Natural Disasters

A Super Cyclone ravaged Odisha 22 years ago on this day: Our learnings and way forward

There should be a proper audit and inspection of the cyclone shelters before the disaster season, among other measures

By Debabrat Patra
Published: Friday 29 October 2021

We have come a long way since the 1999 Super Cyclone in Odisha. The Disaster Management Act, 2005, state disaster management authorities, the National Disaster Management Authority as well as plans and guidelines for disaster management have come into force after that great tragedy. The measures were introduced to spearhead and implement a holistic and integrated approach to disaster management in India. 

The Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (the first of its kind in the country) was set up in 1999 to focus not only on the mitigation activities but also the relief, restoration, reconstruction, coordination and networking within and outside the government under the aegis of state relief commissioner’s office under state revenue and disaster department. 

The Indian Red Cross had constructed 23 cyclone shelters before 1999. At present, the state has over 203 cyclone shelters and 52 flood shelters, which are handed over to the community-based Cyclone Shelter Management and Maintenance Committees (CSMMC). 

In addition to this, school buildings are also designed to work as community shelters. Around 9,664 primary school buildings have been strengthened and 5,683 new buildings have been constructed to serve this purpose. 

The lives lost in natural disasters have greatly decreased since 1999. Evacuation is now timely and effective. The entire national and state machinery becomes active before any impending natural disaster.

The way forward

However, we need not be complacent. Our efforts should continue in this regard and we need to make people more disaster-resilient, given the fact that the frequency and intensity of natural disasters is likely to increase in the days to come. 

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic over the last two years has forced us to look at the preparedness of government health facilities in rural areas to face such crises. We have witnessed the lack of oxygen, lack of beds and human resource at the primary healthcare centres (PHC) and Community Healthcare Centres (CHC). 

Awareness building regarding vaccination and maintaining COVID-19-appropriate behaviour is also key. Given the spread fo the pandemic, there should be concerted effort by the government and civil society organisations to create awareness. Also building a robust government healthcare system is the need of the hour and the government should work in this regard to equip the health centres.

The infrastructure built after the Super Cyclone, like the cyclone shelters or the school-cum-cyclone shelters, also needs a relook. There should be periodic maintenance of these cyclone shelters. 

Some of the cyclone shelters that we visited after Cyclone Yaas in May 2021 and the subsequent floods in Odisha were in a pitiable condition. The toilets were filthy. There was no power backup in many cyclone shelters. 

People just came for the night of the cyclone and went away the following morning. There was no place to sleep because cyclone shelters were so crowded.

So, there should be a proper audit and inspection of the cyclone shelters before the disaster season as well as repairing and cleaning of cyclone shelters. The toilets need to be cleaned and made usable before the cyclone otherwise people are forced to go out for open defecation. 

Persons with disabilities and the elderly need special support to get to the cyclone shelters. Otherwise, they are left at the mercy of family members and villagers. There should be ample provisioning of cyclone shelters before the natural disaster strikes and adequate food stock should be maintained in the shelters. 

There should also be proper arrangement for livestock needs on the shelter premises so that they are not left free.

After cyclone or any natural disaster, there should be a proper and transparent survey of damage and people should be assisted according to the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) norms and amending the norms according to the requirements of disaster-affected community within a stipulated time limit of say, two months. 

This is essential at this stage as people are reeling under the impact of the cyclone and the pandemic, and have lost their livelihoods. 

The government should also provide adequate social security to the affected population so that they can tide over the crisis of cyclones and pandemics. These schemes will help people recover faster. Services like Antodaya Yojana, public distribution system, pension schemes, disability certification and so on, will help the people in these trying times. 

There is a need to prioritise support for people whose houses were completely devastated by the cyclone. The government should provide homestead land and pucca (IAY or state housing schemes like Biju Pucca Ghar Yojana) houses in safe zones to needy people like persons with disabilities, elderly and other vulnerable groups in disaster-prone areas. We should do away with the kutcha houses in these areas.

There should be transparency in distribution of all kinds of compensation, especially government compensation. The list of beneficiaries of the compensation needs to be displayed publicly. Farmers and agricultural labourers, in most cases, saw destruction of houses and standing crops. 

Support in terms of immediate provision of work is very much needed now as labour work is not available either in rural or urban areas because of the COVID-19 pandemic and cyclone. The Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme should be immediately activated so that people who are willing to work can access it.

Farmers need to be provided with financial input and immediate credit to restart the agriculture work immediately. The government should consider writing off the agricultural loans of small farmers. It should also provide sufficient cattle feed and support to people who own livestock.

Similarly, civil society organisations should work in disaster-prone areas beyond relief distribution. They should help people in facilitating their access to various government schemes as mentioned earlier. They should also assist people in finding alternative livelihoods in these trying times. 

Working on resilience building to frequent disasters is also a dire necessity in the disaster-prone areas. The national / state disaster management guidelines and SDRF norms should be made accessible to all citizens, particularly the poor and vulnerable in simple language and in the local dialect. The civil society organisations need to play a crucial role in this regard.

The role of the community is also crucial in the advent of any disaster. They need to be united in times of disaster and see to it that the cyclone shelters are cleaned and properly maintained. 

They should take active part in the shelter committee which is responsible for the maintenance of the cyclone shelter and its proper provisioning. The self-help groups (SHG) which provided cooked food to the cyclone shelters did a good job and this should be continued. 

The SHG members and village community should prioritise the evacuation of the most vulnerable to the cyclone shelters. They should be aware of and access the various government schemes and entitlements, the SDRF norms and what is due to them in the aftermath of a disaster.

Debabrat Patra is Associate Director, Humanitarian Lead in ActionAid India

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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