Eye on the storm

Cyclone Phailin has not taken many lives but has left behind a trail of destruction that severely cripples people’s livelihood. What did it take to save so many lives in the face of a potential killer? A Down To Earth analysis with a rider: should saving lives be the only mission of disaster preparedness?

Alok Gupta from Paradip and Ashis Senapati from Jagatsinghpur in Odisha; Raghuram Puvvada from Hyderabad, Jyotsna Singh and Richard Mahapatra from Delhi


Eye on the storm

imageOn the night of October 12, when cyclone Phailin crashed into Odisha, Basanti Jena of Boitalupatana village in Jajpur district relived the super cyclone of 1999 that had battered the state and killed about 10,000 people. The following morning, when she emerged from her house, she sighed with relief: no one in her village had died. Like Jena, the entire country had feared the worst. Phailin, with winds of more than 200 kilometres per hour, was the second fierce cyclone to hit India in 14 years. But it killed only a few—22 by the state government’s reckoning.

The Centre as well as the governments of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, which also lied in the path of Phailin, had braced up for the disaster. In its effort to achieve “zero human casualty”, the Odisha government had evacuated within 36 hours more than 900,000 people to 247 cyclone shelters and thousands of schools, rebuilt to double as shelters after the 1999 cyclone. Officials termed it as one of the biggest and most rapid evacuations in India’s history. This was indeed a high point in the country’s otherwise pathetic disaster management record. For the Odisha government, it was a saving grace.

imageBy October 13, Phailin began to weaken and crossed five states before dissipating in Nepal on October 17-18. There was widespread euphoria over the meagre death toll. People began to feel they had dodged nature’s fury. But the relief was short-lived. Within hours, as Basanti turned to take stock of the damage, another disaster hit her. A severe flood caused by incessant rains in the aftermath of Phailin marooned her village. She remained cut off for two days.

The flood was foretold. The India Meteorological Department had warned of heavy rains for 48 hours after the cyclone and floods in six major rivers—the Budhabalanga, Bansadhara, Baitarani, Bramahani, Kani and the Rushikulya. Andhra Pradesh, which had escaped the cyclone hitting straight, could not avoid the floods. The government evacuated 100,000 people from five coastal districts. In Odisha, the rivers inundated six of the 17 cyclone-affected districts, including the worst-hit Ganjam.

imageThe state government was ill-prepared to tackle this situation. As villages remained marooned, those evacuated ahead of the cyclone could not return home. The government extended its relief strategy by a week, initially designed to last for three days after the cyclone. There were just 4,600-odd relief shelters, including private concrete houses, to cater to the need of an additional 160,000 people. Shortage of food and lack of drinking water and sanitation facilities soon turned the overcrowded relief shelters into a living hell. According to unofficial estimates, about 500,000 people were in relief camps till a week after Phailin hit Odisha. “Waste is building up. Most people are living in makeshift camps with no sanitation facility,” Biraja Pati, social activist in Kendrapara district told a Down To Earth correspondent visiting the flood-hit area. “We do not have access to clean drinking water and face the risk of diarrhoea and other diseases,” said Debendra Jena of Bari block in Jajpur district.

As water began to recede, thousands of families started returning home. Those rendered homeless, however, remained in shelters till the magazine went to print. According to the Odisha government, the cyclone and the ensuing flood affected close to half of the state’s population across 10,053 villages. Over 90 per cent people were affected in Ganjam, where Phailin made landfall. The government estimates that the district alone will need close to Rs 500 crore to rebuild.

This questions the government’s cyclone management. India’s eastern coast has a long history of devastating cyclones. According to hurricane hunter and meteorologist Jeff Masters, 26 of the 35 deadliest tropical cyclones in the world history have been storms of the Bay of Bengal. With rising global temperatures, extreme cyclones are becoming more frequent. Despite this, since 1999, the eastern coast has witnessed rampant industrialisation and urbanisation, making the region more vulnerable to natural disasters. But the government did not consider this aspect as it embarked on what it calls “foolproof disaster preparedness”.

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