Odisha could have prepared better for cyclone

Governments can do little to stop a cyclone, but they can definitely prepare to mitigate their impact
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First Published: Sat, Oct 12 2013. 06 51 PM IST
Evacuees leave their village for a safer place in Sanabandha village near Gopalpur in Odisha. Photo: Asit Kumar/AFP
Evacuees leave their village for a safer place in Sanabandha village near Gopalpur in Odisha. Photo: Asit Kumar/AFP
Updated: Sat, Oct 12 2013. 10 16 PM IST
Though it is Maha Ashtami today, the beautifully bedecked images of the goddess Durga in Cuttack city have few worshippers. Ardent devotees are holed up in houses, anxiously watching news channels about the progress of the dreaded, very severe cyclonic storm Phailin (Thai for sapphire). Since noon on Saturday, incessant rains followed by gusts of howling winds have heralded the imminent arrival of Phailin as it tears through the Bay of Bengal, churning the bay in a cataclysmic whirlwind packing the force of several nuclear bombs.
The approaching nemesis
The monsoon in 2013 has been unusual in Odisha. Spells of dry weather have been punctuated by heavy rains caused by low-strength depressions. A hot and humid climate had made life uncomfortable, which was surprising as the land mass usually cooled off in July after heavy monsoon showers.
Phailin is already categorized as Category 4 storm with wind speeds of 240km per hour, a notch below the 1999 disaster. The 1999 super cyclone was Category 5 as it had wind speed in excess of 250km/hour. A tidal surge of 10-12ft is also expected. By 6-8pm on Saturday evening, Phailin will strike near Gopalpur, the salubrious seaside holiday spot in Ganjam district.
Bay cyclones and devastation
The Bay of Bengal is no stranger to cyclones as its peculiar topography acts like a funnel for cyclones. As they form and move towards the coast, they gather strength being squeezed between the land mass comprising the Indian coast on the west side with Bangladesh to the north and Myanmar to the east. Due to the constricted path, the winds get stronger and stronger as their forces play out on progressively lesser ocean surface before landfall.
Out of the 35 deadliest tropical cyclones of the world, the Bay of Bengal has recorded 26, which is disproportionately high. Tropical cyclones can cause tremendous loss of human lives and property. The Great Boha Cyclone of November 1970 led to the loss of an estimated 300,000-500,000 lives in Bangladesh. This was followed by the 1971 cyclone on the Odisha coast leading to the loss of more than 9,000 lives. The Odisha super cyclone of 1999 led to the loss of more than 9,500 human lives apart from countless cattle deaths and the loss of nearly 90 million trees. There was an estimated damage of $2.5 billion (at 1999 prices).
Horrifying memories of the 1999 super cyclone are still vividly etched in people’s minds. An ill-prepared administration could do little to save lives. No evacuations took place and regular bulletins were absent. Neither were there cyclone shelters or pucca buildings in the coastal villages for shelter. A massive relief and reconstruction undertaking that lasted for several years was carried out. It took millions in aid money to restore normalcy and rebuild houses and public infrastructure such as power stations, poles, roads, bridges, schools and hospitals that had been battered flat. Fortunately, we are in a vastly different position compared with the woeful state of preparedness in 1999, given the fact that nearly 500 cyclone shelters and hundreds of thousands of pucca private buildings have come up in coastal villages.
The changing monsoon pattern is a sure indicator of climate change caused by increased emission of greenhouse gases due to the high dependency upon fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum. It is also unfortunate that governments across the world, including the Indian government, are refusing to act though.
Gaps in cyclone mitigation
It is true that governments can do little to stop a cyclone, but they can definitely prepare to mitigate their impact. The Odisha State Disaster Mitigation Authority (OSDMA), which was set up in 2000, has been a blundering and incompetent monolith. No visible preparatory measures have been taken. No tidal surge modelling studies were conducted to assess the extent of inundation given a particular wind speed and storm surge values, which could have generated vital information for the local administration.
Right now, a clueless government is carrying out evacuation en masse all over the coast in the four districts of Ganjam, Khurda, Puri and Jagatsinghpur. This means displacement, providing shelter, and feeding of nearly half a million people, an enormous task. Besides, there has been no preparations for emergency feeding of livestock for which fodder is required.
No effort had been made to link up with youth clubs, the National Cadet Corps (NCC) and the National Service Scheme (NSS) in colleges so that a readymade, well-trained volunteer army of several thousand are available for rescue and relief work. The first state-level non-governmental organization coordination meeting took place on 10 October, just two days before the strike date.
Destroying natural coastal protection measures
The natural barriers that were present on the Odisha coast such as mangroves and huge sand dunes have been mostly destroyed. Illegal shrimp farms have replaced mangroves in most coastal districts such as Puri, Kendrapada and Jagatsinghpur. Huge sand dunes more than 80ft in height that could quell tidal surges and tsunamis, and break high-speed winds were common in the early 1970s on the Kendrapada, Jagatsinghpur and Puri coasts. These sand dunes were flattened, thanks to beach plantations of casuarina trees after the 1971 cyclone. These soft-wood trees snapped like matchsticks during the 1999 cyclone, yet the mistake was repeated with the forest department spending crores of rupees on such plantations, including the turtle nesting areas on the Devi river and Rushikulya river mouth.
The ill-planned development of 12 new ports is going to be another disaster for the Odisha coast as they are going to disrupt the coastal processes leading to avoidable erosion in many beaches. Hundreds of thousands of trees were felled for the Posco steel plant near Dhinkia and Gobindpur coast, thereby paving the way for high-speed winds to blow away the fragile houses of residents. This mega steel project could have been located far inland in barren land such as Kalinganagar had the government appreciated the need to protect such near-coast tree cover.
Biswajit Mohanty is an environmentalist based in Cuttack, Orissa and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife.
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First Published: Sat, Oct 12 2013. 06 51 PM IST
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