for several days. Odisha’s green cover is lost and will take decades to recover. There needs to be more research and work on creating disaster resilient infrastructure. As climate change takes place rapidly, there are going to be more intense natural events that can be calamitous. Keeping the spirit of the UN’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, it is important to integrate urban planning and disaster management to deal with such extreme events. This involves the support of not only the state but also the local government, private sector, and the common man.
*** The author is currently an independent analyst of geopolitical issues, was earlier associated with Bangalore-based NIAS, and was also a Fulbright Adjunct Faculty at American University, Washington DC ***