Odisha was caught unawares when a super cyclonic storm raged across the state in 1999, claiming thousands of lives in one of the worst disasters ever to strike the state. Fast forward to 2019, the same eastern state stood tall when a severe cyclonic storm, Cyclone Fani (pronounced Foni), ravaged through it.
Few states in the country can make such a claim - learning from your experience to prepare for the impending natural disasters.
Odisha did not wait for Cyclone Fani to make landfall to take the precautionary measures. The rude lesson the state had received20 years ago proved to be the starting point in disaster management.
Policy-makers foresaw disasters and took precautions. Therefore when Fani finally struck the coast, they were able to save a considerable number of human lives. Only 35 people were killed by the storm that struck on May 3. In 1999, the death toll stood at a devastating 10,000.
Kerala that suffered one of its biggest floods in a century in August 2018 has a lot to learn from Odisha. Manorama went through those storm-swept streets which are slowly returning to life.
A state that was brutally battered in the 1999 cyclone, Odisha did not waste time in preparing itself to face disasters.
The next big test came in 2013 when Cyclone Phailin pummelled the state.
The lives of about 1.3 crore people were affected by the cyclone that left huge financial burdens in its wake. But the state was able to limit the loss of human lives to 44.
Odisha took more lessons on disaster management post Phailin. The state started looking at technical ways to face cyclones and creating low-budget houses.
Odisha had also become part of a UN-project that gave financial aid to states facing cyclonic storm threats. From 2011 onwards, the state also started getting aid from the World Bank.
Shelter from cyclone
Post the 1999 disaster, the government decided to construct multi-purpose cyclone shelters along the coastal regions.
Conceptualised by experts from IIT Kharagpur, these shelters had community kitchens and life-saving equipment. Such 879 sturdy shelters have been built in Odisha in a phased manner.
The shelter offers all services needed during emergency situations. Even before the cyclone strikes, people are moved to these shelters. There are specific announcement vehicles for each shelter. Apart from these official shelters, some temporary buildings too would have been set up by the special relief office.
This is to ensure that people are not just scattered at different locations but can stay within their communities.
Cyclone Fani was not an unexpected disaster. People got three days to prepare themselves to face the calamity. The government received a yellow alert on April 30 that said the cyclonic storm formed in the Bay of Bengal would strike the Odisha coast on May 3.
Within these three days, the government evacuated 12 lakh people and set up 9,000 relief centres for them. Around 7,000 kitchens were also set up overnight.
Disaster management personnel, police and even government officials who had gone on leave were called back as the state put up enormous machinery to weather the storm.
"We got a warning from the India Meteorological Department. But we also took into consideration the alerts by various other agencies while making the action plan. Some of this information turned out to be very crucial," says state special relief commissioner Bishnupada Sethi.
"For instance, the Real Time Governance society (RTGS) of the Andhra Pradesh government warned that the storm would strike the coast of south Puri first," he explained.
The interactions between Andhra and Odisha officials too helped in disaster management.
Sethi, who made the action plan, said he had also incorporated data from global agencies, including the US Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Centre.
June 19 meets
Every year on June 19, Odisha's Rapid Action Force, the National Disaster Response Force (NRDF), and fire service personnel meet to discuss the strategies to handle disasters. Instead of reducing it to a namesake meeting, the personnel look at all the resources at hand and preparations needed in case of a disaster. The personnel reinforce their commitment to protecting every human life.
Instead of relying on age-old techniques, officials have set up WhatsApp groups for better and faster communication with other administrators. Odisha chief secretary is the admin of one of the WhatsApp groups that also have collectors and other senior officials of vulnerable districts. The state also ensured the availability of satellite phones and digital mobile radio connectivity for direct contact with the collectors. Even ham radio service was available.
The alarm bells
The state administration was able to effectively sent out the alert messages to every village and coastal area.
Early warning system towers were used to reach out to a large number of people. Set up along the coastline post the 1999 cyclone, these can sound sirens that can reach out to all people in its 1.5-km radius. Lakhs of text messages were also sent out to mobile phones. Media houses and TV channels too chipped in.
Senior officials also walked down the coastal streets to make villagers aware of the precarious situation. Those who did not cooperate with the evacuation were forcefully moved to shelters.
Water, power on the fifth day
The number of trees that were uprooted across Odisha by the storm is proof of the intensity with which Fani came down on the coastal state. The Manorama team, that arrived on the battered coastal villages a couple of days after the disaster, found uprooted trees almost everywhere it went.
However, even in this graveyard of trees, humans were slowly returning to life. Rabiya and wife Chandni of Puri was one among them.
Their house was completely destroyed in the cyclone. The couple with three kids, however, were not ready to bow down to this cruel situation.
They have moved to their own small shack in a colony on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar town. They have already begun work and are selling snacks for a living.
Several of the problems that the cyclone had thrown up have now been resolved. Power and water supply have been restored. The revival of ATMs has more or less put an end to the severe shortage of money.
However, no hotel rooms are available in the capital town of Bhubaneswar, even days after the disaster. Paying little heed to the expenses, people have moved into hotels with their entire families.
But rooms were surprisingly available in Puri, one of the worst-hit areas in the cyclone.
The answer was littered all through the way to the coastal town. Huge uprooted trees, beach sand and slushy water blocked the roads.
Abandoning the hopes of reaching the hotel in Puri, I too joined the hundreds of people put up at the Puri railway station. People from Andhra had also taken shelter at the station which was under the protection of the police. They quietly had their food and water that still managed to reach them.