Bhubaneswar, Oct. 15: Cyclone Phailin’s tag of the decade’s worst natural disaster may appear to be bit of an exaggeration with the death toll standing at 28 and the state back to normal within 48 hours of its striking the coast.
But, it is not. The fact is that the magnitude of death and destruction the cyclone was capable of inflicting on the state was vastly reduced because of the precautionary measures taken well in advance by a pro-active administration.
Sources said that without this level of preparedness, Phailin might have wreaked the same kind of havoc in the state that was witnessed during the 1999 supercyclone that left nearly 10,000 people dead.
The government swung into action soon after weather experts on October 8 confirmed that the deep depression over the Bay of Bengal was turning into a cyclonic storm and was likely to hit the state’s coast four days later.
Chief minister Naveen Patnaik cancelled the Durga Puja vacation of all state government employees and put them on high alert, with special focus on the 14 coastal districts that were likely to be the worst affected.
Naveen cancelled his own scheduled trip to Delhi and called officials from districts to assist the special relief commissioner and set up his war room from where the cyclone situation was monitored round the clock.
Emergency control rooms were opened in all the 14 vulnerable districts.
Having come to power riding the wave of public resentment against the Congress, which had failed to handle the supercyclone of 1999, Naveen knew complacency could cost him dear with elections barely six months away. He efficiently marshalled his resources and readied the entire government machinery to take on Phailin.
Evacuation of people from vulnerable areas began on the night of October 10 and in the next 48 hours, more than seven lakh people were moved to safety.
Most of them were lodged in cyclone-cum-flood shelters that were well equipped and stocked with adequate food and water. Where such shelters, built in the wake of the 1999 supercyclone, were not available, the people were put up in concrete school and college buildings.
“In areas such as Gopalpur, we forcibly evacuated people, who were taking things lightly. We wanted to ensure zero casualty,” said revenue and disaster management minister Surjya Narayan Patro. By the time Phailin made landfall at Gopalpur late on October 12 evening, there was not a single person left in the open.
The evacuation operation was preceded by an ad blitz warning people of the danger of staying in the low-lying areas near the coast. The state government also cautioned people through text messages, radio and television. In places such as Gopalpur, tourists were moved out of town.
“The state government had asked us to ensure that no tourist was left in any hotel. I personally took some tourists from Gopalpur to Berhampur on the day the cyclone struck,” said Muna Das, a hotel manager in Gopalpur admitting that evacuation had helped reduce casualties.
Naveen had also taken care to alert the Centre about the cyclone and sought the assistance of armed forces by writing letters to defence minister A.K. Antony and home minister Sushilkumar Shinde. Hours before the storm struck the Odisha coast on October 12, eight helicopters were kept on standby in Bhubaneswar. Two columns, each of the army and the navy, apart from 28 teams of the National Disaster Response Force, were also positioned in various areas.
The chief minister personally visited the relief centres overseeing the preparations and held review meetings with collectors through videoconferencing. Within 24 hours of the cyclone’s weakening, Naveen rang up Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asking for technical help to ensure restoration of power in the affected areas and stepping up rebuilding efforts. The Prime Minister announced a compensation of Rs 2 lakh to the nearest kin of the deceased in the cyclone and Rs 50,000 for those injured. The state government, on its part, announced a compensation of Rs 4 lakh for families of each of the deceased.
However, a bigger challenge in the form of cyclone-triggered floods in five districts still awaits the chief minister. Around two lakh people are marooned at hundreds of villages in Balasore, Mayurbhanj, Jajpur, Bhadrak and Keonjhar, where food packets are being airdropped and army has moved in to carry out rescue operations.
Naveen, who made an aerial survey of the flood-hit areas today, has cancelled his birthday celebrations tomorrow.