Disaster Management Perspectives: Learning from Phailin

By: M Shashidhar Reddy
Planning n Mitigation

According to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC 2007, human utilisation of the coastal zone, worldwide, increased dramatically during the 20th century and this trend appears to be certain to continue during the 21st century. India will be no exception. Climate change and its resultant sea-level rise can significantly increase the vulnerability of a much larger coastal population in the years to come.

A cyclone of a specified intensity in the Bay of Bengal striking the east coast of India and the coast of Bangladesh usually generates much a higher storm surge as compared to elsewhere in the world due to a shallow coastal bathymetry. The impact is accentuated with a low-lying flat coastal terrain and a highly dense population.

Even though only 6 to 7 per cent of all cyclones occur in the northern Indian Ocean (NIO), they account for most of the devastation caused. In fact, the Indian Sub-continent has experienced 22 out of 24 major cyclones that have occurred globally during the past two and a half centuries, which recorded a death toll of 10,000 or more deaths each. On an average, five to six cyclones form in the NIO every year, out of which two to three may be severe. West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu along the East coast and Gujarat along the West coast are highly vulnerable to these cyclones.

Referring to Cyclone Phailin, Margareta Wahlstrom, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Disaster Risk Reduction, said “Odisha’s handling of the very severe cyclone will be a landmark success story in disaster management,”. This essay highlights the 2013 Phailin experience that earned Odisha appreciation worldwide.

Early warning and dissemination

The cornerstone of holistic cyclone disaster management is early warning. Unlike some other natural disasters, cyclones can be observed, tracked and the point of landfall as well as associated hazards can be predicted in advance. In India, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) is the nodal agency for providing cyclone warnings. Set up in 1875, the capability of IMD has been increasing over the years. It is now implementing a mega modernisation plan through technical upgradation. IMD has already set up doppler weather radars (DWRs) along the east coast to enhance its cyclone warning capabilities and is now in the process of expanding its network all over the country.

Acid test for IMD

The competence of the IMD was tested in October 2013 during Phailin. Many international agencies including the US Navy Joint Typhoon Warning Center and Britain’s Met Office termed Phailin as a ‘super cyclone’ and repeatedly warned that it would be immense. Noted American meteorologist Eric Holthaus felt that “the IMD was underestimating the potential winds and surges of Phailin” and forecasted that it will be a Category 5 cyclone (the most powerful). He had tweeted on October 11, 2013 “Cyclone Phailin, making landfall in India in ~24hrs. While strengthening, the storm has grown to nearly half the size of India itself.”

IMD, which is often questioned for the credibility of its estimates, had predicted that Phailin will be a ‘very severe cyclone’ and refused to categorise it as a ‘super cyclone’. IMD stood its ground and ultimately proved all other forecasts and apprehensions wrong. As the then vice chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority, I relied entirely on the IMD’s version and we were all proud of their capability and accuracy.

Once a warning is issued, its dissemination assumes significance. In this regard, there has been a lot of improvement in India, and care is being taken to convey critical warnings down to the last mile. Since one cannot avoid nature’s fury, saving lives and reducing damage to property through timely actions is the next best thing to do.

Evacuation of people

There has been a great success story in India in the past. When warnings were issued from May 4, 1990 onwards for Cyclone BoB01 (landfall on May 9) for Andhra Pradesh, the state government evacuated more than 650,000 people to shelters and camps in safer places. It was perhaps, the largest human evacuation ever recorded in history.

As Phailin moved in, the general perception, both nationally and internationally, was that the causalities would be very high—running into thousands. But, with massive evacuation operations carried out by both Odisha and Andhra Pradesh state governments, the death toll could be limited to 22, mostly from indirect causes. The World Bank News, Feature Story, wrote on October 17, 2013 that “successfully evacuating a million people is not a small task. This cannot be merely achieved by kicking the entire state machinery into top gear for 3-4 days following a cyclone warning. This has taken years of planning, construction of disaster risk mitigation infrastructure, setting up of evacuation protocols, identification of potential safe buildings to house communities and most importantly, working with communities in setting up volunteer teams and local champions who all knew exactly what needed to be done when the time came to act.”

Mitigation

While the earlier approach used to be relief and rescue centric with post event interventions, a paradigm shift to address all aspects of disaster management including prevention, preparedness and mitigation is slowly setting in. The World Bank assisted Cyclone Emergency Reconstruction Project (CERP) implemented by the Government of Andhra Pradesh, with some long term mitigation measures, in the aftermath of the major Cyclone BoB01 in 1990 is often cited as the first instance of this shift.

Odisha has been learning its lessons after the 1999 Super Cyclone and has put in place mitigation measures since then. For the first time the Government of India had formulated a national project—the National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project (NCRMP), with World Bank assistance to be implemented in all the nine coastal states and four union territories by NDMA. The Phase I of this project was launched, coincidentally, in both Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, which were affected by Phailin in 2013. Component B of this project, cyclone risk mitigation infrastructure, is a major component to improve the access to emergency shelters, evacuation and protection against cyclones in high risk areas of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.

Preparedness helped

With a view to review the disaster plan of the State, the NDMA conducted a cyclone mock drill in Kendrapada and Jagatsinghpur districts of Odisha on June 19, 2007. The State extended this to all its cyclone shelters. From 2008 onwards the Odisha government made this an annual affair involving all stakeholders as a preparedness activity.

One of the issues that have been of keen interest to officials from India and abroad are the smooth relationship between federal and local agencies during disasters. The feature titled ‘Cyclone Phailin in India: Early warning and timely actions saved lives’ published in November 2013 by the UNEP Global Environmental Alert Service reiterated this by adding “the role of cooperation and effective communication between the local and national officials was evident during Cyclone Phailin.” Cyclone Phailin also witnessed the biggest deployment of the National Disaster Response Force in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. In fact the opening sentences of an article ‘The system weathered the raging Cyclone Phailin’, by senior journalist Karan Thapar published in Hindustan Times on October 20, 2013 sums it all. “Only rarely do journalists in India write in praise…However, the smooth and very successful response to Cyclone Phailin cries out for applause..”

Endnote

While nature’s fury is truly overwhelming, the Phailin experience has proved that with appropriate coping strategies, peoples’ lives can be saved and there are lessons to be learnt. Also, it should be placed on record that the NDMA had recommended in the National Guidelines for Management of Cyclones, the commissioning of aircraft probing of cyclone (APC) facility for India along with high altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). These were seen to effectively fill the gaps in critical observational data on cyclones and thus contribute to significantly reducing track and intensity prediction errors.

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