East India rides out Cyclone Phailin

East India rides out Cyclone Phailin
Residents walking among debris and damaged houses on Monday in Puri in Odisha state. Improved communication and efficient coordination helped minimise fatalities among the 12 million living in the path of the storm.

It was the worst cyclone to hit eastern India in 14 years, leaving massive destruction in its wake - flattened houses, overturned cars and damaged crops.

But Cyclone Phailin - Thai for "sapphire" - which hit the eastern coastal state of Odisha on the weekend, claimed remarkably few lives, 17 as of Monday, compared with the 1999 storm that killed more than 10,000.

And the 12 million people who live in the path of the cyclone have better communication, better preparedness and efficient coordination to thank for that.

Almost 900,000 people were evacuated within 48 hours of the cyclone hitting land, with the help of the country's vast communication network.

As the cyclone approached, people were alerted and able to track it through blanket television coverage. The authorities also went from locality to locality asking people to move out. A cellphone network that extends to even remote areas not only helped locals keep in touch and move to safety but also helped the authorities get relief and disaster management teams in place quickly.

Experts said accurate prediction by the Indian Meteorological Department and efficient coordination between state and federal departments, combined with an extended communication network, helped the authorities prevent a repeat of 1999.

"Fortunately, things fell into place... the excellent manner in which it was coordinated. Everyone had their act together. It is a giant exercise," said National Disaster Response Force director-general Krishna Chaudhary.

Professor M.K. Pandit of Delhi University called the effort a "good mix of science, technology and good governance".

Over the last decade, communication networks have strengthened with over half of the 1.2 billion population having connectivity thanks to widespread coverage and affordability. There are also dozens of TV channels in English and Indian languages being beamed into millions of houses.

University professor Sharat Kumar Palita of Odisha found out about the cyclone from the news on TV: "We stocked up on water and food. Also, because 1999 gave us a lot of experience, we stocked up for three to four days."

After the 1999 storm, the authorities also built hundreds of shelters that could safely house over a million people in Odisha.

Still, with 14,514 villages in 12 districts and nine million people affected, it will be a challenge providing relief. There is also the threat of disease outbreak with some 234,000 houses destroyed. Disaster management teams are preparing for floods with heavy rains continuing till Monday. Six districts in Odisha are on alert.

Despite the minimal loss of life, some believe that there is more room for improvement.

"It needs to be seen how the critical aspects of relief and rehabilitation are addressed in the aftermath of the cyclone. Also, India needs to put in place a system of disaster alerts rather than relying on the present government-to-citizen disaster alerting only," said disaster management specialist Monish Gulati.


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