Despite the warnings and apparent preparedness, no one living in the area anticipated the ferocity of Super Typhoon Haiyan, which unleashed its awesome power on the Philippine island of Leyte and the coastal areas of Vietnam earlier this month. The storm left over 5,200 people dead and the city of Tacloban in a heap of rubble.
Haiyan also exposed a fundamental flaw in ASEAN's preparedness - a confidence bordering on complacency.
In this regard, the recent experience of the east Indian state of Odisha (formerly known as Orissa) is instructive, particularly when it comes to preparedness, response and recovery. One month before Haiyan wreaked havoc in the Philippines, super-cyclone Phailin caused massive destruction in Odisha.
Before the storm arrived, more than half a million people were evacuated from vulnerable coastal areas. The Odisha government also provided 1,000 shelters. It was a significant improvement over the situation in 1999, when more than 15,000 people died after a similarly powerful cyclone hit the state.
In the case of Phailin, the local government was able to minimise the human misery by taking the following steps:
- The meteorological department forecast the path of the cyclone well in advance (at least 10 days), thereby giving ample time for preparatory measures to be taken. Wind speeds, and therefore the potential destructiveness of the cyclone, were also known in advance.
- The government was able to evacuate people from coastal villages and low-lying areas to cyclone shelters constructed after the 1999 disaster. Other safe locations such as schools and community centres were also used. As a consequence, the death toll was limited to 13 people. Domestic animals were also relocated.
Dry food packets, candles and polythene sheets to construct temporary shelters had been prepared in advance.