Cyclone Fani, among the biggest and strongest tropical cyclones, hit India’s coastal state of Odisha on May 3, leaving a trail of devastation across the state that is home to 46 million people.
However, improved forecasting models, public awareness campaigns and well-drilled evacuation plans spared Odisha's inhabitants from among what could be reported as one of the worst disasters in the world. Its management has emerged as a global example of how timely weather alerts, preparedness and informed public participation can dramatically reduce loss of life.
Early weather warnings is the key to managing such disasters. And, the India Meteorological Department played the most crucial role in achieving this. When the prediction of Fani on course to hit Odisha was clear, emergency teams were set up to evacuate residents in low-lying areas. It saw the one of the biggest human evacuations in history – a record 1.2 million people moved away from danger areas into temporary shelters in just 24 hours.
The Odisha Government, along with the national disaster response teams and volunteers worked together to evacuate people and also set up shelters that are safe. This came after the state was hit by a devastating 30-hour super-cyclone that killed more than 10,000 people in 1999. One of the first steps taken then was to construct hundreds of cyclone shelters up and down the coast. These shelters, designed by IIT Kharagpur, are built up to a few miles from the seashore. And evidently, they have proved to be storm-worthy. The structures resemble a crab, have two-storeys and are cement-block rectangular building on stilts. Each shelter can hold several hundred people.
The state government authorities warned people of Fani. They deployed 2.6 million text messages, 43,000 volunteers, nearly 1,000 emergency workers, television commercials, coastal sirens, buses, police officers, and public address systems blaring the same message on a loop, in local language, in clear terms: “A cyclone is coming. Get to the shelters.” This seemed to have worked as an early-warning success story.
Besides, enormous equipment was reportedly made ready to deal with the storm’s aftermath. This included 300 power boats, two helicopters and many chain saws to cut downed trees. Indeed, evacuating a million people in just about three-to-four days and providing them with not just shelter but food is a big achievement.
The United Nations and other experts have also praised India for its early warning systems and rapid evacuation of more than a million people. Other Indian states have offered contribution to Odisha for its relief and rehabilitation. These include Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh that have offered Rs 10 crore each, Chhattisgarh – Rs 11 crore, and Gujarat – Rs 5 crore.
While the state government and Centre now have the task of rebuilding infrastructure in Odisha, the way the mobilisation was done this time is indeed impressive. It is an example of organisational efficiency.
Rebuilding Odisha could be used as an opportunity to upgrade technology, achieve cost-efficiencies and build resilient structures to combat earthquakes, storms and cyclones. The focus should be on building better-designed houses and buildings.