Prepare for natural disasters

On May 3, when Cyclone Fani made landfall at the temple town of Puri, Odisha showed the world how better preparedness for natural disasters and swift evacuation of people living in the path of a cyclone can minimise loss of life. Some 44 people are reported dead in the cyclone and while every one of these deaths could have been prevented, the Odisha government deserves applause for bringing down the number of casualties in natural disasters. It may be recalled that when a ‘super-cyclone’ tore through Odisha 20 years ago, over 10,000 people were reported dead. Of course, weather forecasting back then was not as sophisticated as it is today. The state government was helped by India Meteorological Department’s “pinpoint accuracy” in tracking Fani’s progress. Hence, the government was able to begin preparatory work days before Fani made landfall. Ripping through the state at a speed of over 200 kmph, Fani became an “extremely severe” cyclonic storm, one of the “rarest of rare” to hit India’s east coast. Anticipating the havoc it would create, the state government alerted the population by sending them messages via SMS. Over a million people were reportedly evacuated within 24 hours, a feat that few other countries have achieved.

Following the super cyclone of 1999, the Odisha government worked systematically to improve its preparedness for disasters. It built 879 multi-purpose cyclone shelters — there were only 23 two decades ago — and provided satellite phones to officials, community volunteers and the nodal authority to improve connectivity and co-ordination during disasters. Preparatory drills were conducted over the years. This work enabled Odisha to reduce the numbers killed by Fani.

However, post-Fani efforts to put people back on their feet are disappointing. The storm flattened entire villages, destroyed houses and brought down electrical poles. Uprooted trees are blocking roads, hindering relief work. Food and clean drinking water is yet to reach people marooned in many remote areas. The state government and civil society need to pitch in to help the state recover from Fani’s fury. There are lessons that India and the rest of the world can draw from Odisha’s experience with disasters and post-disaster restoration. Such lessons are valuable especially since the world can expect more such extreme weather events as the impact of climate change grows. South Asia’s coastal areas are expected to suffer severe flooding in the wake of global warming and rising sea levels. The Indian and Bangladeshi coasts are heavily populated and evacuating millions can become a nightmare if we do not prepare systematically for natural disasters.

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