Kerala was caught unawares as Cyclone Ockhi battered its coast over the weekend. At least 26 people have been killed and over a hundred are missing. A war of words has begun between Central agencies and the state government over the timing and nature of warnings issued about the cyclone. Expected to make its landfall soon in coastal Maharashtra or Gujarat, it also wreaked havoc in Lakshadweep, which has reported losses of over Rs 500 crore. Clear and timely predictions can help limit the loss of human life. In the case of Cyclone Ockhi, the evidence points to a major communication failure. Unlike the states on the eastern coast, cyclones rarely visit the Arabian seaboard.
Consequently, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Odisha have systems in place to tackle the seasonal cyclones, but Kerala was found wanting. The northeast monsoon, which is often accompanied by cyclonic winds, brings rainfall to Kerala. The sea turns rough and periodically eats away the coast, but the monster winds and waves witnessed on the Coromandel coast rarely visit the Kerala coastal area. By all accounts, the gravity of the Met department warning on the cyclonic storm was lost on the authorities and the fishermen. Also, the window between the advisory and the arrival of the storm was too short for fishermen, who had already set sail, to return, though many boats, trapped in the wind and waves, managed to reach the shore far north of their home ports. The navy and the coast guard braved the rough weather to rescue others adrift on the choppy waters but coastal communities are angry that the state government, which seems to have been surprised by the freak weather condition, was slow to react.
The lessons from Cyclone Ockhi are clear. Kerala needs to revamp its disaster warning mechanism and put in place quick-response systems. Climate change experts have predicted that weather patterns are changing and coastal areas will need to adapt to hitherto unknown conditions, especially frequent storms. The Met department needs to become more people-friendly and learn to issue jargon-free advisories. The state government needs to improve its communication systems so that Met warnings reach the public on time and are issued in precise and clear terms.