Managing tropical storms during COVID-19: Early lessons learned and reflections from India

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Heavy rain and cyclone storm Amphan at a highway road in Purulia, West Bengal, India
Photo: Shutterstock

In May and June, in the midst of the outbreak of COVID-19 India experienced two major cyclones. On May 20, super Cyclone Amphan hit the east coast of India, West Bengal and Odisha and parts of Bangledesh. On June 2, Cyclone Nisarga on west coast hit Maharastra.

Managing the competing demands of a lockdown with an evacuation was challenging, but overall human losses were limited to a significant extent.

We aren’t even half way through the cyclone season, but here are five early lessons: 

  1. Revise the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for evacuation: Putting  people in cyclone shelters and evacuation centers in the context of COVID-19 is extremely challenging.  When we apply social distancing measures, the capacity of cyclone shelters is reduced to 40 percent. We need to work with epidemiologists to make risk informed decisions about evacuation procedures. How do we move different groups of people to avoid the risk of cross infection? How do we  provide food and water/sanitation facilities in a way that minimizes COVID-19 risks? And ultimately, all these efforts are about strengthening the capcity of communities to help them think through such issues and devise locally appropriate solutions. 
  2. Repurpose existing capacities, resources and tools: When the capacity of cyclone shelters is reduced from 500,000 to 200,000 people,  we have to repurpose closed schools and colleges to see where they are situated in terms of risk. And for identifying such resilient assets we have to use the risk assessments undertaken in coastal areas even prior to COVID-19.
  3. Protect the responders: It doesn’t happen very often that we are in disasters where responders themselves are at a very big risk.  Do our responders have access to suitable personal protective equipment? Do responders have quick access to testing? Do we have protocols in place so that they can isolate the whole team if one person is infected? In the aftermath of the first cyclone in May, about 100 responders tested positive, and thankfully, all of them have recovered. 
  4. Reduce any additional burden on hospitals, and preparing them for what is to come: Can we provide on-site medical attention to people affected by the cyclone so that we don’t increase the burden of hospitals which are already treating COVID-19 patients? 
  5. Apply the classic DRM principle, focus on the most vulnerable first: In this case the elderly are the most vulnerable. We’ve already done quite a lot of work on how to take care of the elderly during evacuations. But COVID-19 creates even greater risks for this population. How do we make special provisions for them in the cyclone shelters to reduce their exposure?

Earlier this month, as the co-chair of Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), I had the opportunity to participate in the GFDRR-hosted webinar on managing tropical storms during the COVID-19 crisis. I heard inspiring examples of how my peers in similar roles are leading responses in Vanuatu, the Caribbean, and Japan. 

At this difficult time, it is heartening to see that more than a decade of investment – including with the support of GFDRR – in building legal and institutional frameworks for disaster risk management is paying off!  In Vanuatu and India, and indeed many other countries, classic disaster risk management laws and governance structures have supported the ability of officials to undertake emergency measures and manage not only the response to tropical storms but also the non-pharmacoloigical aspects of the COVID-19 response. At the same time, we are learning that these instruments must be more flexible and able to respond  to dynamic situations since conditions are changing constantly, sometimes every week.

Similarly, the investment made in disaster information systems, including open and interoperable data platforms, is paying off. These tools are being used to manage the response to not only tropical storms but also for COVID-19.

Although disaster risk management agencies have worked on hospital preparedness issues before, our interaction with health sector is closer than ever before. In the wake of COVID-19 a clear complementarity in terms of our expertise and role has come to the fore. We need to institutionalise this.

The private sector is playing key roles: in providing supplies, logistics, and back up shelters; in economic recovery; and in adapting industry practices so that people can get back to work safely. 

Across all countries, there is no alternative to community leadership. Decentralizing decisions, authority, autonomy, and response is helping  communities come together to respond to the unprecendented nature of the current crisis. In many countries and communities, a sense of shared responsibility and solidarity is emerging as people come together to face these challenges. 

For disaster risk management professionals, this is a moment to test what we know how to do well, to adapt our tools to this new environment, and to strengthen our commitment to emergency preparedness and response so that we can emerge more resilient than ever.
 

Authors

Kamal Kishore

Member of India’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and co-chair of the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR)

Join the Conversation

Snigdha Chakraborty
July 30, 2020

Hi Kamal,
Very relevant blog. We, at CRS, already developed a safe Evacuation Guidance and piloted in Bangladesh Cyclone Amphan. We worked with the local authority, Disaster Management Committees and local communities to sanitize the shelters, open up the primary schools, local govt buildings - did a thorough sanitizing drive in shelters, arranged for hand wash supplies, additional masks (if anyone needs it), separated washrooms for men and women along with messaging on COVID-19 risks awareness. Although physical distancing is next to impossible, but families stayed/have the sitting/sleeping arrangements in their individual plastic sheets (provided at the shelters), provided food strictly maintaining physical distance.
Community waited until last moment to evacuate because of the COVID-19 risks. Our community volunteers had to inform the communities after the shelter is cleaned that it is safe to evacuate and stay there and then, they started to arrive in the shelters in the evening of the day Cyclone Hit.
The community felt more dignified evacuation this time than before. Even DMCs told that they have never cleaned the shelters like this before. This was a good practice to them.
We also witnessed that this is first time that many families (at least 40%) had to return to the shelters on the 2nd day and 3rd day, as they couldn't manage to stay with any neighbour or friends in the village, which normally would happen during non-COVID-19 time. Social ties were fading as families who could repair their home quickly didn't offer to share the space with those who lost all of their housing materials/items.
I can be contacted to share our COVID-19 Safe Evacuation Guidance.
Thanks

Kamal Kishore
August 28, 2020

Thanks, Snigdha, for those insights for those insights from Bangladesh. Will be in touch separately to access the guidance material that was produced in Bangladesh.

Aleg Whitfield
August 28, 2020

Great article.
African communities should learn from India's approach.
Communities all around the world must really invest in team and leadership preparedness.
Resilience is key and togetherness is what the world needs to manage sustainability.

Loy Rego
August 28, 2020

Dear Kamal,
Thanks for your very pointed and specific statement of the challenges and lessons learnt in dealing with two disasters simultaneously, Covid 19 and Cyclones Amphan and Nisarg, especially when some of the precautionary and protective measures are contra indicative. Currently the DM authorities at multiple levels are also dealing with the impact of floods in several states and the threat of earthquake risk in certain areas.
As your rightly said, when Covid risk reduces the effective capacity of existing cyclone shelters, we have to look for and identify additional existing places that can be used as cyclone shelters. Thanks also for reminding us that we have to protect the protector. Our State fire and rescue, health and disaster management agencies have to better learn how to work together, and complement each other, while recognising the need to strengthen and upgrade each of the individual services and their complementary protective working.
We also need to recognise that while protective working and effective evacuation during the emergency helps, we need to remain engaged and support the recovery programs, and enhance the ability of the State and District DMAs, Health and Fire services to learn to work better collectively and to become more enhanced in their capacity, ability and size. Glad that NDMA is doing a good job along with SDMAs and DDMAs in complementing the national, state and district health and fire services in tackling dual and triple emergencies.
Warmly,
Loy Rego