Preparedness Helps India Combat Cyclone Phailin With Minimal Casualties

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Biswaranjan Rout / AP

An Indian woman rests near her damaged house after returning to the cyclone hit Podampeta village on the Bay of Bengal coast in Ganjam district, Orissa state, India, Oct. 13, 2013.

Cyclone Phailin, which tore into India’s eastern coast on Saturday evening, has left behind a trail of destruction, but no major human life loss. The Associated Press reported on Sunday evening that response workers have counted a total of 17 casualties, a small number compared to the last storm of its size to hit the country. 

“Our teams are out in both Odisha and Andhra Pradesh for rescue and relief operations. So far we have not received any report of casualties anywhere,” NDRF chief Krishna Chowdhary said in New Delhi. The rescue operations started around 6 a.m. on Sunday morning.

And while it will be a while for the real picture of the devastation to emerge, the apprehensions of huge losses akin to the 1999 super cyclone that had hit Odisha in 1999, killing more than 10,000 people, have already been eased. Indian authorities have been lauded for its war-like disaster preparation for Cyclone Phailin that was successful in mitigating the damage. “If there was a silver lining in the grim foreboding of a monster storm, it’s the realization that lives aren’t that cheap in India any longer,” wrote The Times of India reporter Bharti Jain. “For, the measures taken by the administration in the run-up to Cyclone Phailin to reduce casualties and minimize losses doesn’t have parallels.”

What has made the difference is a combination of having thousands of trained personnel in disaster mitigation on the ground, hundreds of ready cyclone shelters within 2.5 kms of human habitations and the efficacy of the local administration, which went to the extent of arresting people who refused to move out of their homes. “Many people refused to move, had to be convinced, and at times the police had to forcefully move them to safe places,” Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde had said on Saturday.

However, it might yet be too early to conclude that India’s disaster preparedness has reached its peak. An annual report by the World Bank, World Development Report for 2014 said that India is least prepared for natural disasters only after African countries. On a positive note, however, the report also says the death toll in India due to calamities, came down by almost half from 2003–2012 as compared to the previous decade.

India’s response to Cyclone Phailin, however, should put to rest some of these doubts. With a record 900,000 people evacuated in the states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh in the last two days, the Indian authorities were way ahead of the super storm whose ferocity many had likened to Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. in 2005, which killed 1,800 people.

Watch here for video of the aftermath: