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Phailin: Lessons Learned and More

Swati Mishra's picture

“How can risk be measured and managed better globally? “

 ADRA India/European Commission, Creative Commons.This was the question posed to the panelists of the “Risk and Opportunity” event on Oct 9, 2013. It was ironic that a World Development Report (WDR) on risk, which I supported through online publicity, was launching at the same time that a serious storm was threatening Odisha, my home state in India.  As the Annual Meetings of top ministers, policy experts and civil society organizations progressed, so did cyclone Phailin, and the importance of the theme of the WDR 2014 couldn’t have been more pronounced.

Back in my home state, what was supposed to be a weekend of Dussehra festivities turned into frenzy about the impending cyclone. As the cyclone gained strength in the Bay of Bengal, media outlets in India, in particular the 24 hour news channels, were reporting every single development about Phailin.  And if I missed some of those, I was readily filled in with updates from my friends in Bhubaneswar via  “WhatsApp.” In many cities/towns of Odisha, people were in a state of panic-buying and shopkeepers and street vendors were making the best of it. “I don’t think there are any more potatoes available in the entire city,” remarked one of my friends on “WhatsApp.” “Candles are being sold at Rs 50-80 per piece,” added another. Candles. I remember paying Rs. 5 per piece once instead of Rs 1 or 2. If not for the candles, the stark memory of the aftermath of the super-cyclone that struck Odisha (then Orissa) in 1999 wouldn’t have been so searing to me.

As my parents were assessing the damage to our house on the morning of Oct 30, 1999, my brother and I ventured out in knee deep flood water and floating debris to our neighborhood grocery shop to get some candles and other essential items. As we met some of our neighbors on the way, it was obvious that most of us were unprepared for the cyclone; because until then, Bhubaneswar had hardly experienced any major natural disaster. Floods were rare, and ‘cyclone’ was almost a non-existent term for many of us living in the capital city of Odisha. The severity of the devastating cyclone was definitely lost on many of us.

With no electricity, no running water, no school, no telephone, and no friends to hang out with for almost ten days, I thought I had seen it all. However, as days progressed, the cyclone was termed as super-cyclone and the destruction that it had left behind started to come to light. As I scanned the English newspapers and the Odiya magazines in the following weeks, I read heart wrenching stories of survival and loss.

For me, it was the “loss” that was hard to forget and not feel apprehensive about when thinking of the fast approaching Phailin. “Will it be like the last time around,” I asked myself, “with wind speeds of 300 kph (190 mph), 10,000 lives lost, and more than a million left homeless? “

While the Indian Meteorological Department termed Phailin as a ‘’very severe” cyclone,’ the American forecasters' warned this to be a more aggressive Hurricane Katrina-like Category 5 “super-cyclone.” Nonetheless, the severity of the situation was never toned down. Within 24 hours, state authorities in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh evacuated nearly one million people (900,000 in Odisha alone).

The night of Oct 12, 2013 arrived and I waited anxiously, praying for my loved ones to be safe. “Everything is fine as of now in Bhubaneswar,” was a message from my friend. “Cyclone Phailin kills 23, mass evacuations save thousands,” and similar headlines followed next. With hundreds of cyclone centers built along coastal Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, thousands of trained personnel, regular drills and effective management by the local officials helped mitigate the disaster on the ground. For me, this was the reiteration of the WDR 2014 message, shifting from ad hoc responses when crises occur to a more proactive, systematic and integrated risk management system.

In fact, since 2001, the Odisha government has focused on disaster preparation; building shelters, planning evacuations, strengthening embankments, and conducting drills. In addition, the World Bank is financing the National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project (NCRMP) (Phase I) currently under implementation in the states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh since March 2011. For more details on NCRMP and the World Bank’s work, read “Never Again! The Story of Cyclone Phailin.”

While preparation averted a human tragedy, it couldn’t quite avoid the trail of destruction that Phailin has left behind. Flooded villages, broken highways, knocked down power lines, and unavailability of relief materials are among more serious challenges that lay ahead. Major crops have also been damaged and it might take up to 2 - 3 crop cycles for the fields to get rid of the salt water. Many have lost homes made of mud and bamboo and could be increasingly susceptible to epidemics, particularly in the district of Ganjam, Odisha. A string of communities need to get back on their feet.

The WDR 2014 finds that risk management requires shared action and responsibility at different levels of society, from the household to the international community.  The report also recommends countries set up national risk boards to systematically assess risks and coordinate public and private actions to address them.

No doubt the 1999 super-cyclone was a wake-up call and some lessons have been learned, but a lot remains to be done, and the WDR 2014 provides significant entry points where risk management can begin to feed into policy making from the grassroots to international levels.

Photo: Assessing the impact of Cyclone Phailin. Credit: Save the Children/EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, Creative Commons

 

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