Tackling Cyclone Phailin - preparations were on for past five years

New Delhi, Oct 27 (IANS) The fiery Cyclone Phailin left in its wake devastation in the coastal areas of Odisha, but India managed to successfully avert much loss to human lives and destruction as meticulous preparation to meet such an eventuality was going on for the past five years.

As coastal areas are prone to cyclones, tsunami and rain-induced floods, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), an apex body whose mandate is to prepare for natural and man-made disasters, got ready to tackle the problem much in advance.

NDMA Vice Chairman M.S. Reddy said it was the hard work put in by various government agencies in disaster preparedness during the past five years that paid off while tackling Phailin.

"The success lies in the fact that every agency did what was expected of them. The advantage in case of a cyclone compared to other disasters is that there was an early warning, and we were put on alert much ahead. A good coordination made it a successful operation," Reddy told IANS in an interview.

He said the casualties and damage were less not only because of successful coordination among various government agencies, but also that disaster management training was given to people much in advance, helping India successfully undertake one of the largest evacuations ahead of Cyclone Phailin and subsequent floods that hit over ten million people in Odisha.

Reddy said they were preparing for such an eventuality for sometime keeping in mind the October 1999 super cyclone which destroyed vast swathes of Odisha, cutting it off from the rest of the country for three days.

The various government agencies earned kudos for the manner in which they carried out relief and rescue operations. The magnitude of the relief operation can be judged from the fact that nearly a million people were moved inland before the cyclone hit the coastline Oct 12.

NDMA had deployed around 2,500 people from the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) to undertake the relief and rescue. The number of deaths stood at 60 this time compared to the 10,000 who perished in the 1999 super cyclone.

"It was the biggest deployment of NDRF for any single evacuation anytime in history," said Reddy, who is to brief Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Monday on lessons learnt from the cyclone and to chalk out future plans.

Reddy said what helped was that they held several mock drills, some he himself attended, to check the preparedness of district officials, paramedics and the common man - on what to do when the cyclone actually hits.

According to another official, while Phailin was a severe cyclone, they were prepared to handle even a super cyclone - whose speed and magnitude would have been much more.

"Advance preparedness paid dividends and helped in handling the situation. Earlier, the biggest challenge we used to face post any disaster was giving relief to people as they never used to have any identity cards on them. So, we trained the people that during any disaster they should always carry their identity proof," the official added.

"During disaster all communication channels get snapped but radio always works. So we told the people to listen to the radio and follow the instructions if they are stuck," the official told IANS.

The official added that they hoarded fuel in advance - learning from the Uttarakhand disaster of June that killed hundreds.

"In Uttarakhand, the choppers could not evacuate people because there was no fuel. We had to wait for two days. So this time, we kept the fuel ready," the official added.

The official said that over the past five years they had trained thousands of people along the coastline on the do's and don'ts during a disaster.

"People knew what to do during a cyclone. They all had a safety kit ready with them containing essentials like chlorine tablets, identity cards and others, which they carried at the time of evacuation," the NDMA official said.

In some places, the NDMA went beyond its role and coordinated among departments to ensure full preparedness.

"The mandate of NDMA is preparedness for disaster, but we did handle coordination among various central government agencies, state authorities, armed forces, medical teams and rescue and relief workers," the official added.

The India Meteorological Department (IMD), which had been in the eye of a storm for its role during the Uttarakhand tragedy, also came in for praise from Reddy.

"IMD gave us very categorical and clear reports about the progress of the cyclone much in advance, and that helped in evacuation," he added.

Over 500 people across India were working day and night to keep the forecast updated.

For the IMD, Phailin was not an isolated case of accurate forecast. There has been a trend in the improvement of forecast since 2009.

"In the last five years, the IMD has focused on improving the observation network, modernization of tools, capacity building and building collaboration among various agencies," M. Mohapatra, who heads the cyclone forecast division at IMD, told IANS.

(Richa Sharma can be contacted at richa.s@ians.in)

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