x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

India counts cost of Cyclone Phailin’s destruction

At least 14 people are killed and crops worth more than a billion dirhams are destroyed, but preparation and a bit of luck help prevent heavy casualties. Samanth Subramanian reports

Bhagwan, a coconut-seller, sits in front of his destroyed shop in Gopalpur after Cyclone Phailin left a trail of destruction along India's east coast. Manan Vatsyayana / AFP
Bhagwan, a coconut-seller, sits in front of his destroyed shop in Gopalpur after Cyclone Phailin left a trail of destruction along India's east coast. Manan Vatsyayana / AFP

NEW DELHI // At least 14 people were killed and crops worth more than a billion dirhams were destroyed after a powerful cyclone slammed into India’s east coast.

Although the death toll from Cyclone Phailin was expected to rise, preparation and a bit of luck helped prevent heavy casualties, authorities said yesterday.

Officials in the coastal state of Odisha, were trying to reach areas that were left isolated by fallen power lines and blocked roads. No deaths were reported in Andhra Pradesh, the other state that bore the brunt of the cyclone.

Before the storm hit, almost 1 million people were evacuated, the largest of its kind in the country according to the National Disaster Management Authority. “The government, the armed forces, and rescue agencies were credited with swift planning and close coordination that kept the loss of life low.”

“Everyone feels very lucky,” said Prabhati Das, 40, who came from the town of Berhampur in Odisha, about 10 kilometres inland, to see the aftermath at the coast.

Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Odisha, said the recovery effort would also be massive.

“Rehabilitation is an even bigger challenge than evacuation, and we will see to it that we can do it in the shortest possible time.”

The cyclone weakened faster than expected on Saturday night and was downgraded to a deep depression yesterday. The wind and rain had eased by morning and some areas saw sunny skies replace the dark ominous clouds that had covered the region since Friday.

Phailin made landfall on a stretch of coast that was not quite as low-lying as that hit by super cyclone in 1999 that killed nearly 10,000 people. This ensured that the sea could not surge as far inland as in 1999.

India’s meteorological department has predicted continued rainfall in parts of the two states. The department has also issued a flood warning for the northern state of Bihar, as the storm advanced inland, bringing rain into the catchment areas of major rivers.

Phailin’s destruction was considerable. Heavy rains and surging seawater destroyed more than 500,000 hectares of crops worth an estimated 24 billion rupees (Dh1.44bn), said SN Patro, Odisha’s disaster minister.

The storm ripped up trees, ruptured communication and power lines, and sunk a cargo ship carrying iron ore, the MV Bingo, as it barrelled through the Bay of Bengal.

But planning helped minimise the damage of the cyclone, Baijayant Panda, a member of parliament from Odisha, said. “We can be sure that the damage is much less and is connected only to property.”

After the 1999 cyclone, India’s disaster management authorities worked hard to deal with the fallout from storms that develop regularly over the Bay of Bengal. This was particularly the case in Odisha, the eastern state most vulnerable to such cyclones. “From that [1999] experience,” Mr Patnaik said, “we could save a lot of lives.”

After the 1999 cyclone, Odisha set up a rapid action force to deal with disasters, as well as a disaster management authority. In 2006, the Indian government also created the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), with more than 11,000 personnel spread across 10 battalions.

About 2,300 NDRF personnel had been deployed late last week to deal with Phailin and its aftermath, to ensure evacuations, conduct rescues and bring important equipment and skills to cyclone-hit areas.

Odisha has built more than 500 cyclone shelters that could resist wind speeds up to 300 kph, with no shelter more than 2.5 kilometres away from a village or town.

Andhra Pradesh also has more than 1,100 cyclone shelters, although some of these require renovation.

In villages along the coast, mud and thatch buildings have, since 1999, been replaced by stronger cement and concrete structures.

When the warning for Phailin was sounded, state authorities acted swiftly to evacuate people out of their flimsy habitations and into cyclone shelters.

“I’ve travelled up and down the coastal roads in Odisha,” Jatin Singh, the chief executive of SkyMet, a private weather forecasting service, said. “The readiness for a cyclone is far better than in 1999, and the roads are excellent, so nobody will be cut off for too long.”

The real cause for worry, Mr Singh said, lay further inland, in states such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, which will be inundated by rain over the next few days.

“The governance there is not quite as good,” he said. “And there are what we call black holes — remote parts of these states where tribals live, or where small farmers practice subsistence agriculture. If there are destructive floods in these areas, it will be a while before we know what has happened.”

ssubramanian@thenational.ae