Cyclone Phailin: How India's government saved countless lives


Indian children help their mother carry bricks to rebuild their damaged house following Cyclone Phailin in Gopalpur on October 14, 2013. Hundreds of thousands of people who fled India's strongest cyclone in 14 years returned home to scenes of devastation, as survivors stranded at sea during the storms were finally rescued.


Dibyagshu Sarkar

NEW DELHI, India — Cyclone Phailin looked as though it would bring catastrophe to the eastern coast of India last week.

But while the storm’s 150 mph winds devastated homes and flooded farmland, the decision by Indian authorities to evacuate more than 1 million people has saved countless lives.

So far 27 people are known to have died — a tragedy for the families involved but a tiny figure compared with the 10,000 who died the last time a major cyclone hit the coastlines of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.

The worst may be over, but thousands of people remain at risk from severe flooding after Phailin's heavy rains.

And the million evacuees returning to their villages and towns will face a long struggle to rebuild their homes, salvage their crops and find some way of earning a living in the devastated countryside.

But the Indian state authorities, disaster relief agencies and weather forecasters all played a major part in minimising Phailin’s impact, according to aid agencies.

John Shumlansky, the India representative for Catholic Relief Services, said: "It was an amazing effort by the government. My staff have given them a standing ovation.

"The way they mobilised themselves and NGOs, and reached out to the villages really made all the difference."

The operation began with early warnings from the India Meteorological Department five days before Phailin made landfall at the tourist resort of Gopalpur-on-Sea on Saturday night.

Odisha and Andhra Pradesh governments, assisted by the National Disaster Management Agency, requisitioned food and drinking water, and set up disaster response centers with hotlines for people to call for information.

More than 1 million people were evacuated from their homes — with officials directed to use force if necessary. They were relocated to 247 cyclone shelters and 10,000 concrete schools and government buildings.

Army, navy and air force teams were scrambled, Odisha's main airport was shut, trains were canceled and fishermen told not to go out to sea.

And more than 40 aid agencies and charities were called in by the state governments and given specific tasks to fulfil during the crisis.

Dr. Unni Krishnan, the head of disaster response and preparedness for children's charity Plan International, remembers the contrast with the 1999 storm.

“It was very difficult to come across anyone who had not lost a member of their family,” he told GlobalPost.

After that storm, “There were a lot of hidden problems, children who developed emotional problems afterwards.

“This time the early warning and early action was very important. There was a real sense of leadership, which said people will have to leave now. The government was very firm.”

But Krishnan said credit was also due to the ordinary people who had taken responsibility themselves to find shelters early rather than stay at home.

For several years, education programs funded by the British government and the European Union had been teaching children about cyclones and how to stay safe.

“This was not the first time they were hearing these warnings,” he said. “They have all been doing drills for many years and this made a huge difference to people's willingness to go into shelters.”

Other countries could benefit if they introduced similar education programs about disasters likely to affect them, Krishnan said.

The challenge now will be to make sure the relatively low number of casualties does not grow as people return to their homes.

When Kali and her daughters came back on Tuesday to the village of New Boxitanny in Ganjam, near the center of the cyclone, they were distraught to see their house destroyed.

Kali stood pointing at the debris, crying, and asking over and over again what she was going to do.

Shumlansky and the CRS team gave her a temporary shelter kit of canvas, and will be giving her a cash grant to buy essentials.

“We are also giving people money, rather than try to guess what people need,” he said. “We believe it’s just as important to keep the local markets going.”

One major project will be to restore power to the affected areas. Many areas will have no electricity for up to two weeks. 

Shumlansky said he could barely see a single power line that had not been knocked down in the high winds.

But he said he was more concerned by the severe flooding that has affected the northern districts of Odisha and neighboring Bihar state, hit by heavy rainfall as Phailin made its way inland.

About 200,000 houses there flooded, with nearly 1,000 villages cut off.

Worst hit was Balasore in Odisha, with the floods claiming four lives on Tuesday. Disaster relief workers made air drops of food parcels and medical supplies.

The lack of shelter and clean drinking water also means that people are at risk of contracting diseases like cholera and dysentery.

“It's essential that the world does not just forget about this now that the cyclone has past,” Krishnan said.

“The Indian government is showing good signs. But the international community also needs to come forward.”