Thursday, October 31, 2013

Technology, Governance and the Phailin Cyclone

Cyclone Phailin (photo from DNA/AFP)

"Why should I leave my home?? What storm are you talking about? Can't you see the blue skies??"

Convincing a villager about impending disaster is not easy business. Even if you are armed with the latest satellite imagery.

On 29 Oct., 1999, when an super cyclone hit India's Eastern coastline, across Odisha, nearly 10,000 people died. The Indian Met Department (IMD) had issued warnings to the state government.Nobody took them seriously Warnings were not issued to the coastal villages. Blue skies suddenly turned grey, wind-speeds crossed 220 kmph and thousands of homes were blown away.

Nearly 14 years later, on 12 October, 2013 when a very severe cyclone hit the same coastline, IMD was able to provide a warning five days in advance. Within this limited period, the Odisha state government evacuated more than a million people inland. The skeptics who saw only the blue skies were coaxed, cajoled and then bullied to the cyclone shelters.

Once the storm died down, they had much to be thankful for. In all, the cyclone and floods affected around 12 million people in 16,487 villages. It damaged about 4,00,000 houses and 1,182 power transformers in 17 districts. Yet, only 44 people had died.

How did we pull it off this time?

First of all, IMD had got its act together. Since 1999, a number of new ISRO satellites had started scanning the region for danger signals. Sensors and transmitters had been placed all along the coastline.

Command and control systems too were altered. Instead of routing IMD's disaster alerts to regular government departments bogged down by routine administrative work, a new institutional mechanism was put in place. The National Disaster Management Authority emerged with its state-level counterparts - in this case the Odisha-DMA. To ensure that adequate manpower could be spared in emergencies, officers were deputed to the National Diaster Response Force and its state equivalent.

In 1999, the state government's tardy response had cost it the subsequent elections. This time the Chief Minister himself encouraged all his legislators, not only to join ODMA and other officials getting people evacuated, but also to ensure that food, drinking water and other supplies were reaching the evacuation centres.

It is certainly a real confidence booster to know that we can handle something of this magnitude. Now we need to roll up our sleeves and figure out why the monsoons flood our cities every year. Seriously.

The trick is to be prepared while the skies are still blue.


* Dash, Satya Prakash (2013): HOW ODISHA MNAGED THE PHAILIN DISASTER, EPW 2Nov13 --

* Bagla, Pallava (2013): A TINY STEP FOR A GIANT LEAP? The Hindu, 31Oct13 --

* Battle over Forecasts (NDTV, 14 Oct) --

* WSJ -



The destructive power of cyclones in measured in its wind-speeds: Severe (90-199kmph), very severe (> 220 kmph) and super (220+ kmph).

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