Cyclone Phailin Low Death Toll Tied to Preparedness

I’ve been thinking about Cyclone Phailin.
This was by all accounts a monster storm, the strongest ever recorded in the North Indian Ocean basin.  It was also India’s biggest since one in 1999 smashed into the eastern coastline and killed an estimated 10,000 people.
But this time there have only been an estimated 15 deaths. Why the difference?  In a word: preparedness.
Look at this long list of government actions reported by Reuters:

  • Early warnings which started five days before the storm’s arrival, the pre-positioning of food rations and packaged drinking water in shelters, and the orderly – and sometimes forceful – evacuation of close to one million people saved many lives, said aid workers.
  • As Phailin approached, authorities cancelled the holidays of civil servants during the popular Hindu Dussehra festival, deployed disaster response teams with heavy equipment and positioned helicopters and boats for rescue and relief operations.
  • Trains and flights were cancelled, roads barricaded and helplines and control rooms set up. Satellite phones and generators were dispatched to the heads of districts to ensure they remained in contact with the state capital.
  • The Army, Navy and Air Force were put on standby, and power and telecoms companies were instructed to be ready to restore damaged infrastructure as soon as possible after the storm.
  • Efforts to save people’s livelihoods were also taken. Specific warnings were given to fishermen not to venture out to sea and to put their boats in safe places, while farmers were advised to harvest their standing crops.

Time Magazine underscored the importance of training and emergency shelters. “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.
But now what?  While few lives were lost, millions of people are without homes or livelihoods. Destruction has been overwhelming in many coastal communities.  It will take years to rebuild these communities and bring people back home.
But since American media chose not to cover the storm, there has been little notice of the storm’s destruction among the American public or even the disaster philanthropy community. This monster cyclone failed to pique our fascination with death and destruction.
And that’s a pity.
Most of India’s coastline is prone to cyclones and tsunamis, while other parts of the country are vulnerable to earthquakes, floods and droughts. Phailin is the second tropical cyclone over North Indian Ocean in 2013, and 26 of the 35 deadliest cyclones in world history have been Bay of Bengal storms. There’s no doubt we’ll see another destructive storm soon in India. Lets hope the Indian government is as well prepared the next time.  And lets hope the American donor community is prepared as well.

Robert G. Ottenhoff

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