ACT I: October 31, 1999
The 95 km drive from Bhubaneswar to Ersama couldn’t have taken more than two-and-a-half hours—even if one tallies in the slow pace of life in this coastal Odisha district of palm-fronded villages, simple fisher-folk out to sea in the morning and bringing in their catch before sundown, or farmers and townspeople taking it easy and greeting passing cars with a wide smile, often waving their hands like the casuarina trees swaying in the sea breeze. This was not to be that day. It took more than twice the time to reach the place. The palm trees were wrung by their necks, hunched towards the west—the direction the wind moved at above 260kmph from the Bay of Bengal in the east. It’s as if they were avoiding looking at the water below, the destruction, the floating corpses in the flattened paddy fields.
That day, Ersama was not quiet and pretty. It was another morbid picture of “irreparable” human tragedy in the Super Cyclone’s wake-a tragedy of epic proportions. The cyclone barrelled down, leaving an estimated 10,000 dead in Odisha. Some families lost entire families. Those beautiful fields and villages were submerged in saltwater as the sea surge swallowed whatever came on its way.
Helpless in the face of the mighty force of wind, many clung to whatever they could hold on to—but few could survive till the gale force passed by. Survivors were shelterless, without food and marooned on small mound-like islets rising above an expanse of water world as far as the eyes could see. They were clutching on to anything that could quench their thirst, satiate their hunger. The ferocity of the cyclone left every one rudderless-the people had feeble hopes about the help from any quarter and administration clueless how to deal with the monstrous challenge.
ACT II: May 5, 2019
Two decades later, Cyclone Fani, a super-storm moving at 175 kmph, bore down on the Odisha coast from the Bay of Bengal. The temple town of Puri was on its path. Odisha was ready, as were the government and its phalanx of disaster management teams spread over each and every corner of the state. People were warned in advance through a range of broadcasting channels—TV, radio, newspapers, social media and officials going around in towns and villages with megaphones to announce the imminent danger. Food and water were stocked up, considering the supply chain—if one snapped, there would be enough alternative routes. Most importantly, a mammoth evacuation exercise was conducted before Fani’s landfall and people were taken to designated safe places and “cyclone shelters” that were built over the past two decades and designed to withstand category five storms, the highest in the Saffir–Simpson hurricane wind scale. The exercise saved thousands of lives, if not more. The ferocity of the Fani was no less than the 1999 Super Cyclone but the casualty was far less than what it was two decades ago.
The two cataclysmic events are a picture or a study in contrast. They also define coastal state Odisha’s two-decade, disaster management journey on a timescale starting with the 1999 Super Cyclone. They show how something that is beyond human control can be “managed” to cause minimum damage. Fani is an example of how preparedness and a robust damage mitigation strategy can take the teeth out of natural calamities, reduce loss of lives and help a battered land and people get back on their feet quickly. It is a fine illustration of the Odisha Government’s conviction to throw in all its might to save lives, property and give people a head start in terms of rescue and rehabilitation after a cyclone or any other natural tragedy.
Ferocity and frequency of disasters have not lessened in the coastal state of Odisha. Natural disasters came calling with all its might, the state was ready. Nothing’s “irreparable” any more, other than the dead. As the storm-prone state prepared for Cyclone Jawad in November 2021, the most important question to be answered is not far to guess. How did Odisha change the game of disaster management and emerge as a model? What really changed in the past twenty years? How could it be confident now that it will emerge bruised, but not battered, in the face of nature’s fury?
Odisha has historically faced the wrath of natural disasters due to its geographic location and global climate change. Odisha’s topography has made it a magnet for tropical cyclones. The coastal state has disproportionately faced the brunt of nature with more than 100 cyclones hitting its shoreline and beyond. These include nearly 35% of all cyclones and severe cyclones that have crossed the east coast of India since 1891. Not just that, the state has faced other natural hazards and extreme weather events like floods, drought, heat wave, coastal erosion, and storm-induced lightning. But it was the sheer volume of the 1999 Super Cyclone in terms of destruction that provided the “perfect” template for the state government under the leadership of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who took office in 2000, to work on its disaster management strategy from the ground up.
The basics were primed up first: training personnel, sourcing resources on short notice, building infrastructure, and most importantly an uncompromising thrust to save lives. Odisha became India’s pioneer as it put in place a disaster management authority in addition to forming a special unit — the Odisha Disaster Response Force (ODRAF). The ODRAF along with the Odisha Fire Services personnel were trained to deal with extreme weather events. Another agency, the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA), acted as the control centre. It won the IT Excellence Award, 2019, for its innovative use of information technology in disaster management through a system called SATARK, short for system for assessing, tracking and alerting disaster risk information based on dynamic risk knowledge.
The state set aside a portion of its annual budget for natural exigencies, becoming the first state to present a climate budget to mitigate its impact on livelihood, agriculture, health, forests and water etc. The climate budget encompasses 11 departments that analyses and identifies sectors and schemes to improve climate resilience and mitigation measures.
If budgetary allocation was a macro-level approach, the state did what needed to be done at the micro-level too — designing and setting up thousands of cyclone shelters that can be used to keep people in vulnerable areas safe during natural disasters. These shelters were built in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Technology. The process starts from identification of safe buildings along the coast as shelters, design, mapping of human and animal population at the village level, and awareness campaigns for the masses as well as government officials. It developed an evacuation model that helped shift more than 1.6 million people to safe locations in little more than 24 hours before Fani hit the coast.
The state has prepared a fool-proof standard operating procedure (SOP) and specific formal procedures to deal with natural disasters and post disaster restoration. The procedures have been ingrained and institutionalised from top to bottom to minimise the loss of lives during natural disasters.
The proof of the pudding came in Fani’s wake—a powerful category four cyclone that ripped through the state and gave little notice about its intensity and trajectory when it was brewing in the Bay of Bengal. The Odisha government didn’t panic. It carried out a mammoth evacuation exercise a day before landfall. That helped minimise human casualties, as opposed to thousands being killed by severe cyclones around the world. Hurricane Maria killed 2,975 people, Cyclone Idai (750 deaths), Hurricane Sandy (72), but Odisha minimised the death toll. No human loss can be overlooked, but seen in the context of past tragedies and fatalities caused by hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones around the world, the state did a commendable job.
The efforts have attracted praise, from India and abroad. In a report, The New York Times- wrote: “Experts say this is a remarkable achievement, especially in a poor state in a developing country, the product of a meticulous evacuation plan in which the authorities, sobered by past tragedies, moved a million people to safety, really fast.” The UN too appreciated the achievement, like it did after Cyclone Phailin hit Odisha in 2013. It said it would highlight the state’s efforts as a model for disaster management programmes globally. “India’s zero casualty approach to managing extreme weather events is a major contribution to the implementation of the #SendaiFramework and the reduction of loss of life from such events,” MamiMizutori of the UN’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction tweeted.
What emerges from the job well done is the efficacy of Odisha’s disaster management model. Participatory in nature, it involves villages, panchayats, communities and local administration that helps generate swift response. Continuous awareness drives make faster evacuation and marshalling resources in quick time easier. The agencies work together to bring towns back to life in a few weeks and restore vital services, a task that used to take months a decade ago. Post-Fani, the government accelerated its effort to restore normalcy in affected cities and at the core is to provide basics: food and water. Bhubaneswar, one of the ‘Smart Cities’ of India, is almost back on its feet within a few days of the cyclone with 100% drinking water supply and power restoration. In contrast, the average Puerto Rican had to go 84 days without electricity after Hurricane Maria in September 2017.
Adoption of technology has been key to Odisha’s disaster management strategy. This was amply displayed during Fani’s run—the rare summer cyclone and the ﬁrst in 43 years. About 1.8 crore SMSs were sent out by Location Based Alert System (LBAS) and Group Based Alert System (GBAS) to warn people. District collectors deployed police and civil volunteers to use traditional methods like microphones to announce the incoming cyclone. They deployed everything they had—including 2.6 6 million text messages, 43,000 volunteers, nearly 1,000 emergency workers, televised alerts, coastal sirens, buses, police officers and public address systems.
Odisha is constantly strengthening disaster resilience by building climate resilient infrastructure in vulnerable areas, building flood-protection and saline-ingress-protection infrastructure in coastal areas, building climate-resilient houses, promoting climate-resilient agriculture and taking wage-protection measures. All these have shown results. In fact, coastal villages Noliasahi in Erasama of Jagatsinghpur district and Venkatraipur in Ganjam district have been declared ‘tsunami-ready’, a first in India. This was achieved when the world was grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Odisha has always followed the ‘Zero Casualty Mantra’ of Chief Minister Patnaik. Robust preparedness, evacuation mechanism and faster restoration has helped minimise casualty and protect livelihood during every disaster Odisha faced since 2000. Patnaik earlier said: “At the centre of this transformation is a deep conviction that every life is precious.” Odisha does not want to leave with the laurels as its geography lays out red carpet to cyclones more often. Odisha Government proposed to equip people in Odisha with adequate knowledge and skills to weather disasters, whether it is biological like the Covid pandemic or natural like a super cyclone. The Odisha Cabinet has passed a resolution to create a ‘Yodha in Every House of Odisha’. Political conviction is at the core of such reforms and innovations like a yodha or warrior in every home. It made the elected representatives accountable as they resolved that their role “changes significantly during times of distress. From ward members to Chief Minister, everyone will be trained on disaster and pandemic management.”
The most important element in the whole disaster management mechanism is leadership. Chief Minister Patnaik knows by heart the immense human tragedies that the 1999 super cyclone caused. Soon after he took office in 2000, he had a massive restoration and rehabilitation task in hand. His mantra was repair the damage, prioritise human life. The goals were clear. Empower grassroots administrators for relief and rehab. The idea evolved from a focussed agenda of saving lives, creating cyclone-resilient infrastructure. Odisha has planned to convert millions of vulnerable houses to robust, brick-and-mortar dwellings. A strong pukka house reduces the need for temporary evacuation most of the time. Call these signs of just how far Odisha has come. The system allows investment of resources for restoration work quickly, efficiently and with greater accountability. The ferocity and frequency of these extreme weather events continue to rise but Odisha is prepared to save every life from harm’s way.
(Manoj Kumar Mishra is Secretary IT, Government of Odisha)
[Disclaimer: The opinions, beliefs, and views expressed by the various authors and forum participants on this website are personal.]