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Spoken Too Soon: Is Praise For Odisha For Tackling Cyclone Fani Misplaced?

Evacuation was successful, but Bhubaneswar and large swathes of the state continue to be without electricity and water even five days after Cyclone Fani battered Odisha. Has the Naveen Patnaik government done enough?

Spoken Too Soon: Is Praise For Odisha For Tackling Cyclone Fani Misplaced?
Cyclone Litter
A row of uprooted trees and the detritus of a whirlwind on a road in Puri bear witness to Fani’s awesome fury
Photograph by PTI
Spoken Too Soon: Is Praise For Odisha For Tackling Cyclone Fani Misplaced?
outlookindia.com
2019-05-14T15:12:11+0530

Cyclone Fani—meaning the hood of a snake—lived up to its fearsome label by stinging Odisha ferociously last week. The storm, packing winds up to 200kmph, slithered up on the eastern state and wrought immense havoc, toppling houses, uprooting electric poles and flattening trees. Large swathes of Odi­sha rocked and shook violently as the growling storm, accompanied by blinding rains, torpedoed its way through before heading to West Bengal and beyond, spewing more venom.

Given the intensity of the gale, the damage inflicted was expectedly extensive. But that not many human lives were lost makes for heartening news. That is something Odisha can be proud of. Hammered by the Super Cyclone of 1999 that killed some 10,000 people after the storm scooped up the sea and brought gigantic waves 22 km inland in Ersama of Jagatsinghpur district, valuable lessons have been learnt. With memories of that disaster still fresh, residents are more aware and relocate to safety without much resistance. The state government has also acted with alacrity, with a detailed disaster management plan firmly in place. Hundreds of cyclone shelters now dot Odisha’s long coastline. Preparatory disaster drills are common and exercises such as mass evacuation of people have been perfected over the years. Though economically poor, Odisha has grown to be rich in resilience. It is to the state’s credit that des­pite being battered and bent by Cyclone Fani, Odisha is far from being broken.

Fani pummels a platoon of coconut trees in Puri.

Photograph by Sanjib Mukherjee

Praise, but no praise

That large-scale deaths were averted and the state government succeeded in evacuating tens of thousands to safety have come in for high praise from various quarters, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and The New York Times. But similar enthusiasm is missing in Bhubaneswar and elsewhere. Large parts of the state capital were still without electricity and water four days after the cyclone passed. Driven to desperation in the sweltering heat, residents have made a beeline for shops selling generators that have all but vanished from the shelves. The more enterprising among the generator owners are making a killing, charging Rs 25 to charge every mobile phone. And once charged, phones are barely working, with most mobile towers knocked out by the gale. Since the storm subsided, a chorus of complaints is also rising from the interiors about lack of food, water and polythene. Many residents of the state are unanimous that relief and restoration have been far less remarkable than pre-Fani rescue operations and that their frightening recent experience is still not behind them.

Deadly Memories

Having lived through and authored a book on the 1999 Super Cyclone, I can vouch how terrifying it is to be in the path of a violent storm. As with Fani, the cyclone then too had brought in high-velocity winds that could make even coconuts fly. The high-rise apartment we stayed in swayed precariously, with windowpanes being blown apart. Power lines snapped, compound walls gave in and fallen trees blocked the gates, trapping cowering residents with no escape.

A telecom tower, crumpled into submission, in Konark.

Photograph by Light House/Bhubaneswar

It was infinitely worse outside and it stayed that way long after the storm had passed. Minus electricity, much of Odisha was plunged into darkness for weeks. ATMs and petrol bunks were non-operational. As relief poured in from across the country—some actually had sent in a few ties and handkerchiefs—essential commodities were in short supply and anarchy ruled. Every­one was panic-stricken and that included policemen, who des­erted their posts in large numbers in desperation to be with their families in villa­ges and towns. In the absence of rule of law, hungry men and women sta­lked the highways, often attacking trucks carrying cement and condoms. It was almost as if Odisha—then Orissa—had lost its mind.

Catastrophe Unlimited

For several days, Odisha found itself afloat on a sea of despair. That the state administration would flounder and virtually abdicate its responsibility in the aft­ermath of the disaster was evident even before the storm made its landfall. Though well-meaning, then chief minister Giridhar Gamang was garrulous by nature and on the night before the cyclone was to hit Odisha’s shores, he spent hours poring over his horoscope to determine what the future had in store in the company of three soothsayers from the temple town of Puri.

As Fani barrelled down on Bhubaneswar, a baby born was instantly named after the cyclone. Twenty years earlier, a baby born in a Super Cyclone shelter was named ‘Red Cross’.

The soothsayers were at their sycophantic best and competed with each other to please the state’s top elected official. One said the approaching cyclone would break into two over the Bay of Bengal and head towards neighbouring West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, sparing Odisha. Another said the storm would pass so high over Odisha that no damage would be done on the ground. But it was the third who stole the show, saying the diminutive chief minister’s star positions were such that the storm would rebound off his chest and return to the sea without much damage.

Gamang went to sleep adequately comforted. When he woke up the next morning, he found himself under siege. Uprooted trees blocked the entrance of his official residence and most members of his retinue did not show up. Landlines were down and mobile networks too had been knocked out. For once, the chief minister was at a loss for words. He knew little about what was happening across the state and when the harrowing day gave way to night, he was engulfed by the all-pervasive darkness. His staff had forgotten to stock up on diesel and the generator lay idle.

Tragic, Comical Too

What happened in 1999 was a far cry from what happens as a matter of def­ault in Odisha these days. As with Cyclone Fani and Cyclone Phailin in 2013, a chastised administration is now more pro-active, with chief minister Naveen Patnaik personally trooping into the office of the special relief commissioner at the state secretariat to oversee government preparedness. The biggest, rudest wake-up call had obviously been the death of 10,000 people in 1999. Prior to the Super Cyclone, it was beyond wildest imagination that gigantic sea waves could rush inland and obliterate every trace of human civilisation. The memories of the dreadful deaths in Ersama are now part of public consciousness and have helped immeasurably in shaping the state’s cyclone preparedness. Both political leaders and ordinary people are now acutely aware of the pitfalls of being caught in the eye of a storm.

Shaving On

A barber in his roofless shop in Balighaei, near Puri.

Photograph by Light House/Bhubaneswar

The revolution in mobile connectivity—from Airtel to Jio and so on—has also helped ring in this sea change. In 1999, both Gamang and the state were totally cut off from the rest of the country for days together, with even the wireless network of Odisha police knocked out of act­ion. It was not until then Union minister George Fernan­des flew over Bhuba­neswar for an aerial survey of the devastation that people on the ground realised help could be on the way.

If the consequences of the storm weren’t tragic, the events that unfolded in Odisha in its aftermath could have gone down as comical. As it so transpired later, Odisha only had two satellite phones then—one with an industrialist based in the port town of Paradip and the other with the chief minister. Gamang’s staff reportedly got the phone, but it was lying somewhere forgotten. When the instrument was finally fished out, none seemed to know how to operate it. It was only after several hours of fiddling that Gamang could make a call to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Living In Suspense

The total collapse in communication meant no one, including the chief minister, knew what was happening in the interiors. Speculation swirled initially that the storm surge could have submerged Paradip and drowned the township. It was some four days later that army helicopters discovered that the cyclone had made its landfall in Ersama, not Paradip, as originally expected. Even from the sky, one could see bloated bodies in thousands bobbing up and down the waters that had begun to recede.

Things are mercifully different now, though not perfect. As Cyclone Fani raged and barrelled down on Bhuba­neswar, a baby was born little after 11 am at the Mancheswar hospital in the city. By 11.30 am, news and pictures of the baby being named Fani by her fawning parents were flooding soc­ial media. It rem­inded me of Red Cross, the baby born during the Super Cyclone, whose parents had taken refuge in a Red Cross cyclone shelter somewhere along the coast. As with everything else then, we heard about her joyous arrival under extremely trying conditions only days later. This time though, instant information hel­ped avert large-scale deaths, and broadcast some good news too.

***

35 lakh No. of power consumers left in darkness

1.4 crore No of people affected

14 No of districts affected

14,18,082 No. of people evacuated

5,791 No. of school buildings damaged

20 million No. of trees uprooted

1,56,000 No. of electric poles damaged

163 No. of injured

1,031 No. of hospitals damaged

1,700 No. of ATMs rendered dysfunctional

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