Fani was a mega storm that hit Odisha but the planning of two decades has meant it wasn’t as deadly as expected
Drive down the coastal stretches of Odisha and you will be immediately greeted with the sight of very garishly painted houses in every small hamlet. Pinks, greens and powder blue clusters are almost like advertisements for every village and visible from miles. Almost every house has a proper brick structure; there are no major earthen and straw structures except a store-room or cattle-shed but the roof over everyone’s head is made of cement. And to understand why Cyclone Fani’s devastating winds did not kill hundreds, despite being the worst in 20 years, one has to understand why these pucca houses held out in the wake of the 200 km per hour winds.
After all, these houses were built in the aftermath of the deadly unnamed 1999 super cyclone that killed over 10,000 people. Terrible lessons from that disaster permeated Odisha society and not just the Government. Thousands had died in that storm when their houses had collapsed on them or just been blown away by the winds. In addition, the Government built up expertise in mass-evacuation and disaster-readiness, by way of drills and shelters. And for the last few cyclones, despite warnings of impending doom, human casualties have been kept to a minimum. So impressive has been the Naveen Patnaik Government and bureaucracy’s achievement that other nations that face terrible storms regularly are keen to learn from their calamity management. So much so that even a UN body, responsible for disaster reduction, complimented the Indian Meteorological Department’s (IMD) “almost pinpoint accuracy” of early warnings, which helped Indian authorities conduct a well-targeted evacuation plan and, thus, minimise the loss of life. There have been huge advances in forecasting and warnings systems. Besides, the spread of mass media, cellular telephony as well as rural roads over the past two decades have made the process of getting information and warning vulnerable communities far easier. The advent of the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) with its trained personnel and rescue equipment at the top of the mind has also been a major step forward by the Centre. But even with all these measures, mother nature can spare none. One should also be thankful to the resident deity of Puri, where the cyclone made landfall with full force, that we can talk about how preparedness saved the day. Lord Jagannath clearly protected his own and while the people of Odisha will face a difficult rebuilding task, they should know that the rest of India will help them with that. However, when will India start talking about the 800-pound gorilla in the room that is driving such freakish weather events? Global warming.