|Broken and twisted, a fallen transmission tower hammers home the power of Phailin near Odisha’s Berhampur, around 15km from Gopalpur where the cyclone made landfall. Picture by Sanjoy Ghosh
Oct. 15: For Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, a storm tracker with the national weather agency, Cyclone Phailin barrelling towards India’s east coast last weekend turned into a personal challenge — rooted 42 years in his past.
Mohapatra, director of the cyclone warning division at the India Meteorological Department, New Delhi, and his colleagues tracked the cyclone using satellites, ground-based radars and automatic weather stations to predict its zone of landfall three days in advance.
Their forecasts allowed state and district authorities in Ganjam, Khurda, Jagatsinghpur and Puri in Odisha and Kalingapatnam in Andhra Pradesh to evacuate around 8.35 lakh people from their homes near the sea. Odisha alone evacuated around 7 lakh people.
Disaster response teams have estimated that less than 30 people died during Phailin’s landfall, with most of the casualties caused by either falling trees or collapsing walls.
The cyclone’s human toll — the considerable damage to property is still being assessed — contrasts with that of the Odisha supercyclone in 1999 and Hurricane Katrina in the US in August 2005, although Phailin was a less powerful storm. (See chart)
Scientists concede that given a good observation and forecasting network, predicting the trajectories of cyclones is the relatively easy component of preparing for a looming meteorological beast.
“Evacuation is the most challenging component of disaster preparedness,” said Mohapatra, a weather scientist for 21 years who was at IMD Bhubaneswar when the supercyclone struck in 1999. “Massive and judicious evacuation can make a big difference.”
Through personal experience, Mohapatra is familiar with the fury of cyclones. He was six years old in 1971, living in a village named Rajgurupur in Odisha’s Bhadrak district, when a cyclone from the Bay of Bengal devastated his coastal village, water from the storm surge inundating his home and destroying crops.
“Our first meal after the cyclone was some rice and leaves of drumstick trees,” Mohapatra recalled in an interview. “But it changed the village, the land turned saline, we could not grow rice for a year, my father went to Calcutta.”
He was a meteorologist assigned to IMD Bhubaneswar in 1999 when the supercyclone loomed — and, despite forecasts by the IMD, the cyclone killed thousands.
If the boy who faced the fury of a cyclone at six worked his way to a vantage point this weekend, the political and administrative systems found a chance to redeem themselves this time.
A confluence of events — some tracing their roots to the changes India has witnessed in the past decade — and personalities influenced the way the ground was prepared to meet the challenge posed by Phailin. Most important, almost all factors clicked into place on time.
The Naveen factor
Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik did make a difference, though some of the decisions he took are expected of anyone occupying his office.
He cancelled the Durga Puja holidays of all state government employees and put them on high alert with focus on the 14 coastal districts.
Naveen called off his own scheduled trip to Delhi and called officials from districts, who knew the lay of the land, to assist the special relief commissioner.
A war room was set up and emergency control rooms were opened in all the 14 vulnerable districts.
A publicity blitz was launched on mobile phones, TV and radio, warning people in low-lying areas of the approaching danger and laying stress on the need for evacuation.
Evacuation began on the night of October 10 — two days before the cyclone struck. In the next 48 hours, over 7 lakh people were moved to safety.
Force was used when needed. “We forcibly evacuated people who were taking things lightly,” said revenue and disaster management minister Surjya Narayan Patro.
|Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, the
storm tracker who was at the
receiving end of a cyclone 42
years ago when he was aged 6
Tourists were also moved out.
Most of the evacuees were lodged in cyclone-cum-flood shelters that were stocked with food and water.
The chief minister personally visited the relief centres.
Naveen also coordinated with the Centre and sought the assistance of armed forces by writing letters to defence minister A.K. Antony and home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde. Eight helicopters, two columns of defence forces and 28 teams of the National Disaster Response Force were on call.
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.
The rapid response over the weekend contrasts with the events in 1999. So numbing was the effect of the supercyclone that nothing moved in the state for nearly 12 hours after landfall, not even relief trucks parked outside Congress chief minister Giridhar Gamang’s residence. When they did leave for their destinations, they were looted on the way.
A 2007 study by a team of American health researchers showed that a combination of poverty and perceptions of racism and inequities influenced African Americans in New Orleans not to evacuate before Katrina slammed in.
No politician can afford to be flat-footed now. If a tour of flood-hit areas was an exception when Jyoti Basu was in power, Mamata Banerjee showed remarkable alacrity on Monday in heading towards West Midnapore where large swathes are under water. ( )
The 1999 supercyclone was a ruthless teacher. Meteorologists conceded that the major difference in the response during 1999 and 2013 stemmed from ground action — by district and state authorities and by members of the public sensitised to disasters through actions over the past decade.
“Along the coast, we’ve carried out dozens of mock drills,” said an official with the National Disaster Management Authority, established in 2005. “People know the drill, they know how to prepare for the cyclone, what to take with them, where to go.”
The NDMA has raised a 10,000-strong disaster response force drawn from paramilitary forces that assists in preparedness and rescue.
Many of those evacuated over the weekend were put up in shelters that were built in the wake of the 1999 supercyclone. Wherever such shelters were not available, the people were put up in concrete school and college buildings.
An unsung element here is the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the universal education scheme under which all school buildings are built as concrete structures with toilets, drinking water facilities and kitchen sheds. The surge in the construction of cement houses in rural areas helped as they were safer than mud houses.
Not to mention mobile phones and television sets, which represent two of the most sweeping changes that the country has witnessed in the past two decades. Both were invaluable in alerting people.
A tangible change has been the way in which India has upgraded its weather forecasting systems. Weather scientists point out that the country’s disaster preparedness in 2013 is dramatically different from what it was in 1999.
The IMD had less than 100 weather data collection platforms in 1999 —it now has 675 automated weather stations. It also now has an array of Doppler weather radars along the east coast that allow scientists to track cyclones with great accuracy.
India’s Kalpana-1, a weather satellite, tracked Phailin’s movement every 30 minutes, said Ashok Sharma, deputy director-general of satellite meteorology at the IMD, in contrast to satellite-tracking once every hour during the late-1990s. During Phailin’s approach, a US storm tracking agency had at one point predicted the storm to be far more intense with top wind speeds above 300kmph instead of about 220kmph as assessed by the IMD.
A senior IMD scientist told The Telegraph that this discrepancy emerged because of the use of an automated intensity assessment technique adopted by the US agency. “When they switched to a human assessment, they lowered their initial estimates.”
A more intense storm would have implied higher storm surge waves and more coastal areas doused by seawater. Scientists say a more intense storm would also require evacuating people to a greater distance from the sea than actually necessary.
The next test
A bigger challenge in the form of cyclone-triggered floods in five districts still awaits Naveen. The rush of adrenaline of impending danger will be missing when the pain-taking task of rehabilitation begins.
Around 2 lakh people are marooned in 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.