A petrol pump damaged by cyclone Fani on the Puri-Bhubaneswar highway, Odisha. Photo by Manish Kumar.

How different from 1999 cyclone

Puri residents have vivid memories of the havoc wrecked by the 1999 cyclone.

Some people opined that the 1999 event had a lesser impact on them while others felt many facilities given to them in 1999 were not provided in 2019.

Deepak Biswal, a daily wage labourer from Jajpur who had been living in Puri for years said, “During 1999 cyclone we got better food facilities as food packets were airdropped. This time we are struggling for food while many are seen to be praising the government for their assistance.”

“Come to slums and the shelters to know the reality and the misery against the tall claims of the government,” Biswal rued.

Subhash Chandra Mohanty, a lawyer in Puri said, “The 1999 cyclone was different for Puri. It did not make landfall in Puri while Fani had a landfall in Puri so the damage to Puri due to this cyclone has been more devastating compared to the disaster 20 years ago.”

Mohanty pointed out that people failed to understand how disastrous Fani could be to Puri.

Puri is dotted with hotels which are mostly within 500 metres of the beach. As Fani struck, window panes were blown away, trees smashed onto the ground taking along with them signboards and other property items.

The capital city of Bhubaneswar also saw major destruction of property. However, Puri suffered far more losses compared to Bhubaneswar. It is estimated that around 25,000 trees were uprooted in the twin cities and it is likely to take a week to restore the power in these cities.

Days after the cyclone, anger among people was surging high due to the inconvenience caused by lack of electricity, water supply and telecom facilities.

Meanwhile, in Balukhand wildlife sanctuary in Puri, forest officials fear nearly 4000 spotted deer may have been affected.

The aftermath of cyclone Fani in Puri, Odisha. Photo by Manish Kumar.
The aftermath of cyclone Fani in Puri, Odisha. Photo by Manish Kumar.

Drilled to live with cyclones

Tracing the shift in the approach to disaster management in the state from 1999 super cyclone to the 2013 Phailin to Fani 20 years on, development and environmental economics expert Saudamini Das described the transition as a “glaring contrast” in disaster preparedness, evacuation success and loss of lives from 1999 to 2019.

Das attributes this long-term success to efficient coordination between the various state departments, led by the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority, which was set up in the aftermath of the 1999 disaster.

“They have been proactive. Disaster resilient infrastructure has improved along with technological advancements such as weather forecasting. Government agencies have realised you can’t take it easy and people’s lives are at stake,” Das told Mongabay-India.

In 1999, the state had 23 cyclone shelters whereas, now, there are more than 200 shelters, and almost every coastal village has a shelter.

“They have been successful in forcing people to go and take refuge in these shelters and accept it as part of a routine cyclone preparedness procedure. The authorities have been efficient at restoring normalcy as soon as possible post-disaster and ensuring that people remember the damaging experiences of the cyclones in the past. So it has been drilled into them through intense awareness programmes,” elaborated Das.

In 1999 the official death toll was 9,885 while for Phailin in 2013, which was not as severe as the 1999 event, it was under 20. During Phailin more than 780,000 people were evacuated to safe places, a “tremendous achievement” in comparison to the evacuation of only 44,500 people in 1999, explained Das.

“In some areas, as many as 95 percent of the residents evacuated, and they were aware of the precautions to be taken before a storm strikes. In 1999 it was 19 percent. People never wanted to leave their homes and there weren’t any shelters,” she said.

The data also reflects people’s compliance with government processes and mandates on cyclone evacuation and preparedness were shaped by the intense awareness drills since 1999.

“Even in developed countries, the compliance percentage is never more than 60 percent,” she said.

Barricades at Puri beach before the cyclone made landfall to prevent tourists venturing into the sea. Fishermen were barred from entering the sea too. Photo by Manish Kumar.

Upping the ante in cyclone management

Despite the progress, Das believes Odisha needs to step up its cyclone management game in the context of climate change-induced natural disasters.

“While human lives are protected well, we need to look at immovable assets such as livestock. Extreme weather events are becoming frequent and saving livestock is important to people who end up losing crops to natural calamities.”

In her research, Das found that the absence of provision for the evacuation of livestock to safety was one of the key reasons for evacuation failure in certain districts during Phailin.

“You can’t help protect agriculture but one can minimise livestock deaths by incorporating specific areas within cyclone shelters for the animals,” Das said.

In addition to the loss of livestock, the state also has to grapple with the economic damage which has implications for psychosocial needs of communities in the wake of natural disasters, pointed out Das.

According to Das’s analysis, the value of property lost in the state during the 1970s was estimated at Rs. 10.5 billion (nearly 11 percent of the average GDP of the state for the period). It increased nearly seven times in the 1980s and nearly 10 times in the 1990s.

“The next attempt should be enhancing cyclone resilient infrastructure to manage the economic loss stemming from property damage. This management is happening at the public level but not at the household level. People can’t bounce back from the disasters and move on with their lives if they are not financially secure and this has consequences for psychosocial well being,” she said.

In addition, Das also advocated enhanced safety and toilet infrastructure for women and children in cyclone shelters.

Authorities stationed drinking water facilities before the cyclone hit Odisha. Photo by Manish Kumar.

Strengthening coastal green infrastructure

Das batted for boosting coastal green infrastructure (by preserving mangroves and native species that act as barriers to storm surges and tangential winds) on an equal footing with cyclone resilient buildings.

“While casuarina trees have been extensively planted all along Odisha coast, they are fragile. Coastal vegetation should be mixed with native species such as Palmyra and cashews,” she said.

In 1999, mangroves significantly reduced the number of human deaths, Das stressed, based on her study on Kendarapara, one of the worst-hit coastal districts in Odisha.

“Villages with wider mangroves between them and the coast experienced significantly fewer deaths than the ones with narrower or no mangroves. Mangroves reduced human, livestock loss and property damage in 1999. The human death toll would have nearly doubled in the absence of mangroves in Kendrapara villages,” she said.

Although an early warning issued by the government evidently saved more lives than mangroves did, our simple comparison of costs and benefits indicates that protecting remaining mangroves in Orissa is economically justified, she said.

“We revealed that the beneficial effect was mainly due to mangrove vegetation, not physical characteristics of mangrove habitat. Human impacts on the ecosystem (deforestation) affected the death toll,” Das added.

Article published by Aditi Tandon

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