The Odisha government can take credit for minimising the impact of Fani, a rarest of rare summer cyclone that made landfall near Puri on Friday. It flattened several structures on the coast and disrupted essential services in the state. Every death is one too many, but the death toll, at 34, was expected to be worse. Two decades ago, the Super Cyclone, which swept the state with windspeeds similar to Fani, killed over 10,000 people. Odisha had then promised to put systems and structures in place to deal with cyclones, an unavoidable natural phenomenon on the Bay of Bengal coast. The administration’s resolve was tested by Cyclone Phailin in 2013 and now, it has stood up to the onslaught of Fani.
The administration could plan the evacuation of over a million people largely because the Indian Meteorological Department had tracked the storm’s path accurately since it originated as a tropical depression in the Indian Ocean, off Sumatra, on April 26. As the eye of the storm moved across the Bay of Bengal, the Odisha administration embarked on a massive communication outreach to get the vulnerable population on the coast shift to nearly 900 cyclone shelters that had been built in the aftermath of the 1999 Super Cyclone. Loud speakers to radio and TV commercials to mobile phones — 2.6 million text messages were sent out — were pressed into service to spread the message of the impending storm and fishermen warned not to go out into the sea. Thousands of volunteers, emergency workers, police officers executed the evacuation plan and by the time the cyclone crossed over to the land, most of the population had been moved to the shelters. The administration had also readied boats, helicopters and the necessary equipment to clear roads, fallen trees etc. Now that the worst has passed, it is time to start counting the losses. Electricity and water supply are to be restored in rural and urban areas. That, hopefully, will be done soon. People and the state administration will need a generous hand from all sections of society to rebuild homesteads, livelihoods and infrastructure. But the administration has passed the first test.
Cyclones have been both a boon and bane of India’s eastern coasts. These tropical storms feed water systems on the eastern coast, even as they wreaked havoc on unsuspecting populations in the past. Advanced technologies now allow accurate prediction of cyclone paths and enable people to be prepared when the storm arrives. Equally important is that the administration and political leadership are now more capable and willing to put in the extra effort to contain the impact of cyclonic storms. A similar resolve would help Odisha get back on its feet soon.