The Government of Odisha has received wide appreciation for its handling of extremely severe cyclonic storm Fani, including that from the United Nations.
Local, national and international media had followed up the disaster right from the formation of a low-pressure zone in the Indian Ocean at the time of landfall and afterwards.
I would like to draw attention to an article published in the New York Times on 3 May 2019 titled ‘How do you save a million people from a cyclone?
Ask a poor state in India’ and the second article ‘Why did India’s devastating cyclone Fani kill only 40 people – not 10,000? Thank democracy and technology’ published in the Washington Post.
On the evening of 2 April 2019, when we were extremely busy following up with the district and sub-district administrations on various tasks they were required to accomplish, Hari Kumar from the New York Times came to my office and asked some questions.
A day after the landfall on 3 May 2019, I received a call from Kumar asking me to have a look at the news item published in the New York Times.
We got worldwide attention on the “Odisha way” of handling disasters. The article has been very widely circulated, quoted and posted on social media, re-twitted widely and has been appreciated by many.
We were quoted on the process that the government has followed over a period of 20 years to build the capacities. The achievement did not happen due to few tasks carried out over a period of a few hours or days.
In fact, in the year 1999 Odisha was hit by a super cyclone on 29 October.
It was probably the greatest cyclonic disaster ever recorded in the last century.
The cyclone centered over coastal Odisha for three days with a torrential downpour and a tidal surge of about six meters swept the coastal low lying areas for a distance of 40 to 50 km inland.
The last recorded wind speed was 260 Kmph, while the peak speed of the wind was beyond the limits of the anemometers in Bhubaneswar or in Paradip to record.
The violent wind was accompanied by incessant rainfall ranging from 45 to 95 centimeters in a continuous spell of three days.
The storm surge was about six meters and it entered through the creeks, river mouths and low lying areas sweeping many villages on the fateful night.
The super cyclone affected 1.89 crore people in 128 blocks, 46 urban local bodies, 2,399 gram panchayats and 17,993 villages in 14 districts including the two major cities of Bhubaneswar and Cuttack.
More than 10,000 human lives were lost, 4.45 lakh livestock perished and crops in 18.43 lakh hectare area were damaged.
Incidentally, Kumar had visited the state during the earlier cyclone and had covered the devastation.
He felt the pain crossing over the dead bodies in Paradeep after the super cyclone.
After learning that such a severe cyclone was again likely to hit Odisha, he chose to revisit the state and take a stock of the situation.
He was, however, amazed and overwhelmed by the kind of capacity the state had built, including the teamwork and technology being used to manage the threat of cyclone Fani.
The state government has made long strides in disaster management since the super cyclone of 1999.
All out preparedness and mitigation measures have been taken for augmenting resilience of the community for disaster management.
In the past 20 years, we have constructed as 879 multipurpose cyclone and flood shelters in different parts of the state to provide safe shelters to the vulnerable community during disasters.
Several embankments in the state have been strengthened to protect from the storm surge and saline ingress due to cyclones.
While earlier, we were dependant on the Army and Navy to deal with such situations, the state government created over 20 units of the Odisha Disaster Response Force (ODRAF) for swift disaster response. The ODRAF units are fully equipped and trained with multiple skills to tackle any eventuality.
These forces can be deployed without any delay, in the event of a disaster.
About 16,000 disaster-resilient houses with facilities like toilet, piped water supply and electricity have been constructed in the cyclone prone area of Ganjam and Khurda.
These, along with the concrete houses built under various government programs have reduced the vulnerability of the people during cyclonic situations.
Odisha also boasts of a state-of-art early warning dissemination system that has been established at the state EOC. Technologies like satellite based mobile data voice terminals (SBMDVT), digital mobile radio (DMR), mass messaging system, alert siren system and universal communication interface (UCI) for interoperability among different communication technologies have been provided under the system.
Our aim has been to establish a foolproof communication system to address the existing gaps in disseminating disaster warnings up to the community level.
Significant improvement in building resilient infrastructure in all sectors also contributed to the success.
The state has been a disaster-prone area and we did not have a proper cyclone forecast system prior to 1999.
There are instances of the cyclone which brought about great devastation as the people got no warnings.
Records show that in 1831, the cyclone caused about 50,000 casualties while thousands of people died due to it in 1967, 1971 and 1985.
This part of the world used to be ravaged by frequent drought and famine.
The great Bengal famine in 1770 resulted in human casualties of about 10 million.
The famine of 1866 in Odisha took away lives of another four million people.
In the famine of 1943, over three million people died. The governments in the early times didn’t think that saving the lives of people was their responsibility.
The people were allowed to die without food, water and care.
Such was way the rulers valued the human lives in the earlier times.
It is not possible to imagine such things today.
It is because the democracy has flourished and has led to the development of newer technologies and adoption in a competitive manner.
Odisha is a pioneer state in this regard.
Today, we get near precise information from IMD.
We cross check the information with forecasts from the Joint Typhoon Warning Center of US Navy, ECMWF and others. We have an active collaboration with the RIMES, Bangkok.
We undertake a lot of analysis on the likely impact of extreme weather events like a cyclone, giving due attention to secondary risks like an inundation caused by storm surge, flooding in low lying areas and possible risks various sections of community situated in different conditions would face.
For example, the people staying very close to the coast in a kutcha house would carry the maximum risk on account of the cyclone.
During the cyclone Fani, we plotted the track of the cyclone on GIS map and listed nearly 10,000 villages and 51 towns which needed specific attention.
We used location-based alerting system to forewarn the people on the path of the cyclone.
About 1.8 crore messages were sent to the vulnerable people to take safety measures, while 122 cyclone towers on the coast blared siren round the clock, warning people to remain safe.
We had a perfect coordination with different departments such as police, fire, ODRAF, NDRF, and the fishery department.
The officers moved in the identified villages, used megaphones and evacuated them.
Not a single fisherman was found to be out in the sea and in the Chilika lake.
All the fishing vessels were towed away from the seashore.
25,000 tourists were evacuated in the town of Puri, which was likely to be hit very badly.
Appeal was made by the chief minister to the people to remain in the safe buildings. Schools, colleges, business and commercial establishments were all closed.
The vehicular movement was completely stopped, trains were cancelled and air traffic was shut down. Everyone was aware of a great cyclone and took safe measures.
The electronic media played a vital role by broadcasting the messages round the clock.
TV spots were played in the TV channels and radio on safety precautions.
Social media platforms were effectively used not only for dissemination of warnings, but also for sending vital information to the general public for safety and survival.
As a result of the massive drive, more than 15.5 lakh people were evacuated to almost 9,000 safe shelters including the cyclone and flood shelter buildings.
Special care was taken to shift the old, differently-abled, women and children in shelters much before the cyclone approached.
Odisha has built 879 cyclone and flood shelters and each shelter has 50 volunteers. Similarly, 400 ApadaMitra volunteers have been trained in Puri and Jagatsinghpur districts.
Community level volunteers and task force team members of multipurpose cyclone and flood shelters were engaged for public meetings and for ensuring preparedness, warning dissemination and expediting evacuation.
The political representatives also played a crucial role since the cyclone shelters are managed by a committee headed by the local sarpanch.
They made proper arrangement of food, lighting and sanitation and other measures.
Odisha took a sigh of relief after the landfall because no one died or got any severe injury on the coast.
As many as 64 people died due to negligence and some of them being out in the open, exposed to the cyclonic wind.
Our focus has been to remain prepared for all the times since we value every human life and this has been made possible due to the government machinery and the participation of the community, through teamwork, technology and transparency and preparations done over a period of two decades.
The writer works as the Special Relief Commissioner and Managing Director of Odisha Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA), Government of Odisha.