Why everybody loves a good cyclone

Neither Patnaik nor UPA II can claim that they ‘managed’ Phailin. It was nature that was kind to us; it was nature that tamed Phailin


Alam Srinivas | October 15, 2013

Ahead of Phailin
Ahead of Phailin

As Phailin “sizzled and fizzled”, as a media report put it, both the state and central regimes rose to occasion. They claimed that thousands of lives had been saved, and there was less destruction to the property, only because of their efforts and initiatives. Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik came on TV channels to tom-tom the efficiency of his administration. A UPA II cabinet minister said that his government’s policies saved Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.

While one should credit the two governments for their actions, and one knows how they will fare during the relief and rehabilitation process, there is a need to do a reality check. The best way to do so is to compare Phailin with Cyclone 05B, which hit the same coast in 1999. The similarities between the two are uncanny and the differences stark. Both were deemed to be ‘super cyclones’, which would wreck havoc. But while Phailin killed a few dozens and destroyed property worth $1 billion, the 1999 cyclone killed thousands and its monetary damage was five times more.

ALSO READ: Naveen faces big test in picking up post-Phailin pieces

In fact, it is because of the above differences that Patnaik and UPA II slapped themselves vigorously on their backs. If 05B went berserk, the taming of Phailin, in comparison, was their crowning achievements. However, the ‘real’ differences between the two cyclones prove that neither the state regime nor the central one should be given undue credit for what happened in 2013. It was a series of other factors that explains why 05B was a complete disaster and Phailin a comparatively minor one.

Here are the reasons why the effects of the two cyclones panned out in different ways, and none of them were due to the respective state and central governments.

Super cyclone versus storm cyclone
It is true that before they hit the eastern coast of India, both the cyclones were termed ‘super’, which indicates a disaster of the worst magnitude. However, Phailin sputtered and stuttered into a ‘storm’ cyclone, whose disaster capacity is comparatively less. For example, the wind velocities in 2013 were calculated at 200 km/hour; in comparison, the wind velocities were at least 250 km/hour in 1999. At that speed in 1999, the measuring equipment broke and some experts reckon that velocities may have reached 300 km/hour during the 05B cyclone. Logically, even if it had tried, Phailin couldn’t have caused the damage that 05B did. Even if the policy and disaster management environment in 2013 had been the same as in 1999, the results of the two cyclones would have been differed because of their respective intensities. Neither Patnaik nor UPA II can claim that they ‘managed’ Phailin. It was nature that was kind to us; it was nature that tamed Phailin.

Rural coast versus urban conglomerates
Phailin largely hit the rural coastal areas of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh; none of the densely populated cities, towns and industrial belts (including ports) was affected too much. Thus, the loss of property included hutments and cheap constructions typically found in villages. One can add that what Patnaik and UPA II dub as the world’s largest evacuation of nearly a million people was only possible because of Phailin’s rural tilt. If the 2013 cyclone had hit the cities and towns, the state and central governments would have found it impossible to evacuate sections of urban population.

05B caused havoc in urban conglomerates that included the twin cities of Cuttack and Bhubaneswar, Paradip, Balasore, Puri and Jagatsinghpur, among others. All of them are densely populated areas with huge industrialization and heavy tourism infrastructure. Thus, the number of people who died and the property destruction in 1999 had to be unusually high. In the case of the 1999 cyclone, the winds lashed at not only higher speeds, but lashed the cities for six hours. Rough calculations indicate that even if the lower-intensity Phailin had hit these towns, the damage could have been $20 billion, or four-five times higher than in 1999. No one can take credit for another natural phenomenon.

Meteorological fortunes
One has to admit, and proudly so, that the Indian meteorological department (IMD) got it right in 2013. In fact, the IMD stuck to its prediction about the timing and areas that Phailin would hit, and forced foreign forecasters, especially in the US, to change their views. Phailin did exactly as it was predicted to do; all the pre-cyclone measures taken by Odisha government worked perfectly. IMD’s director general claimed that “our predictions proved to be more or less accurate.”

However, this can easily be deemed to be another natural blessing. The IMD’s prediction could easily have gone wrong, as the US one did. There was no way IMD, or any other agency, could have predicted if a cyclone would change its course at any time. Unfortunately, the 1999 cyclone did exactly this and all pre-cyclone preparations then went for a six. No one believed that a cyclone this harsh would hit the urban areas it did in the case of 05B. So, the damage was higher.

For a long time, most forecasters said that the 1999 cyclone would move towards Bangladesh and Myanmar, and may not even touch the Odisha coast. But a depression in the sea suddenly changed its directions, and it hit the worst-possible areas, a nightmare for evacuation teams. One has to add that new technologies, like the Doppler’s, were not available with IMD in 1999; even the foreign forecasters have updated their technologies and methods in the past 14-15 years.

The chances of IMD and other forecasters getting it wrong were much higher in 1999 than in 2013. Even with the current technologies and forecast methods, there is no guarantee that IMD may get it wrong about its forecasts in the near future. Yet again, India was just fortunate that IMD was right.

Disaster management policies
After Phailin, UPA II claimed that it was during its first tenure (2004-09) that the Disaster Management Act was passed in 2005, and it envisaged the setting up of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), headed by the PM, and also state disaster management authorities (SDMAs), headed by the respective CMs. It was the NDMA and SDMA combine, stated the central regime, which saved lives and property in 2013. Patnaik’s hands would have been tied without them.

This is an argument that boggles any right-thinking person for two reasons. One, both the law and NDMA came too late, rather than soon, in a country that is routinely afflicted by natural disasters. In fact, one should criticise all the past governments, prior to 2005 that include Congress, BJP and third front regimes, for not taking this action earlier. If Manmohan Singh can slap himself on the back for it, then he himself should criticise Narasimha Rao and Rajiv Gandhi for not doing this earlier.

Two, the BJP-led NDA regimes (1998-2004) can take as much credit for the act and NDMA, as can UPA I and II. It was essentially the 10th five-year plan document (during the NDA tenure) that set the tone for the Disaster Management Act in 2005. The NDMA website states that this document had “for the first time, a detailed chapter on Disaster Management”. The website adds that the 12th Finance Commission “was also mandated to review the financial arrangements for Disaster Management”.

Clearly, the disaster management policies and the requisite administrative set-up (NDMA and SDMAs) were a part of process that involved several governments. No one regime or person can pat himself on the back for them. If at all, all the governments, prior to 2005, should be lambasted for their delay. In conclusion, natural fortunes, a collective push for disaster management reforms by several governments, and new technologies and forecast methods helped in 2013. Phailin failed because ‘God’ helped India in many ways. Politicians had little, though crucial, role to play.



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