Heavy rain and whirlwind continues to lash the eastern coast on Saturday, forcing about 450,000 people to flee to emergency shelters. The natural disaster is said to be one of the country’s largest onslaught. On Saturday, it roared through the coast, threatening lives and causing heartbreaking devastation through farmland and fishing hamlets within the coat area.
Named Cyclone Phailin, it has caused major devastation in the Bay of Bengal, and roaring about 90km (124 miles) off the coast by late afternoon. It expected to strike the coast by nightfall with winds of between 210kmph (130mph) and 220kmph (137mph).
The storm was expected to affect 12 million people, most of them in the densely populated states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, weather and disaster management officials said.
Even before landfall, coconut trees in villages along the coast were bent and broken in the gusting wind. Electrical poles were brought down and roads were littered with debris.
In the first reported deaths, two people were killed by falling trees while a third when the walls of her mud house collapsed.
Terrified children clung to their mothers as they sought shelter. Most towns along the coast were deserted but there were still some people trying to flee.
Some people took refuge in temples, others crammed into three-wheel auto-rickshaws and headed inland.
“This is one of the largest evacuations undertaken in India,” said Shashidhar Reddy, vice chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority, who estimated that more than 440,000 people had fled from their homes.
The size of the storm made extensive damage to property more likely, he told reporters in New Delhi. “Our priority is to minimise loss of life.”
Phailin is expected to bring a 3.4-metre (11-foot) surge in sea levels when it hits the coast between 1230 GMT and 1430 GMT.
The weather department warned of extensive damage to mud houses, major disruption of power and communication lines, and the flooding of rail tracks and roads. Flying debris is another threat.
“In a storm of this magnitude there is the potential for widespread damage to crops and livestock in the low-lying coastal areas and houses completely wiped away,” said Kunal Shah, the head of the aid group World Vision’s emergency response team in India.
“While we are praying this storm loses intensity, we’re also preparing.”
London-based Tropical Storm Risk classed the storm in Category 5 – the strongest such rating. The US navy’s weather service said wind at sea was gusting at 314kmph.
Many of the people along the coast are subsistence fishermen and farmers, who live in mud-and-brick or thatched huts.
In 1999, a typhoon battered the same region, killing 10,000 people.
India’s disaster preparations have improved significantly since then and aid workers praised precautions for Phailin such as early warnings, stocking of rations in shelters and evacuations.
“A lot has been learnt since 1999 and my guess is that while there could be extensive damage to property and crops, the death toll will be much less,” said G. Padmanabhan, emergency analyst at the U.N. Development Programme.
But despite all the warnings, some people refused to leave their homes.
“I have a small child, so I thought, how will I leave?” asked Achamma, 25, as she clutched on to her boy in Donkuru, a fishing village in Andhra Pradesh, as waves crashed on to a nearby beach.
Police said a rescue had been launched for 18 fishermen stranded at sea off Paradip, a major port in Odisha, after their trawler ran out of fuel.
Paradip halted cargo operations on Friday. All vessels were ordered to leave the port, which handles coal, crude oil and iron ore. An oil tanker holding about 2 million barrels of oil, worth $220 million, was also moved, an oil company source said.
However, the storm was not expected to hit India’s largest gas field, the D6 natural gas block in the Cauvery Basin further down the east coast, field operator Reliance Industries said.
If there was a silver lining in the grim foreboding of a monster storm, it’s the realization that lives aren’t that cheap in India any longer. For, the measures taken by the administration in the run-up to Cyclone Phailin to reduce casualties and minimize losses doesn’t have parallels.
The superior preparedness and response this time for disaster is in sharp contrast to previous disastrous storms like the 1999 super cyclone. They are also in contrast with the Uttarakhand disaster when the state authorities were caught flat-footed. This time disaster management authorities are confident of meeting the challenge with minimal casualty.
The coastline has been dotted with cyclone shelters, none of them more than 2.5 km from habitation. This has ensured that over 5 lakh people could be evacuated in last two days. Otherwise, moving such large numbers could have been impossible.
Nothing has helped more than an early and accurate warning of the impending natural disaster. Though the met department did predict cyclones alerts even in 1999 based on satellite images, these were mostly too close to the landfall and not pinpointed in terms of location.
Today, there is a Doppler radar in place at Bhubaneswar, giving out precise coordinates in terms of geographical spread, intensity and timing of cyclones. This enables early alerts to the local authorities and wider dissemination of cyclone warnings in the vulnerable areas, facilitating timely evacuation of people likely to be affected.
The electronic media boom and 24×7 news coverage further ensured that Phailin became a household name well before its landfall.
Evacuations play a key part in disaster mitigation. Unlike 1999 when the super cyclone caught the victims as well as government authorities by surprise, around 5.25 lakh evacuations were already complete by the first half of Saturday.
The cyclone shelters have been built under the Centre and NDMA’s National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project, a World Bank-assisted initiative. These two–storeyed structures can withstand windspeed up to 300 km per hour and moderate earthquakes.
The massive evacuation authorities may not have been possible but for the relentless efforts of the local administration. A local official said when some of the villagers refused to leave their houses, the authorities even went to the extent of threatening them with detention and arrest, ensuring immediate compliance.
The creation of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) in 2006 ensured that there were around 2,300 personnel, especially trained in disaster mitigation and response, available for deployment, along with equipment like inflatable boads, lifebuoys and power saws.
Incidentally, Odisha had set up its own Odisha State Disaster Management Authority and Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) soon the 1999 disaster, much before the NDMA and NDRF came into being.
Last but not the least, the coordination between the Central and state agencies this time was “remarkably good”, as an NDMA member put it, with IMD religiously relaying cyclone updates to NDMA, MHA and state government.
The national executive council, which was almost non-functional until the Uttarakhand disaster, has been very active, with the Union home secretary taking daily meetings over the last couple of days, coordinating mitigation and relief preparedness with various nodal ministries, Armed Forces, NDRF and state authorities.