THE STORM STOP PERS
When Phailin struck, Odisha was prepared. The inside account of how a handful of men averted certain catastrophe and reversed the tragic story of disaster management in India.
“Years of experience in evacuation and safety drills
as well as community participation have helped us. Our administration
has been alert.”
Odisha Chief Minister
On the evening of October 8, a message from the Indian Meteorological Department ( IMD) electrified the state secretariat in Odisha. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik immediately convened a meeting of his key officials. A category 5 cyclone was storming in, IMD warned, and would batter Odisha with winds of over 200 kmph—less severe than western weather agencies’ prediction of over 310 kmph winds and 50-foot high waves, but ominous enough to bring back grim memories of another October day in 1999.
That October 29, an unnamed cyclone had pulverised Odisha’s coast, killed over 15,000 people, and caused such abject collapse of the state machinery that the central government had to fly 250 sweepers from Delhi just to clear the bodies. Indeed, then Union minister for steel and mines Patnaik had rued that “together with the state, the government too has been reduced to debris”.
Now, Cyclone Phailin loomed. And Patnaik, now at the helm in Odisha, was determined to not let those words haunt him. As the meeting concluded, he passed a terse directive to his officials: “Every human life is precious. there should be zero casualties.”
Four evenings later, shortly after 9.30 p.m. on October 12, Cyclone Phailin made a terrifying ear-splitting landfall in Ganjam district. “It was like an unending express train screaming past our homes for six hours,” recalls Rohit Nahak, 26, a farmer from Agastinuagaon village. Phailin (Thai for sapphire) felled trees like they were toothpicks, uprooted cell phone towers and electricity sub- stations, snapped high- tension power lines, toppled multi-wheel container trucks on the highway, ravaged more than 6,00,000 hectares of farmland, and destroyed over 2,00,000 houses. The floods that followed affected 13 of the state’s 30 districts. In all, according to officials, the cyclone caused Odisha a loss of no less than Rs 2,000 crore. Rebuilding and re-electrifying Ganjam, the state’s most populous district and rice bowl hit hardest by Phailin, will take years.
Yet, there was a silver lining: The death toll was as low as 21 when the storm abated early next morning. Not least because more than 9,73000 people, or the combined populations of Sikkim and Goa, had been evacuated to safety in just 36 hours before the cyclone crashed in. Absent this, the death toll could have been in the thousands, officials said. This effort seems all the more incredible when held up against the stupefying incompetence of the Uttarakhand government, which ignored warnings and then remained paralysed as floods washed away about 5,000 people in June 2013. The difference lay in Patnaik’s directive. “We now had a clear objective to work towards,” a senior bureaucrat said.
“Years of experience in evacuation and safety drills as well as community participation have helped us. Our district administration has been alert,” Patnaik says in his office on October 14, reflecting on the evacuation. Earlier that day, he had flown over Ganjam in a helicopter and toured cyclone shelters, reassuring himself that the plan had worked.
It didn’t seem it would work, barely a week earlier when the IMD forecast that the cyclone could hit anywhere along Odisha’s 480 km-long coast. The state’s first priority was to move nearly a million people populating the 5-km danger zone along the coast. At least 30 per cent homes here had thatched roofing and, hence, were extremely vulnerable. At the centre of this effort was Krishan Kumar, the collector of Ganjam, a coastal district 150 km south of capital Bhubaneswar that was predicted to be the worst-hit.
Kumar, a lanky, bespectacled doctor-turned- IAS officer is well regarded in the administration. As district collector of the backward Kandhamal, he had won plaudits for setting up fast-track courts to try the accused in the 2008 communal riots. Now, his toughest task was to convince people to evacuate. “It’s really difficult to convince people to move when the skies are clear and there is bright sunshine,” he says.
In Jagatsinghpur and other districts battered by the cyclone in 1999, people readily moved. In places like Gopalpur, they had to be coerced. State government officials toured with megaphones to appeal to people to move out. Many refused because they feared their properties would be looted. Patnaik, a politician of impeccable personal integrity who will seek a fourth consecutive term as chief minister next year, weighed in with personal appeals on TV and radio. He also held two video conferences with collectors of all seven coastal districts.
The government’s persistence paid off. Village after village emptied out, and moved into nearly 10,000 structures, including 1,060 multipurpose cyclone shelters, inland.
The villagers carried with them only their cash, jewellery, school certificates and property records.
FOREWARNED AND FOREARMED
The state’s Special Relief Commissioner, Pradipta Kumar Mahapatra, coordinated myriad agencies and officials from the emergency operations centre in Rajiv Bhavan behind the secretariat. Mahapatra was collector of Puri when the cyclone hit in 1999 and had borne the brunt of public opprobrium for the death of nearly 800 people in his district. “We had no information where the cyclone would strike,” he says. He was helped by a steady stream of information flowing out of the central monitoring room in New Delhi’s Mausam Bhavan.
In this IMD war room, giant screens pulsated with real-time satellite images of Phailin as a menacing red-and-orange swirl over the Bay of Bengal. Supercomputers crunched the numbers to predict its trajectory. India’s top weatherman, IMD Director General L.S. Rathore had been closeted here since October 7, when
“We had prepared for the worst, a cyclone of over 200 kmph, but we were not prepared to accept casualties.” PRADIPTA KUMAR MAHAPATRA,
Special Relief Commissioner “It’s difficult to convince people to move when the skies are clear and there is bright sunshine.”
KRISHAN KUMAR, District Collector, Ganjam
Phailin began as a low pressure area. His team had correctly predicted that this would turn into a cyclonic storm and move towards north Andhra Pradesh and coastal Odisha; their final prediction at 11.30 a.m. on October 10 described Phailin as a ‘very severe cylonic storm’.
Thanks to huge improvements in forecasting technology, advanced satellite sensors, high-speed wind recorder networks, data buoys, a Doppler weather radar network and coastal tide gauge network, Rathore’s team also accurately predicted where Phailin would make landfall on October 12. This data was swiftly shared with the National Disaster Management Authority, and Odisha through IMD office in Bhubaneswar. “Weather teaches you to be modest. We must not get excited if we are correct and must not get disheartened if we make a mistake,” said Rathore.
Odisha was not only forewarned, but also forearmed. Since the 1999 tragedy, it has set up the Odisha State Disaster Mitigation Authority and a 10-battalion Orissa Disaster Rapid Action Force ( ODRAF), which rehearse disaster preparedness every year. As Phailin approached, ODRAF teams, equipped with portable diesel generators and assisted by 1,125 National Disaster Response Force personnel flown in from Delhi, were positioned in all coastal districts. The state cancelled Dussehra and Durga Puja vacations and ordered all officials to report to work, suspended train services to coastal districts, and shut electricity supply. After the cyclone hit, relief teams swiftly cut through the fallen trees to open roads for relief supplies. So much so that even the armed forces, often the first responders to a crisis, were impressed. “There was really very little for us to do,” said Lt. Gen Ramesh Rana, GOC, Madhya Bharat Area, who rushed in four of his columns from Jabalpur.
There was, however, a discernible slackening in providing post-relief aid to flood-hit villages. In Ganjam, villagers heckled officials for failing to provide cooked food. This prompted Congress to accuse Patnaik of failing to deal with the post-relief situation. Patnaik, however, is unfazed. He has held meetings to explore the feasibility of a scheme to convert about 30 per cent thatched homes along the coast into permanent dwellings. His next big directive is in the offing.
NAVEEN PATNAIK WITH
CYCLONE-AFFECTED PEOPLE IN BERHAMPUR