Timely warnings and evacuations ensured that few lives were lost when Cyclone Hudhud stormed the Visakhapatnam coastline last week, but the winds and floodwaters ravaged Andhra Pradesh’s largest city. Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu has put the losses at over Rs 70,000 crore: Visakhapatnam’s busy airport is in a shambles, an iconic steel plant has stopped production, and it is estimated that the city has lost 70 per cent of its green cover. Naidu has vowed to rebuild Visakhapatnam, but his government must also learn from the Hudhud experience and reinforce civic infrastructure in all its coastal towns.
India’s eastern coast is prone to periodic storms and cyclones. Over the years, states most vulnerable to inclement weather — Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha — have built disaster-warning systems and shelters that have helped in preventing loss of life. But such diligence is rarely in evidence when urban spaces are designed or clearances are given to public and private constructions. This has to change. Most coastal cities are becoming boom towns and the resultant pressure on land and infrastructure could lead to unplanned urbanisation. For instance, Naidu has talked about developing Andhra’s coastal towns and ports into major manufacturing and export hubs. It is certainly a smart idea to turn the state’s 800-km-long coast into an engine for economic growth, but these towns and ports must also be made as storm-proof as possible. Existing buildings, sewerage and drainage systems and other vital public infrastructure like airports, telecommunication networks and power stations should be retrofitted wherever necessary to stand up to gales and sea swells. Coastal Regulation Zone rules should be strictly enforced and all new construction designed to resist the worst of storms.
Past experience — from the 1964 Rameswaram cyclone that turned Pamban island into a ghost town to the Odisha supercyclone in 1999 in which over 10,000 people died — should caution us against complacency. Tropical storms are natural to the eastern coast and, hence, inevitable, but their impact can be contained if public authorities show due care and devise safeguards.