Weathering Cyclone Fani: How Odisha is rebuilding lives and localities ravaged by it
Odisha has been widely praised for its efforts before Fani, but now an equally challenging task lies ahead.
It is going to take a lot of work to get tourists back to Puri as the hotels on the beach lie in tatters, their glass windows shattered and their mattresses left on balconies to dry. “This has set Puri back by 10 years,” says Sahu.
Cyclone Fani (pronounced “foni”) hit Puri around 8 am on May 3, with a sustained wind speed of 175-185 kmph, briefly peaking at 205 kmph, and rains lashing the temple town. India’s east coast, on which Odisha lies, is no stranger to cyclones, but this is India’s strongest cyclone since the super cyclone of 1999, which claimed 9,843 lives in Odisha. The death toll from Fani is currently estimated to be 41, three fewer than the casualties in the state from Cyclone Phailin in 2013. Super cyclones have a wind speed of more than 221 kmph, while very severe cyclones have a wind speed of 119-221 kmph.
While Sahu was witnessing Fani’s wrath from his home, Vijay Sinha was at a government guest house in Puri, waiting for the worst of it to pass so that his team could get to work. But the commandant of the Patna unit of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) got locked in as strong winds jammed the door shut. He had to call for help and his men prised the door open just enough for him to squeeze through.
The cyclone was worse than what people feared. Sarfuddin Khan was getting his family to leave their mud house at Pipli, a village between Puri and Bhubaneswar, but his father refused. “He said people were exaggerating and that he wouldn’t leave the house. But when he saw how bad it was, he left.” Khan, who works as a driver in Bhubaneswar, is thankful his father got out. Soon after, a tree fell on their home. Not much is left of it now. Khan’s family is staying in a school building at the village.
Along with the Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) and fire stations, the NDRF evacuated 1.4 million people just before the cyclone, saving hundreds, possibly even thousands, of lives. Last year, before Cyclone Titli, the state had evacuated just over a fifth of that. Odisha has been widely praised for its efforts, but now it has the equally challenging task of rebuilding homes, lives and infrastructure affected by the cyclone.
Preparing for Fani
The Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA), under which ODRAF falls, on April 27 started tracking the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) and global forecasts about a possible cyclone hitting the east coast. As part of its precautions, the OSDMA started cleaning the state’s 879 cyclone shelters, each of which has around 50 volunteers and can accommodate 1,000 people.
The OSDMA used its location-based alerting system to send out 20 million text messages to people, and fishermen stopped going to the sea on April 29. The following day, the IMD said Cyclone Fani could cross the coast of Odisha south of Puri on the afternoon of May 3, and the NDRF started mobilising around 1,500 personnel from other states, including Sinha’s team, in addition to the 500 it has in Odisha. ODRAF also put its 1,000 personnel, the police and fire stations on alert. The IMD later said the cyclone would hit Puri in the morning, as it eventually did.
Fani was unusual because it was only the second cyclone since 1891, out of a total 14, to form over the Bay of Bengal in April and hit the Indian mainland. Fani triggered heavy rains in Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal and also affected Bangladesh.
“There was no fear we wouldn’t be able to manage it. The very fact that not a single fisherman died at sea shows we were able to reach the most vulnerable sections of society,” says Bishnupada Sethi, the state’s special relief commissioner who heads the OSDMA, at the end of yet another long day for him.
The 50-year-old has had first-hand experience of cyclones while growing up in the coastal Balasore district, near the border with West Bengal. “No one would tell us there was going to be a cyclone. Things are quite different now.” The east coast of India is way more vulnerable to cyclones than the west coast, leaving states like Odisha, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh quite vulnerable.
According to the National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project, between 1891 and 2000, there were 308 cyclones on the east coast, of which a third were severe. The west coast, on the other hand, only had 48, half of which were severe.
Odisha set up the OSDMA and ODRAF right after the 1999 super cyclone, six years before the National Disaster Management Authority was set up; the NDRF was established in 2006. The OSDMA was the country’s first such body. “Odisha has a very advanced disaster response system. It is the best prepared state for cyclones,” says KK Singh, deputy inspector general for the south sector, which includes Odisha, at the NDRF. He has been overseeing the NDRF’s evacuation and relief efforts related to Fani.
The evacuation began around 10 am on May 2 and continued till the early hours of May 3, and temporary kitchens were set up in the shelters. Singh, along with Sethi, the state cabinet secretary, home secretary and others, monitored the cyclone from the OSDMA headquarters, as Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik was frequently updated.
After the Storm, the Work Begins
Once the cyclone started waning, the NDRF, ODRAF and firemen got to work, clearing roads of trees and other debris. By that night, the Puri-Bhubaneswar stretch was good to use. But for at least four days after Fani, most of Puri, Bhubaneswar and Cuttack had no power, as the cyclone had severely damaged electric poles. The state has suffered damage worth Rs 1,200 crore to its power supply network.
People ran out of water and struggled to find ATMs with cash. As mobile connectivity was patchy, they could not take to social media and WhatsApp to let the outside world know of their plight. Those in Bhubaneswar who could afford to check into hotels, which relied on diesel gensets, did so.
While Odisha got a lot of adulatory coverage for its evacuation efforts, there was very little media attention on the state’s problems post-Fani. The cyclone has affected 14 million people in 16,000 villages and 51 urban local bodies in 14 districts. Sinha says one of the NDRF vehicles was blocked near Puri by locals demanding food. “We had to sit with them and make them understand that stopping us would only hamper relief efforts. They finally let the vehicle pass.”
CYCLONES ARE WAY MORE FREQUENT ON INDIA’S EAST COAST
By April 8, mobile networks had vastly improved and power supply was being restored in phases in Bhubaneswar and Cuttack, but in villages near the capital, normality was still a long way off.
No government official has visited Khan’s village to assess the damage. “We have no idea how much money we are going to get,” he says.
Besides an ex-gratia payment to the kin of the dead, Rs 95,000 will be given to every family whose house has been fully damaged. The state is also giving free rice, polythene sheets and cash ranging from Rs 500 to Rs 2,000 to the affected families. Odisha has sought Rs 17,000 crore from the Centre, which has given around Rs 1,340 crore. While most people have returned home from cyclone shelters, those who have lost their houses are still there.
Manas Ranjan Mishra, a social worker in Bhubaneswar, says Odisha risks being punished for doing a good job, as global aid for a disaster is usually tied to the death toll. “In the past 30-40 years, the emphasis in disaster management has been on minimising loss of lives. We should also start focusing on those who survive a disaster,” he says.
Mahua Mukherjee, who heads a disaster mitigation centre at the Indian Institute of Technology-Roorkee, concurs. “While we have to laud Odisha’s efforts, we can’t be content with just reducing the loss of lives. We have to make sure whatever infrastructure was destroyed this time is not damaged in the next cyclone. We have to build resilience.” That is Odisha’s next big challenge.
The scars left by past cyclones have made Odisha take disaster management very seriously. Cyclones Phailin, Titli and Fani have shown Odisha having a high level of preparedness, helped in no small measure by the increasing accuracy of IMD forecasts. Contrast that with the floods in Chennai in 2015 and in Kerala in 2018, where the states were caught off guard. While these were one-off events unlike the frequent cyclones in Odisha, other states would do well to emulate Odisha to deal with whatever disasters they are most prone to, be it floods, heat waves or landslides.