The Fani that was not funny at all

The Fani  that was not funny at all

India which is engulfed in a heated debate of current and undercurrent in the political arena, saw a massive cyclone developed due to oceanic currents. An extremely severe cyclonic storm ‘Fani’ or the ‘Hood of Snake’ battered the eastern coastal state of Odisha, with roaring winds flattening huts, enveloping the pilgrim town of Puri  in sheets of rain, and submerging homes. The cyclone left a trail of devastation in large parts of coastal Odisha, with the seaside areas being the worst hit. With wind storms gusting up to 175 kmph and incessant rains bringing down trees, power and communications lines and thatched houses, cyclone Fani tore through the eastern coast in Odisha last week leaving at least twelve people dead and swamping towns and villages.

Fani, classified as an extremely severe cyclonic storm, made landfall around 8 am on May 3rd in Puri, according to the India Meteorological Department (IMD) even as the state government evacuated, nearly 12 lakh people from about 10,000 villages and 52 urban centres. Fani, however, weakened into ‘very severe’ cyclonic storm in a few hours but left a trail of devastation across coastal Odisha, with the seaside pilgrim town of Puri being the worst hit.

Videos on social media showed cars and buses flipping over, trees being ripped out, a police booth being dragged some 200 mtrs on a highway by furious winds and even a massive construction crane  collapsing on a row of empty buildings in the storm.

Immediate media reports said that  three people were reported dead in different incidents in Puri, Nayagarh and Kendrapara districts. While a teenage boy was killed when a tree collapsed on him in Puri, flying debris from a concrete structure left a woman dead in Nayagarh. An elderly woman died of heart failure at a relief shelter in Kendrapara district.

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who reviewed the situation, said Puri district suffered huge damage. “Energy infrastructure has been completely destroyed. Restoration of electricity is a challenging task,” he said adding that work is on to restore road communication “thrown into disarray with thousands of uprooted trees blocking the way in innumerable places”. According to a Union Home Ministry report, the districts of Cuttack, Khordha, Bhubaneswar and Puri are severely affected and the “Fani has caused huge damages in these districts”. The report says the cyclone has led to the uprooting of a large number of trees disrupting roads and traffic, there is extensive damage to houses-both concrete and otherwise, power supply and phone communication have snapped and summer crops apart from orchards and plantations are devastated.

An unusual landfall

India is prone to cyclones almost every year, but it generally occurs in the winter season. Also, spring is a typical time for the formation of tropical cyclones in the Bay of Bengal.  According to a weather.com report it’s right before the wet phase of the South Asia monsoon develops (April-June) and right after it fades (September-early December), when upper-level winds relax enough for strong tropical cyclone development in the northern Indian Ocean.

As the monsoons wet phase peaks in the summer, upper-level winds in the northern Indian Ocean become too brisk for strong tropical cyclones to develop. Instead, weak monsoon depressions with heavy rain can form at times.

However, Fani’s landfall in India is unusual for a tropical cyclone in spring, as most Bay of Bengal systems come ashore farther east this time of year, reaching Bangladesh or Myanmar. Along India’s east coast, landfalls are more likely in the fall, when some of the nation’s most devastating tropical cyclones on record have struck. Over the last 30 years, only four tropical cyclones of at least Category 3-equivalent intensity have made landfall in India’s Odisha or West Bengal states, according to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an American scientific agency within the United States Department of Commerces historical database. Again, all of these were in the fall, not spring.

The last to do so was Phailin in October 2013, which hammered Odisha state as a Category 4, killing 45 and inflicting $655 million in damages. According to Dr. Phil Klotzbach, a tropical scientist at Colorado State University, Fani was the most intense cyclone in the North Indian Ocean Basin this early in the year since 1991.

Meticulous planning saved lives

Odisha government, unlike previous cyclones, particularly the one in 1999, when more than 15,000 perished, this time was successful in limiting the death toll to 34, eliciting praise from the international media and agencies like the United Nations.  Addressing the press, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik divulged the meticulous planning and preparation that went into not just preventing loss of life, but also offering relief to millions. “A record 1.2 million people were evacuated in 24 hours, 3.2 lakh from Ganjam, 1.3 lakh from Puri and almost 7000 kitchens catering to 9,000 shelters were made functional overnight. This mammoth exercise involved more than 45,000 volunteers,” Patnaik said.

How it was done

Odisha’s Special Relief Commissioner Bishnupada Sethi, while speaking to  The Better India outlined the efforts made by the government in minimising the casualties. The report states that through April 30 and May 1, the Indian Meteorological Department issued a’yellow warning’ to authorities in Odisha, predicting heavy to very heavy rainfall along its vulnerable coasts in the wake of the fast approaching Cyclone Fani. It said that Fani had transformed into an’ Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storm” and was expected to make landfall by the afternoon of May 3.

With the IMD issuing an accurate warning at least 72 hours in advance, it gives authorities time to prepare for the worst. In 1999, when the State was hit by the super cyclone, the warning came just two days before the cyclone made landfall.

“We took the early warning from IMD very seriously, studied it, and quickly formulated a plan of action developed over years of experiencing such cyclones. The State government also received timely information from other forecasting agencies like the Andhra Pradesh government’s Real Time Governance Society (RTGS), the United States Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center and other such agencies,” says Sethi.

When the RTGS, for example, saw that the cyclone would make its landfall south of Puri, the Andhra officials quickly reached out to their counterparts in Odisha. In fact, a WhatsApp group was created which included the Odisha Chief Secretary, and the respective District Collectors of the vulnerable coastal areas, offering them regular updates.

“There were no surprises this time. We analysed all the necessary data and forecasting patterns, and this gave us the time to prepare well,” adds Sethi.

“The next step is to inform everyone likely to be affected by the cyclones. When, where and at what speed the cyclone is going to hit the coast, how many people are likely to be affected, and basically targeting the most vulnerable after making a list of non-cyclone resistant homes, particularly housing the elderly and young children. Emergency personnel were deputed to different district operation centres to oversee relief. We spread  the warning message through multiple mediums — employing television channels, our early warning system towers, which are structures along the coastline that can blow a siren over a radius of 1.5 km, and millions of text messages among other modes of communication,” says Sethi.

These warnings were put out round the clock. Officials ensured that not a single fisherman was out at sea. Authorities conducted many village to village campaigns, warning locals of the imminent dangers. They requested the people, particularly those living in vulnerable areas and temporary settlements with thatched house to move to the government sponsored shelters. Basically, there was probably no one in the State who wasn’t aware of Cyclone Fani, when it was coming or where it was going to hit and at what wind speed and time.

The report further states that the officials also took into account the secondary impact the place where the cyclone would hit, in case of a storm surge. Those areas that require mass evacuations were identified and accordingly, the State machinery was prepared.

“It was a very well coordinated effort, taking assistance from the local police, National Disaster Relief Force, Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (well-trained personnel with disaster relief capabilities), fire safety personnel and the Indian Navy,” added Sethi in the report.

Praise galore

Praise for the Odisha governments preparedness for the cyclone is in abundant from all quarters. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also praised Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s handling of the Cyclone Fani after conducting an aerial survey to assess the loss and destruction caused by the storm. “Naveen babu has done a good job,” the Prime Minister said with the Odisha chief minister standing next to him. Modi also announced an aid of Rs 1,000 crore on top of the Rs 381 crore the Centre had announced earlier. The praise for Naveen Patnaik, the BJD chief and a former NDA ally, comes bang in the middle of the election season and after a bitter campaign in which both sides have attacked each other repeatedly.

“In the middle of a busy elections schedule, everyone concerned prioritized this (Cyclone)… I must congratulate the state government, the authorities and those involved in evacuations. The work done is commendable. There has been an excellent coordination between the Centre and the state,” said the PM after the aerial survey on which he was accompanied by Patnaik.

But the best praise came from unexpected quarters :- UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (ODRR). The Indian government’s “zero casualty” policy for cyclones and the pinpoint accuracy of the India Meteorological Department’s (IMD) early warning system have helped reduce the possibility of deaths from cyclone Fani, according to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (ODRR).

“They seem to have done a very good job in terms of minimising the possibility for loss of life,” Denis McClean, a spokesperson for the ODRR said at a UN news briefing in Geneva after the deadly cyclone made its landfall in Odisha.

“The almost pinpoint accuracy of the warnings, the early warnings from the IMD, allows them to conduct a very well targeted evacuation plan which resulted in 1.1 million people mainly moving to about 900 cyclone shelters.”

“India’s zero casualty approach to managing extreme weather evetns is a major contribution to the implementation of the #SendaiFramework and the reduction of loss of life from such events,” Mami Mizutori, the Special representative of the United Nations Secretary General (SRSG) for Disaster Risk Reduction, and head of the Geneva-based UN office for the Disaster Risk Reduction (UNSDR), said. Mizutori was referring to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, the first major agreement of the post-2015 development agenda. It is a 15-year, voluntary, non-binding agreement which recognises that the state has the primary role to reduce disaster risk but that responsibility should be shared with other stakeholders including the local government, the private sector and other stakeholders.

Odisha-Capital of Disasters

The eastern state of Odisha, often referred to as the nation’s capital of disaster, is back in news for recurring natural disasters. Though Odisha, one of the most susceptible states to cyclones, is usually hit by such a storm in post-monsoon phase of October-November, pre-monsoon cyclones are also not unusual.

Just seven months ago in October 2018, cyclone Titli had battered Odisha. The just-concluded elections (the general elections for all seats of Odisha is completed now) even saw the Super Cyclone of 1999 become a poll issue in coastal areas of the state. In October 2013, cyclone Phailin had struck the state and it was the largest storm to hit Odisha after 1999.

Between 1900 and 2011, the state experienced floods in 59 years, severe cyclones in 24 years, droughts in 42 years, severe heat waves in 14 years and tornadoes in seven years, according to a research paper Economics of Natural Disasters in Odisha by Saudamini Das of Institute of Economic Growth (accessed at Downtoearth.org).

So, for this period, the state at an average faced 1.3 natural calamities a year. Pointing at the increasing frequency of natural or weather-related disasters, she found that since 1965, the state has been experiencing two to three disasters almost every year.

A recent report by the state government also put the state’s coastal zone as the “most” vulnerable in the country to reoccurrence of storms and severe storms. In every 15 months, the state faces re-occurrence of such storms. In case of Andhra Pradesh, it is 20 months while for the other Bay of Bengal state — West Bengal — it is 28 months.

Of the last century’s 1,035 cyclonic disturbances that hit the Indian sub-continent, close to half hit the eastern coast, while Odisha experienced 263 of them. This means one-fourth of the total disasters in the last 100 years battered Odisha.

Worsening Economy

Recurring natural disasters is already an economic challenge for the state, one of the poorest in the country. Das argues in her paper that loss due to disasters has been increasing manifold. Her calculation shows that in the 1970s natural disasters caused property loss of Rs 1,050 crore. In 1980s this increased by seven times and in 1990s, it went up by 10 times over the ’70s figure. This increase in loss also accounts the fact that the state’s infrastructure had also increased in all these years.

However, she maintains that natural disasters have definitely put pressure on the state economy, and it is going to get worse. Severe floods and cyclones are the two most expensive disasters in term of economic losses, she argues.

The cyclone has passed and left a trail of devastation in the state. The government needs to (and is doing) a complete restoration of normal life of the state. The state is battered again and again by the natural calamities and it is the people of Odisha, whose resilience keeps the state afloat. We as a country should stand with our brethren from the eastern state of our country and help them in bringing their state back on its pedestal.  

By Nilabh Krishna

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