Disaster Preparedness: What works

A quiet and serene morning four weeks after cyclone Phailin. Puri, Odisha

A quiet and serene morning four weeks after cyclone Phailin. Puri, Odisha

As I travel out of the districts affected by cyclone Phailin and head back, folks at CFR’s Asia Unbound blog ask a similar question that we have been studying here in the region – why was Vietnam (and in our case the Indian state of Odisha) was better prepared for the natural disaster (typhoon and cyclone respectively) and what worked for them?

Interestingly, the lessons from Vietnam appear to be quite similar to what we have been saying about Odisha – that the governments in both these cases showed an unprecedented coordination and communication across all its departments. And more importantly that both these governments labelled the approaching typhoon and cyclone as the most serious possible emergency.

Preparedness in Odisha’s context took just about three days of work with only 24 hours available for the administration to make its arrangements before the cyclone made its landfall in Gopalpur. In these 72 hours, the district administrations of four most prone districts had managed to evacuate every single person out from the villages and transport them to cyclone shelters (special purpose buildings made after the Supercyclone of 1999) and to designated cyclone shelters (usually schools, colleges and any other larger permanent structure which could withstand the cyclone). Vietnam did exactly the same thing and evacuated over 800,000 people from the prone areas before the landfall.

The other thing that worked for both is – learning their lesson. Odisha lived a devastating cyclone in 1999 which has scarred the memories of several of its officials whom we spoke to. A block development officer recalled his horrendous experience of walking through dead bodies in one of the villages during that time and contrasted it with the cyclone last month where not a single life was lost. Previous experience seemed to have made the government officials at every level invest make a high personal investment in the response efforts. Vietnam too appears to have learnt its lesson from the 2004 tsunami and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, to have made adequate preparations for the typhoon.

In short, governments today cannot afford to ignore the meteorological warnings of natural disasters likely to occur or approaching their countries. If it doesn’t happen, all is good. If it does then the costs can be so high that the country might get pushed behind by years on its development track, as we now see happening to Philippines. So, a disaster plan (preparedness, relief, rehabilitation and mitigation) is not a ‘good to have’ thing anymore but a ‘must have’!

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Anatomy of a Disaster: Cyclone Phailin

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High speed winds sweeping states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh (Image: Deccan Chronicle)

This month we are on an assignment which takes us to cyclone affected districts of Orissa. Reflecting on what we saw from our travel in the region in the aftermath of Cyclone Phailin (which struck India’s eastern coast on October 12, 2013) it appears that Odisha’s preparedness and response to the disaster is an extraordinary example of what states can achieve if they really get themselves up to it.

Identifying the action in the simplest fundamental sense is necessary to inform discourse on disaster preparedness and response. Given the meteorological information available from IMD this disaster which was almost certain to occur. But was it expected to be as catastrophic as it ended up being, is an open question. Cyclone Phailin, a Category 4 storm (for reference: Hurrican Katrina was a Category 3 storm, of lesser intensity than this) was estimated to make a landfall (approaching from Bay of Bengal) on October 12, 2013 by the Indian Meteorological Department, in the coastal town of Gopalpur in Odisha state. It made a landfall at 9.15 pm IST. During its approach winds sped through the coastal areas at about 200 km/hr speed along with generating huge waves on the coasts. On October 8, 2013 four days before the cyclone, the Principal Secretary to the state of Odisha communicates information on Cyclone Phailin to the district administrations, particularly to those of Ganjam, Mayurbhanj, Puri and Balasore districts. These lie on the coast and were likely to be severely hit by the cyclone. In the next three days before the cyclone gathered strength, these four districts were to make an evacuation plan, a relief plan, a micro plan for all the blocks of every district to ensure maintenance of essential services like telecommunication, drinking water availability and food. Along with this teams to act on all these aspects were to be constituted and operationalized.

The unexpected element in this disaster was floods due to an extremely heavy rainfall in the aftermath of the cyclone. As soon as the cyclone left, coastal districts were flooded from the sea inundating large stretches of land as much as 20 kilometers inland. This was not anticipated. Further, the excessive rainfall triggered another round of floods and this time in interior districts as well. Neither the state nor the district authorities were prepared for the floods. This made cyclone Phailin unique in its impact. `

This, to those familiar with Indian bureaucracy and the political context would attest is a task which would take months together and certainly hard to realize in a three day period. Yet, the records now show that over 1 million people were evacuated within this period, housed in cyclone shelters and supplied with essential items – food, water and sanitation. Many senior officers are reported to have worked round the clock during this run up to the landfall of the cyclone and for several weeks for relief and rehabilitation after the cyclone had passed. The scale of the response mounted grew and proceeded with unprecedented rapidity. This is where the question lies. How could a state and the proverbial Indian bureaucracy known for its slow response operationalize such a large operation and perform flawlessly, delivering lowest ever lost of human lives while braving the severest natural disaster that has hit the eastern coast of India in the last 14 years?

It is remarkable that Odisha lost only 59 lives in Cylone Phailin which is dubbed as the most powerful and dangerous cyclone that has hit the eastern coast of India. It was more severe than the Supercyclone of 1999 which had caused very high loss of life and property in Odisha. “Odisha’s handling of the very severe cyclone will be a landmark success story in disaster management,” said Margareta Wahlstrom, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General (SRSG) for Disaster Risk Reduction. The state government, which fixed the target of “Zero Casualty” during the cyclone, had earlier said it had evacuated as many as 9,83,553 people from the coast. (FirstPost)

So what worked for Odisha?

A defining characteristic that we observe in the government’s response to the disaster is that government officials consistently went beyond their outline duties and made several moves which went beyond their duties. The highly localized action taken by various functionaries of the government departments was a consequence of human decisions, indecisions, trial and error rather than rationally organized action. In this dynamic entity, they reconceived their own role as insignificant by itself yet essential to the whole (an argument by Sarat SS and others in the “sociological citizen”). For instance, upon receiving a telephonic report of a marooned village in floods, the Block Development Officer rushes with relief supplies late in the night with a farm tractor trucking the supplies driving through the high levels of flood water. The officer’s brief does not necessitate such an action yet he makes a rather foolhardy attempt to reach the marooned village. These instances are exactly the kind of actions that the paper seeks to find an explanation for. Dismissing them as random acts of individuals would be far from reality because in every tragedy such acts are reported and there appears to be several such individuals risking their lives, going beyond their briefs as public officials.

The difference could be that the individual in times of crisis is a “sociological citizen” The following discussion from Silbey et al (Silbey SS, Huising R and Coslovsky SV, L’ Annee sociologique, 2009, 59, The “Sociological Citizen” Relational Interdependence in Law and Organization) appears instrumental to the argument that I make here.

“Where other fail to act, the sociological citizen is enabled and endowed by that web of constraining associations, which provide the material and symbolic resources for intervention and reconstruction. In other words, by recognizing one’s location in an extended network of associations (Latour, 2005) a sociological citizen has an extended, rather than constricted, set of opportunities (resources, schemas, persons) with which to fashion solutions to local problems (Burtm 2004; Granovetter, 1973).”

For those familiar with the work of humanitarian and relief agencies of the UN and several independent ones, it would be easier to recognize how difficult aid workers find comprehending the situation that they see in places suffering any of the tragedies that are indicated in the paper. It is in the interest of these humanitarian and relief agencies as well as governments to understand what lies underneath the individual behaviour that they see in the field. Accordingly, they would be required to promote and encourage some behaviours and curb others. An informed decision on these can be taken when one understands the sociological basis of their actions. The consequent understanding, it is hoped, will drive better disaster preparedness and responses by all those who are affected by it and of course government agencies primarily.