Cyclone Fani: How Close Are We to ‘Minimal Casualty’ Target?
A fisherman runs between the docked fishing boats amid strong winds at in Puri, Odisha, on 2 May.
A fisherman runs between the docked fishing boats amid strong winds at in Puri, Odisha, on 2 May.(Photo: AP)

Cyclone Fani: How Close Are We to ‘Minimal Casualty’ Target?

(This article was originally published on 02.05.19, and has been republished in light of new developments.)

Cyclone ‘Fani’, which had developed south-east of Sri Lanka, has been categorised as an Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storm. According to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), at 05:30 hrs, on 2 May, ‘Fani’ was about 450 km south-southwest of Puri (Odisha), 230 km south-southeast of Vishakhapatnam (Andhra Pradesh), and 650 km south-southwest of Digha (West Bengal) – and is expected to make landfall around Puri on the afternoon of 3 May, with average wind speed of 170-180 km per hour (kph) and gusts of up to 200 kph.

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Weather forecasters estimate that ‘Fani’ is likely to affect around 19 districts of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. Cyclonic storms in the Bay of Bengal are categorised based on the maximum wind speeds at their “eye” (centre).

Cyclonic Storm
With wind speeds up to 61-88 kms per hour (kph)
Severe Cyclonic Storm
With wind speeds up to 89-117 kph
Very Severe Cyclonic Storm
With wind speeds up to 118-166 kph
Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storm
With wind speeds up to 167 to 221 kph
Super Cyclone
With wind speeds up to 222 kph

Cyclonic Storms in the Bay of Bengal

India, with a coastline of 7516 kms, is vulnerable to cyclones of varying intensities. The Bay of Bengal, the associated marginal seas (e.g. the Sea of Andaman) and the north-eastern part of the Indian Ocean, usually generate four to six cyclonic storms annually, with most occurring in the months of April-May (prior to the commencement of the monsoon in the Indian subcontinent) and October-December (as the monsoon reverses itself towards the Indian Ocean).

Many of these storms either lose intensity or just peter out; some intensify and affect India, or veer eastwards and hit Bangladesh or Myanmar.

The 1999 super-cyclone, which had developed in the Sulu Sea and became a depression in the Andaman Sea, was one of the most destructive cyclones in the region.

It attained super cyclonic storm intensity on 28 October, with wind speeds hitting 260 kph the next day, as it made landfall in Odisha. While its periphery affected some parts of Myanmar and Bangladesh, it wreaked immense damage in India, with the Government of India placing the number of fatalities at 9,887.

This cyclone and the 2001 earthquake in Bhuj led to the enactment of the Disaster Management Act-2005, the raising of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), formulation of a National Policy on Disaster Management, and a three-tier institutional mechanism (National, State and District levels) for an integrated, synergistic approach to disaster management. The National Early Warning System, comprising seven Central agencies tasked for Natural Hazard Specific Early Warning, was also improved.

Incidentally, the NDRF, currently comprising 12 battalions (four more sanctioned), is the single largest, disaster-dedicated response force in the world. Since its operationalisation, it has rendered stellar service in every disaster.

Also Read : Cyclone Fani: 81 NDRF Teams With Over 4,000 Personnel Deployed

India Has Managed Cyclone Hazards Competently

On 12 October 2013, Very Severe Cyclone Storm ‘Phailin’ had hit the coast of Odisha with wind speeds of up to 220 kph. On account of good forecasting by the IMD, pre-positioning of response forces by both the Government of India and Odisha government, and prophylactic measures by the state, over one million people were evacuated – the human toll was relatively low (44 casualties). ‘Phailin’ still left massive destruction in its wake.

October 2014 saw the Very Severe Cyclone 'Hud-Hud' strike Andhra Pradesh coast astride Visakhapatnam. With the IMD rendering timely warnings, the Andhra Pradesh authorities and government worked in close coordination with the Govt of India, evacuating over 2,22,000 people, and establishing 310 relief camps and 1688 medical camps.

Once again, there was large scale structural damage over northern Andhra Pradesh and adjoining districts of South Odisha – but again, we were able to limit the human toll to 61 casualties.

In contrast was Cyclone ‘Nargis’ (May 2008). Almost similar in intensity to ‘Fani’, it killed 84,500 people with 53,800 missing in Myanmar (official figures), on account of poor forecasting and lack of early warning, and absence of adequate prophylactic measures by the Government of Myanmar.

As would be evident, India has managed cyclone hazards in a very competent manner – incidentally, ‘Phailin’ was more severe than what ‘Fani’ is projected to be.

Also Read : PM Modi reviews preparedness for cyclone 'Fani'

Measures Taken to Battle Cyclone Fani

As in the case of ‘Phailin’ and ‘Hud Hud’, ‘Fani’ has been continuously tracked and analysed in the past seven days with even better technology and methodologies, with periodic warnings being conveyed to diverse levels within the Government of India and the eastern coast states, particularly Odisha and West Bengal.

The National Crisis Management Committee (NCMC), under the chairmanship of Shri PK Sinha, Cabinet Secretary, held two meetings (29-30 April) to review the preparedness of the states and concerned departments of the Government of India to deal with the situation arising out of ‘Fani’. Overall, the measures taken include the following:

  • As per Standard Operating Procedures: The IMD will issue three hourly bulletins with the latest forecast to the Ministry of Home Affairs, NDMA, various departments of the Govt of India, concerned states and districts, etc. The MHA is also in continuous touch with the state governments and the central agencies concerned.
  • The Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard have deployed ships and helicopters for relief and rescue operations, while the Indian Army and Indian Air Force in these three states has been asked to be on standby.
  • The NDRF is deploying 78 teams (Andhra Pradesh – 12; Odisha – 28; West Bengal – 6; 32 on standby).
  • States have issued appropriate advisories to fishermen not to venture into the sea.
  • The Centre released an advance financial assistance of Rs 1,086 crore to the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal, for undertaking preventive and relief measures.
  • Central agencies have been instructed to take all necessary measures to prevent any loss of life, and to keep in readiness essential supplies including food, drinking water and medicines etc, as also for ensuring preparations for maintaining essential services.
  • The state governments have galvanised their State Disaster Management Authorities and the State Executive Committees, as well as their response forces (including the State Disaster Response Force). Instructions have also been issued to activate their population advisory and warning systems.
  • The Government of Odisha has activated about 879 multi-purpose cyclone shelters to house the evacuees – it had planned to evacuate 10 lakh people by 2 May. It has also sought two helicopters for emergency food distribution.

Also Read : Cyclone Fani: 6 trains between NE, South India cancelled

The Need For Building Disaster Resilient Infrastructure

These measures, which are being monitored by both the Centre and the state governments at the highest levels, are expected to yield positive results insofar as human casualties are concerned. However, considering the gale velocity, there will be damage to infrastructure. The latter are defined as lifeline networks that support and sustain our society and economy (energy; transport; water; waste; telecoms system; flood management and housing).

It needs to be noted that super cyclones like ‘Fani’ are no longer infrequent events. In fact, on account of global warming, Extreme Weather Events (EWE), such as heavy rainfall, floods, droughts, cyclones, and heat-waves, are increasing in both frequency and intensity, with attendant disruption of critical natural and human systems, and infrastructure.

This brings into context the need for building disaster resilient infrastructure, the second international workshop for which was held on 19-20 March in New Delhi. This was aimed at analysing the demands placed by climate change and EWE, and the need to design infrastructure differently. Earlier, in November 2016, India had hosted the Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction. Inaugurated by PM Modi, its conclusion saw the adoption of the ‘New Delhi Declaration’ and the ‘Asian Regional Plan for Implementation of the Sendai Framework’.

The ‘New Delhi Declaration’ emphasizes preventing and reducing disaster risk, and strengthening the resilience of communities, nations and the Asian region. The ‘Asian Regional Plan for Implementation of the Sendai Framework’ focuses on the ‘how to’, in reducing disaster risk at national and local levels.

In other words, India has commenced the work for building disaster resilient infrastructure – but a very long arduous, cerebrally-exhausting, funds-intensive task lies ahead.

(K Singh is a retired Indian Army officer. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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