Just sometimes, one feels glad about everything that has changed in the last 20 years. NDTV was among the first agencies to reach Paradip after the Odisha super-cyclone in 1999, even ahead of officials, to report on the widespread destruction. An estimate of the dead was eventually pegged at 10,000.
Cyclone Fani has been described as a super typhoon, a storm of almost similar dimensions with a windspeed between 175-200 kmph. It held sway over a wider geographical area too, the impact extending from Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh to West Bengal.
Yet, the casualties have been kept at what appears to be almost a miraculous minimum. This was achieved by meticulously and efficiently shifting over 11 lakh people across 13 districts to safety in 24 to 36 hours. Not a mean achievement by any standard.
It, of course, helped that the early warning predictions this time were accurate. Moreover, the administration – despite being in the midst of the election season – went about their job with single-minded focus and devotion. And this was the case from the top level to the bottom, with assistance from other agencies as well as civil society organisations.
Prabhakar, who was a car driver in Paradip during the 1999 super cyclone, said there was hardly any warning at the time. Two weeks passed before he could send home word that he is alive and safe, and two months before he could reach his home in Bhubaneswar.
“But Cyclone Fani seemed more severe to me than the super-cyclone. The winds really scared me,” he told NDTV.
Concern for their home and belongings initially made Subhasini and her husband Pradhan unsure of moving to a relief centre, but that changed after they witnessed Cyclone Fani’s intensity. “Everything is gone, including items worth Rs. 50,000. But at least we are sitting safely here with our two children, having hot food instead of going hungry,” he told NDTV.
In a massive operation, the Odisha government shifted an unprecedented 11 lakh people to over 5,000 cyclone shelters. Over 1,500 buses and thousands of government staff, along with volunteers, managed to complete the exercise late on Thursday night – hours before Cyclone Fani arrived in the south of Puri. Tourists were asked to leave, and hotels in the Puri-Konark tourist belt ordered to close by the previous evening.
In 1999, there was just one satellite phone at the Chief Minister’s residence and the telecom lines were down. In the absence of mobile phones, this was a disaster. Fishermen had to either listen to the radio or look for warning flags put up at sea to know if they should head home to safety.
This time, it was a very different story. Fishermen were warned not only through coastal sirens but a dedicated wireless service too. Lakhs of warning text and audio messages
were delivered on mobile phones across urban and rural areas. The reach was more personal, and magnified several times over. The television and radio repeatedly warned of the impending natural disaster and the need to move to safety. Public address systems on government vehicles and autorickshaws moved around, telling people that they need to move.
Sangram Mohapatra, additional secretary, Special Relief Commissioner, says preparation and action had both begun well in advance. An advisory was issued to all hotels and tourists, and every official was assigned specific tasks. There was elaborate planning, and everybody “worked as a team”.
Rosy is nine months pregnant, and her husband Kalia Patra is glad that they could stay in a shelter while the Cyclone Fani raged. The baby is due anytime now, and they are reluctant to move out at this sensitive time. “But it was reassuring to have people around. Both government officials and volunteers helped keep Rosy in relative comfort,” said Kalia Patra.
As for those reluctant to move, police officers and volunteers were forced to coerce them into moving by using every pressure tactic in the book. As a last resort, some were urged into buses and dropped off at the nearest cyclone shelter. The elderly and differently abled had to be physically carried to safety.
Odisha’s preparedness was targeted not just on how to face the disaster but also on how to cope with its aftermath. Even before May 2, dry rations had been stocked, packed suitably for supply, like at Kalinga Stadium where one lakh packets of chudwa, jaggery, salt, ora, candles, matchstick was kept ready.
Technical teams were kept on standby to repair fallen pokes, broken wires, telecom lines, to move debris and fallen trees quickly to restore road connectivity. Air connectivity was restored in 36 hours.
Twenty years ago I did a special report on lessons Orissa needs to learn from Andhra Pradesh on cyclone preparedness. Now Odisha can teach the rest of the country more than a lesson or two.