How India Prevented Catastrophe When It Was Hit by a Massive Storm Last Month

Cyclone Phailin was expected to wreak havoc, but India was ready for it

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Supertyphoon Haiyan may have killed as many as 10,000 people in the central Philippines. A storm of near strength, Cyclone Phailin, hit India’s east coast last month and was expected to cause massive death and destruction. It didn’t. About 50 people died, and while nearly a quarter-million houses and over 860,000 hectares of cropland were destroyed, the damage amounted to about $150 million. Yet, in 1999, a cyclone that struck the same region resulted in more than 10,000 deaths and almost $4.5 billion in damage.

India’s Phailin experience may not be fully relevant to the Philippines — Haiyan was bigger and created an unanticipated, deadly 6-m storm surge that acted like a killer tsunami, and the central Philippines was still recovering from an earlier 7.2-magnitude earthquake. But, in preparing for Phailin, the Indian authorities did what they hadn’t before. They evacuated nearly a million people, some forcefully, to hundreds of new cyclone shelters and some 10,000 sturdy schools and government buildings. Disaster-management personnel were deployed by the hundreds, and the armed forces were put on standby, as were more than 40 aid agencies and charities to help with postdisaster relief. All major officials in the relevant districts were provided with satellite phones to prevent a breakdown in communications.

At the local level, officials in the coastal states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, which were in Phailin’s path, combined with NGOs to conduct drills for residents to lock up homes, herd cattle to safe places, and carry important documents and sufficient clothing to shelters when disaster alerts were issued. India has also invested in technology — satellites and Doppler radar — to provide early warning. Shelters were built and food and water stored five days ahead of Phailin’s landfall. “Satellite applications combined with good governance can be a very powerful cocktail,” says Susmita Mohanty, CEO of Indian aerospace company Earth2Orbit.

The World Bank praised India for how it dealt with Phailin and the lessons the country has learned from past natural disasters. “Successfully evacuating a million people is not a small task,” it noted in a report. “This has taken years of planning, construction of disaster risk mitigation infrastructure, setting up of evacuation protocols, identification of potential safe buildings to house communities and most importantly, working with communities and community-based local organizations in setting up volunteer teams and local champions who all knew exactly what needed to be done.”