My tenure as Special Relief Commissioner (SRC), Odisha where cyclone Phailin made a landfall, marked a very significant career milestone. While I felt the pain of the 13 million people who were devastated by the Cyclone, I also experienced the pleasure of a job well done, with timely evacuation and relief saving thousands lives.
As part of pre-cyclone preparedness exercise a meeting of the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA) was convened in August 2013 under the leadership of the chief minister (CM) of the State. Thereafter meetings of the respective district disaster management authority of the vulnerable districts followed under the concerned collectors. As per the basic principles of disaster management, early warning, preparedness, mitigation and efficient execution are the key factors to successful management of natural calamities. Odisha had faced a super cyclone in 1999, which, sadly, had claimed about 13 thousand human lives.
After the initial forecast of the formation of a low pressure area over the Bay of Bengal, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) confirmed on October 8, 2013, that the low pressure would intensify and could most likely be a cyclonic storm. This message was transmitted to the office of SRC, which swung into action to take care of the resultant situation. A high alert was sent to the Odisha state authorities, including the collectors of the 14 vulnerable districts, including five adjoining districts.
Thereafter, the movement of the cyclonic storm was closely monitored in coordination with the IMD and the early warning was uninterruptedly disseminated through all available communication networks to the public. Keeping in view the intensity of the cyclone, a mission towards zero casualty was adopted under the guidance of the Odisha CM and all stakeholders were instructed to remain in readiness for achieving the goal. State/district emergency operation centre/s along with other governmental and not-for-profit organisations started functioning round the clock. Pre-positioning of State and central disaster response forces, army, fire service, home guards, civil defence volunteers and helicopters formed part of the exercise. Inter-departmental co-ordination meetings by the minister for revenue and disaster management, chief secretary and the CM, along with accurate forecasts, fixing time lines for restoration of various services and infrastructure, coordination with various agencies for seamless execution, cancellation of all holidays and recalling of officials from leave, conducting mock drills and test checking of equipment at shelters—all helped put together a full proof disaster preparedness plan.
However, the SRC visualised that the mission towards zero casualty could be accomplished only by large-scale evacuation of people from the 5 km coastal stretch. For this, statutory provisions empowering district administration were invoked, to use force as and when resistance in evacuation was faced. Thus, by the morning of October 12, 2013, when Phailin made landfall near Gopalpur in Ganjam district, as many as 9, 83,642 people had already been evacuated to cyclone shelters within just 36 hours. This was perhaps the biggest-ever evacuation done anywhere in the world. Most significantly, the evacuation had to be effected with the evacuation of their cattle too. The death toll was restricted to 22 and the effort was applauded by the United Nations and several other national level organisations, who have adopted it as a model for successful disaster management.
At landfall, Phailin was accompanied by 600 mm of torrential rains, resulting in heavy floods in all major rivers. More than 20 million people in 19 districts were affected, with widespread damage to private and public property, particularly the water supply and power sector. Post Phailin all essential services including road communications, water supply, electricity and health services were restored almost all over the State in a record 24-72 hours. One of such example was the Mayurbhanj District Headquarters Hospital (DHH) at Baripada, which despite being submerged in 10 feet of flood water became functional within 24 hours. Preparations done well in advance made it possible to provide people with meals, rations, drinking water, and temporary shelter materials through as many as 4,197 free kitchen centres. Cattle feed was also provided to meet the requirements of the huge cattle population.
Immediately after people returned home, the government machinery was put into gear for distributing food assistance, polythene covers for temporary shelter, followed by payment of ex-gratia assistance to the nearest of kin of all persons who had died in Phailin and its resultant floods. Thereafter, enumeration of house damages and crop loss was undertaken followed by distribution of house building assistance, agriculture input subsidy to farmers, one month’s additional pension to 21 lakh elderly citizens, disabled, widowed and pensioners. Funds were provided to different State departments, too, to ensure immediate repair and restoration of the damaged infrastructure within the timeline fixed for the purpose. Thus, complete normalcy in day-to-day life was restored through sustained efforts.
Learning from the failures of the 1999 supercyclone, the 14 year intervening period was utilised to put into place various mitigation measures—constitution of the OSDMA, systemic improvement and capacity enhancement of government and community, construction of cyclone proof shelters along the coast, setting up of a dedicated Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force undertaking a massive awareness campaign, large scale mobilisation with provision of training, improved forecasting and dissemination system, GIS application; efficient tracking of the cyclone and improved system of dissemination of early warning through various media.
Some of the suggested way forward is as follows:
- Systemic improvement and capacity enhancement of official machinery and community needs to be further strengthened for tackling of natural disasters;
- More cyclone/flood-proof shelters need to be constructed along the coastal belt;
- Further strengthening of the ODRAF is needed for search and rescue operations;
- Installation of Doppler weather radar stations at the 4 identified places of Odisha needs to be accelerated for strengthening the forecasting and warning dissemination system.