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Massive Pre-cyclone Evacuations Help India Withstand Strongest Storm in Two Decades

The strongest tropical cyclone to hit India in 20 years made landfall in the eastern coastal city of Puri in the Odisha state around 9:30 am local time on Friday, May 3. When Tropical Cyclone Fani struck the city of 200,000, it had the force equivalent to a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds upwards of 150 miles per hour. Approximately 6 hours later Fani was downgraded from an “extremely severe cyclonic storm” to a “very severe cyclonic storm” with winds reduced to around 90 mph.

Preparations

Meteorologists began tracking Fani far before it made landfall, and were able to map out a predicted storm path, with more than 10,000 villages and 52 towns in nine districts in the direct line of the storm. Though additional downgrades are likely, Fani is predicted to continue on through Kolkata, a city of 4.5 million people, and into Bangladesh.

The above photo shows the devastating cyclone of 1999 hitting the Odisha coast, the same location where Cyclone Fani made landfall the morning of 5/3/19.
The above photo shows the devastating cyclone of 1999 hitting the Odisha coast, the same location where Cyclone Fani made landfall the morning of 5/3/19.

As the storm approached, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) set up more than 900 cyclone shelters many miles inland (each with a capacity of around 1000 people), as well as went door-to-door in smaller coastal villages to persuade residents to evacuate. Many insisted on remaining in their homes, in which case NDRF personnel provided training on critical safety precautions. Nevertheless, the Office of the Chief Minister for the state of Odisha announced that over 1 million people had been evacuated prior to Fani’s landfall. Many observed that this preparation shows a drastic contrast to the less successful efforts prior to India’s devastating 1999 cyclone, in which more than 10,000 people perished.

Additional precautions and supplies have been provided to Rohingya refugee camps along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In other parts of Bangladesh, more than 400,000 people have been evacuated, with the goal of evacuating 2.1 million by nightfall.

Impact

With new reports and assessments of damage coming in every hour, it is difficult to comment on the full extent of the destruction. Verified social media posts have shown windows being blown out, cranes toppling over into buildings, buses flipping over, trees being uprooted, and winds strong enough to knock over anyone left outside. The current death toll stands at 7, according to Odisha Police Director General Sanjeeb Panda, who noted that most of the deaths were caused by collapsed walls and fallen trees. Phone lines, internet and electricity are all down in Puri and many surrounding villages, but officials have vowed to restore power quickly.

Recovery Efforts

India’s recovery efforts in response to Fani’s destruction have been swift and robust. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with support of the Indian government, allocated $144 million for relief efforts in anticipation of the devastating cyclone. Odisha police, as of Friday night local time, have already begun working to clear fallen trees and debris from roads and move remaining residents to safety. The Indian Coast Guard assisted by supplying ships with necessary supplies off Odisha’s coast and are now facilitating the transport of water and food to the town of Gopalpur. Recovery efforts are expected to continue and expand once a full assessment of damages can safely occur.

Resilience Implications

Though devastating to homes and infrastructure, Fani’s long-term impact is expected to be significantly less than that due to past storms, particularly in comparison to the 1999 cyclone that struck in the same region and killed over 10,000 people. Nikhil Kumar of CNN’s New Delhi Bureau noted that in the 20 years since that catastrophic storm India has “effectively built itself a disaster management infrastructure.” Six years after the 1999 cyclone India established what is called the National Disaster Management Authority, whose sole purpose is to minimize the impact of disasters. The following year, the National Disaster Response Force was established. The NDRF is a “specialized corps of highly trained men and women” who are deployed to respond to disasters like earthquakes and cyclones. Today, the NDRF is made up of nearly 25,000 personnel.

The preparations for and immediate response to Hurricane Fani highlight how India was able to learn from their former lack of preparation, take major strides to build disaster resilience into their governmental system, and recognize the significance and effectiveness of pre-disaster preparations, mitigation, and evacuation. Their disaster-response agencies and personnel are now highly trained, prepared, and supported by the government in order to act quickly and effectively when needed. Though there have been 7 reported fatalities since Fani made landfall, the aftermath of the 1999 cyclone tells us that there could and would have been many more casualties without the commitment of India to become more resilient when facing inevitable disasters.