The storm has passed. Sunday night, as cyclone Phailin looked set to dissipate within 36 hours, the Orissa government could pat itself in the back for a massive evacuation that helped save thousands of people from India’s fiercest cyclone in 14 years.
The death toll in the state stood at 18, most of them dying under falling trees as winds reaching up to 250 km or more battered Ganjam district and with a lesser force other districts. While over 2.34 lakh houses were damaged, less than 12 hours after the cyclone subsided over ‘Ground Zero’ Ganjam, over 90 per cent of the roads blocked by fallen trees had been cleared.
By Sunday evening, Cyclone Phailin had weakened into “deep depression”. M Mohapatra, Scientist (Cyclone Warning Division) of the Meteorology Department in Delhi, said the cyclonic storm now had wind speed of 45-55 km ph, and was expected to weaken further.
Orissa officials attributed the low casualties to record evacuation. In just three days, 9.1 lakh people in 14 districts were evacuated. In Ganjam alone, over 1.82 lakh people were evacuated while another 1.6 lakh rushed to cyclone shelters there on their own ahead of the cyclone.
Andhra Pradesh also saw one of its biggest evacuation operations, with over 90,000 people shifted from coastal villages of the Srikakulam district to 49 shelters within 30 hours. The shelters had stocks of food and other essential commodities to last a week. All these were in place, along with an officer in charge of each shelter, by 3 pm Saturday, six hours before the cyclone made landfall in neighbouring Orissa. This ensured there were no casualties in the district.
The Srikakulam administration drew up lists of villages, categorised them as dangerous, very vulnerable and vulnerable, and sent text messages to over 10,000 people a day before the cyclone. The level of planning was such that special officers had details of families, numbers of men, women and children, contact numbers of village elders and elected representatives, besides information about the number of vehicles available for evacuation.
Adopting a strategy of ‘zero loss of life’, 247 cyclone shelters were pressed into service in Orissa. However, what made the difference was the 10,000 specially constructed school buildings that housed a major part of the 9,12,848 people who were evacuated from the affected areas. These buildings had been constructed as part of a special plan after the 1999 super cyclone disaster.
“All resources were put to use. This was the largest-ever evacuation at such short notice. We not only provided food and water to all but a week’s supply of both was also kept ready at the shelters,” a senior state government fuctionary said. Special rapid action force teams were placed at strategic locations in districts and fuel was stocked.
Alarm bells started going off in Orissa soon after a low-pressure area formed over the North Andaman Sea last week. As the Meteorological Department forecast that this could develop into a very severe cyclone, with wind speeds reaching up to 185-190 km per hour and make landfall somewhere closer to Gopalpur in Orissa, Chief Secretary Jugal Mohapatra took a meeting of the Ganjam district administration.
“In 1999, hardly a few thousand were evacuated. We did not have many cyclone shelters then. The Chief Secretary made it clear that, no matter what, vulnerable people have to be evacuated to safer areas to ensure zero casualties,” said a Revenue and Disaster Management Department official.
“Mass evacuation was started on the morning of the 10th and by 11th evening, it had been completed. There was information about a few reluctant people in vulnerable areas, and senior officials were asked to intervene. These people too were shifted to shelters by 12th morning. People were cajoled, persuaded or forced to leave,” an official said.
At Ganjam, the district collector identified all the vulnerable villages and possible cyclone shelters nearby. By Saturday evening, when the cyclone made landfall, over 3.5 lakh people from at least five districts in the scope of the cyclone had moved to shelters.
In Golabandha village of Ganjam, people were told clearly of the dangers of living within the first 10 km of the coast. “Though people initially resented forced evacuation, now they are thanking us,” said a district official.
“The government did microplanning of the work needed to be done after the cyclone hit. Each department’s role was identified and they were given targets to complete. There was no confusion over who was to do what,” Ganjam District Collector Dr Krishan Kumar said. All supporting agencies were told to report to the district collector.
In Berhampur, the IAF started a mobile medical unit two days before the storm. “We were ready with treatment for snake bites to heart attacks and head injuries,” said Squadron Leader Navneet Kaur of the team.
“It was the evacuation before the landfall that helped minimise the casualties,” admitted Squadron Leader S P Singh, who was stationed in Berhampur for overseeing the mobile medical units.
with inputs from Sreenivas Janyala, Srikakulam