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Humanitarian Emergencies

India Beats a Cyclone

GOPALPUR, India, Oct 14 2013 (IPS) - “No casualties have been reported till now,” India’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) declared at 9:30 am the morning after the near Super Cyclone ‘Phailin’ made landfall in India’s east.

The response “has been a success because of coordination between NDMA and the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) and then different government agencies, ministries and down to the district level administration who were involved in coordination,” NDMA vice-chairman Shashidhar Reddy told IPS.

“What contributed to minimising loss of life is evacuation of people from the vulnerable areas, and the accurate forecast helped in preparation and evacuation unlike during the Uttarakhand flash flood crisis in June 2013.”

The Indian Meteorological Department had forecast a “very severe cyclonic storm” on Monday Oct. 7, and highlighted the path of the cyclone. The coast of Orissa straddles the path of almost all cyclones that spin into life taking birth in the currents of the channel separating the Andaman from the Nicobar Group of Islands in the Bay of Bengal.

The NDMA and the Orissa state administration did not want to take chances with waves forecast to be six to eight metres high. The Super Cyclone in October 1999 had pulverised Orissa, leaving 15,000 dead. About 2.5 million head of livestock perished, and 90 million trees were destroyed. It seemed there was nothing people could do to reduce the impact of the cyclone.

“Translation of technical knowledge and insights gained into societal, environmental or economic benefits is crucial,” Dr. Shailesh Nayak, secretary to the Ministry of Earth Sciences – one of the nodal ministries in disaster mitigation – told IPS.

Binapani Mishra of SWAD, an NGO working in the field of food security in disaster relief in Puri district in Orissa, told IPS that there had however been an impact.

“I have visited three villages of Konark block in Puri district. The rooftops of two houses have been blow off by gale winds, one person died in wall collapse. There was no power supply anywhere in Orissa after the cyclone made landfall, I could not even charge my cellphone.”

People evacuated to cyclone shelters received adequate food and have started returning to their homes, Mishra said. “There is not much loss of livestock but the environmental damage is significant.”

“Extreme weather systems have caused extensive losses of lives and destruction of property in the Bay of Bengal region even when proper instrumentation and monitoring were available,” George P Carayannis, president of the Tsunami Society International in Honolulu in Hawaii, told IPS in an email interview.

“The paths and landfalls of severe weather systems are often difficult to forecast adequately and to provide timely warnings to the population in low-lying coastal areas of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.”

NDMA had about four days to prepare after the cyclone warning was issued. The NDMA undertook mass evacuation of 367,234 fisherfolk dwelling in low-lying coastal areas of Orissa and 96,770 people in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state. They were taken to more than 200 cyclone shelters and 56 relief centres dotting the coastal landscape in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.

Police forces were deployed to monitor evacuation and to patrol the beaches. Cyclone shelters were stocked with blankets, food stocks and medical supplies; medical teams with para-medical staff were despatched to cyclone shelters.

NDMA broadcast warnings to fisherfolk regularly on radio and television through the week, dam discharge was monitored and ‘managed’ to accommodate heavy rainfall, power supply was ‘managed’ with intentional outages to prevent short circuit during the cyclone’s landfall, equipment like tree cutters were supplied to districts administrations; press releases were issued hourly.

Rescue teams and battalions of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) were deployed in vulnerable places. The ministry of defence deployed teams of naval divers, and the armed forces were put on standby. Ships docked at Paradip port were sent out to deep sea so they could be more stable beyond the rim of the cyclonic system.

Helplines, communication hubs and control rooms were opened in Vishakhapatnam and Srikakulam in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and in the most vulnerable districts of Orissa three days before landfall.

“The problem with forecasting hydrometeorological hazards and mitigating their impact is not only the lack of proper instrumentation,” said Carayannis. “Warning or forecasting require much more than instruments.”

Orissa state in India is the capital of extreme weather events. “Forty-nine of the last 100 years saw floods, 30 years were drought-ridden, and 11 years faced cyclones,” Prafulla Ratha of Concern Worldwide told IPS.

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