How people weathered Phailin storm

Bitter lessons from 1999 cyclone and a prepared community helped reduce the impact of the night-long cyclonic storm that raged across coastal Odisha and Andhra Pradesh on the intervening night of October 12 and 13. Reports by Ashis Senapati and Raghuram Puvvada 

By Ashis Senapati, Raghuram Puvvada
Published: Saturday 26 October 2013

In most villages, people stored lanterns and food in cyclone shelters ahead of the storm

Sure, Phailin was less severe than the super cyclone of 1999. But it had a wind speed of 210-220 km/hr, enough to claim lives. As district administrations across Odisha and Andhra Pradesh alerted people about the impending danger, communities rose to the exigency.

Seventy-year-old Zahir Khan from New Venkat Raipur village in Gopalpur, where Phailin made landfall at 223 km/hr, cheers up as he recounts how his village escaped from the cyclone’s fury. “People united as TV channels started flashing news about Phailin on October 8. For three days we made elaborate plans, preparing for the worst. Though the Ganjam district administration had sent two bags of rice and 20 kg of pulses two days before the cyclone, we stocked enough food, drinking water, torches and medicines at the village primary school,” he says. Since the three-room school could not have accommodated the 1,200-odd population of the village, the sarpanch (village head) drew up a list of two-storied concrete houses in the village and asked the owners to accommodate a few families in their houses, he adds. Khan, who claims to have seen four cyclones in his life, was surprised at the response of the people to Phailin.

People across eastern Odisha have similar stories of survival to tell. Efforts also came from the unexpected quarter. The self-help group (SHG) movement has gained importance over the years as the government implements several poverty-alleviating schemes through SHGs. The vulnerable pockets have palpable presence of women SHGs who emerged as saviours during the disaster.

The Bay of Bengal is clearly visible from the yards of most residents of Ambiki village in Jagatsinghpur district. On October 29, 1999, death danced in its ugliest form in this village, killing 460 people. Fourteen years later, when Phailin struck, women took charge. “On October 10, president of our village SHG called an emergency meeting,” recalls Basant Giri, who had lost 12 relatives in 1999 cyclone. “It was attended by 120 women who decided to persuade all residents to leave for safer places. By the next day afternoon, cyclone shelter and village schools were packed like sardines. We clung to each other and survived,” she recounts.

On the morning of that fateful day, scores of fisherwomen in Kharinashi, a seaside village in Kendrapara district of Odisha, made their way to the fishing harbour to help their husbands tie up their fishing boats. They pursued all fishers in the harbour not to venture into the sea. “Usually the fisherfolk discount cyclone warnings. This was the first time, they moved to cyclone shelters along with others,” reminisces Shanti Haldar, SHG member.

In another fishing village, Baxipalli, in Ganjam fishers voluntarily packed their bags and took refuge in the cyclone shelter. In villages like Sahan in Puri, which did not have a cyclone shelter, people braved the gusty wind and incessant rains and trekked to reach cyclone shelters in nearby villages.

Bitter lessons from the past had instilled this voluntary preparedness among communities.

In Puri’s Nuagarh village, residents pooled money to purchase a radio set. They placed it in the school, where all the 120 residents had holed up to get latest weather updates. “We lost seven lives in the 1999 cyclone. This time we followed the predictions and took adequate precautions,” says resident Buddheshwar Kandi. In Sandhakuda village near the Paradip port, Rabindra Mohan Sanhoo, president on non-profit Rushikulya Sea Turtle Protection Committee, mobilsed the village youth and helped about 1,400 residents to leave their houses. “I remembered my children as I helped hundreds of people leave the seaside,” says T Alia, a resident. He had lost two sons and a daughter in the super cyclone.

There was also no dearth of individual efforts to beat the calamity. In Trilochanpur village in Jagatsinghpur district, Laxmidhar Mallick walked through his village beating a gong and singing a couplet since the morning of October 12, warning about the impending cyclone. Though there were microphones and mobile phones alerting people about the disaster, the 62-year-old did not want take chance and stuck to the traditional way of warning.

Laxmidhar Mallick of Odisha’s Jatasinghpur district walked through his village beating a gong to warn people about Phailin

“’Zero loss of life’ was our mission and we achieved it,” says Niranjan Nayak, district collector of Kendrapara. “Credit goes to the communities, government officials, police, panchayat members and SHGs,” he says with a sense of relief.

P K Mohapatra, Special Relief Commissioner of Odisha, hailed disaster management committees at the village panchayat levels for helping the district administration evacuate some 900,000 people ahead of the cyclone. Since 2000, Odisha has not only created cyclone shelters, equipped with disaster management tools like power saw, siren, utensils, water tank, solar light, life buoy and life jacket, inflatable tower light and generator, it has handed over the management to village-level committees. Members of these committees act as volunteers and are trained in disaster management. There are 200 such committees in six coastal districts affected by Phailin. On June 19 every year, the district authority conducts mock drills in collaboration with the National Disaster Management Authority to review their preparedness.

Bhibhuti Bhushan, head of Panaspada panchayat’s cyclone shelter committee, says, “We evacuated close to 2,000 people without the government help. Disaster management trainings helped us do so.” Panasapada, an island in Chilika, was not accessible till the magazine went to print.

The response from the community was so intense that people left the shelters as soon as the cyclone dissipated in the wee hours of October 13. “There was a remarkable change in the attitude of the people,” says Prabhakar Mishra, sarpanch of Nuagarh village in Puri. Earlier, they would be more interested in getting free relief material. This time, they rushed back to reconstruct their houses, though the damage was not as severe as in 1999, he adds.

In Andhra Pradesh, communities took the initiative to clear trees blocking roads

Phailin destructed 376,921 houses in Odisha. Behind such a low damage is a mesh of community collaboration and economic rise of people. Post 1999, villagers in a bid to protect their lives decided to make their houses stronger. Those who could not afford to build concrete houses, built brick walls and covered them with straw and thatch,” says Padmanabhan, sarpanch of New Venkat Raipur in Ganjam. Before 1999 nearly 70 per cent of the houses in the panchayat were made of mud. Now 80 per cent of the houses are made of bricks and cement, he adds. These helped contain the damage. Roofs blown away in the wind were back in place within 72 hours due to strong community feeling. After Phailin, people resorted to barter system. Those families with bamboo orchards exchanged bamboos with straws or logs to build the roof.

Village heads motivate

Andhra Pradesh, despite its advanced early warning system, faced a unique problem. “We had to shift more than 100,000 people. By god’s grace we got 96 hours to reach communities,” recalls T Radha, relief commissioner of Andhra Pradesh. But most of them were fishing communities. Usually, fishers do not pay heed to storm alerts. “When officials ask them to evacuate ahead of a disaster, they simply deny. They claim to be the gangaputra, the son of the Ganga. The only person who can persuade them is the community head, known as pedakapu. I asked district collectors in the coastal region to talk to pedakapus,” says Radha. It worked and the fisherfolk voluntarily moved to safer areas. Officials allowed 10 youths who could swim in each community to stay back and protect the properties.

The newly elected village heads also took a proactive role and sent text alerts to almost all fishers to return from deep sea fishing. When two cyclones hit coastal Andhra Pradesh in 1996 and 1999, Ham radios and a few wireless sets were the only means of communication. Today, almost all fishers carry mobile phones, which came in handy.

Lives were saved. But most fishers have lost their fishing boats and nets. Like other Phailin survivors they are now preparing for another struggle: earning a living.

Mangroves stand tall
While early warnings and effective evacuation proved to be a game changer for government, studies indicate that mangrove forests might have played a crucial role in the process.

A 2009 study of the Delhi University’s Institute of Economic Growth (IEG) shows mangrove forests brought down the death toll in Kendrapara district by 35 per cent during the super cyclone of 1999. The forests shielded the adjoining villages by slowing down wind speed. This time, in Praharajpur village in Kendrapara district of Odisha, Phailin ravaged 40 of 200 houses. Residents say the damage could have been worse had the mangrove forest not been there. “In neighbouring Sundrikhal and Pentha villages, which do not have mangrove cover, most houses have been washed away,” says Ravindra Behera, a resident. In 1999, only two persons died in Praharajpur while hundreds had died in nearby villages.

“Our elders had planted mangroves along the coast in 1975 to prevent soil erosion. We realised its shielding potential during the 1982 cyclone,” says Balram Biswal, a resident. Since then, Praharajpur residents have started planting mangroves and constituted a committee to protect the forest. The committee appoints forest guards and penalises anyone who damages the forest. Today, a dense mangrove forest stands between the sea and Praharajpur. Residents harvest wood, honey and fruits from this forest.

“The story of Praharajpur has inspired several coastal villages to create mangrove forests,” says Suresh Bisoyi of Regional Centre for Development Cooperation, a non-profit in Bhubaneswar. Small wonder that mangroves are staging a comeback in Odisha. Between 1944 and 1999, mangrove forest cover reduced from 30,766 ha to 17,900 ha, says IEG study. But over the past decade, according to the Forest Survey of India, mangrove cover along Odisha coast has increased to 22,200 ha.

— Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava, Kendrapara, Odisha

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