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.

India Today - - SPECIAL REPORT - By San­deep Un­nithan in Bhubaneswar

“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.


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.



REUBEN SINGH/­di­a­to­day­im­

REUBEN SINGH/­di­a­to­day­im­


Photo ed­i­tor Reuben Singh takes a look through af­fected vil­lages in the af­ter­math of the dis­as­ter. Log on to

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