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Time for Uttarakhand to learn from Orissa

October 15, 2013 14:39 IST

Orissa learnt its lessons from previous cyclones, particularly the 1999 super cyclone, whereas Uttarakhand has failed to do so from any of the previous natural calamities that hit the state, says Dinesh C Sharma.

India has witnessed two very severe natural disasters in quick succession. One struck at the beginning of the monsoon season and another at the end of it. The sites were vastly different -- one in the hills and the other on the east coast. Though the two disasters took place under different weather conditions, comparisons are inevitable because their impacts are so different.

The Kedarnath disaster saw thousands perish and a large number of people displaced, while the tropical cyclone Phailin that hit the coastline of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh did not leave a trail of death. A logical question that pops up is this: how did Orissa get it right and Uttarakhand did not?

The answer is simple: Orissa learnt its lessons from previous cyclones, particularly the 1999 super cyclone, whereas Uttarakhand has failed to do so from any of the previous natural calamities that hit the state. It is time for Uttarakhand as well as other disaster-prone states in the country to take lessons from Orissa.

Phailin is certainly going to be a landmark in handling of disasters. But we have a long way to go, as was demonstrated in the temple stampede in Madhya Pradesh which has killed over 100 people. We could save lakhs of people from the fury of nature, but a man-made disaster has killed so many people. Such disasters -- which happen so frequently -- can be easily averted if basic principles of crowd management are followed. Perhaps our disaster management authorities need to organise training courses for managers of religious shrines and temples as well.

The capacity to cope with any natural disaster requires an effective early warning system and dissemination of prior information to people as well as availability of knowledge, skills and resources at different levels of administration. This is easier said than done in the government system. In practice, it means perfect coordination between dozens of central and state government agencies, training of personnel, standard operating procedures and availability of necessary equipments and manpower.

“The early warning system worked to perfection. The path, intensity, timing and location of landfall of Phailin were accurately predicted more than three days in advance. The information was disseminated in time and people were convinced to evacuate. This was vastly different from what had happed in 1999, when it took three days for the first relief plane to land as the airport itself was inundated,” pointed out Dr K J Anandha Kumar, associate professor at the National Institute of Disaster Management.

Since 2009, all major cyclones to hit the East coast -- Aila, Thane, Nilam -- have been predicted this way, minimising the loss to human life. The Indian Meteorological Department and associated scientific agencies like the National Centre for Medium Range Forecasting get met data from several sources -- land-based observations, a slew of Indian and foreign satellites, ocean data from ships and buoys, met data collected by other agencies. The modeling and forecasting capability of these agencies has gone up tremendously with addition of computing capacity. They have supercomputers that can crunch 700 billion to 1,000 billion pieces of data every second.

Precise early warning is the first step. Next is preparedness on the ground. While Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu already had relatively well managed cyclone preparedness, systems in Orissa were on test this time around. Coordination of all central agencies including armed forces with the state government agencies was faster and smoother, mainly because the flak government agencies had received after the Kedarnath disaster.

A major hurdle in Uttarakhand was slow or tardy response of state and district administrations in conveying the threat of heavy rains and likely floods to people on the ground. It is the ‘last mile’ of communication which is always difficult. Advance warning is of no use if it is not conveyed to people in disaster-prone areas and steps taken to save their lives. Orissa has developed a system of communicating cyclone warnings to people in coastal areas -- through mass media, public address systems and religious places. A number of youths had been trained and annual mock drills held to check the system.

“This time it was not difficult to convince people to shift to safer places because memories of the devastation caused by the 1999 cyclone were still fresh their minds,” said Dr Kumar. However, he said, more difficult was to coordinate such a huge evacuation plan at a short notice. Moving nearly one million people from thousands of villages to safer places by mobilising necessary vehicles, fuel, water and food was nothing short of well-coordinated army operation.

Evacuated people need to be taken to safer places away from the vulnerable region. Besides educating people about safety measures to be taken during disasters, the Orissa State Disaster Management Authority has constructed over 200 multipurpose cyclone shelters and flood shelters in disaster-prone areas. These are specially designed buildings -- many in circular or oval shape -- that can withstand high speed cyclonic winds.

Since cyclone shelters have to be maintained in good shape around the year, their management has been passed on to shelter management committees of local people who also act as disaster management task force at the ground level. Fifty volunteers in 19-35 age group -- recommended by each shelter committee -- are trained by disaster management agency in disaster preparedness and crisis management. “Many shelters are used as community halls and schools, generating some revenue. This way, villagers develop a sense of ownership and are enthused to maintain these shelters in good shape,” added Dr Kumar.

Saving the lives of people is one important task that has been accomplished. Disaster reduction achieved in Orissa needs to be replicated and institutionalised. The next goal should be to ensure that loss of property is also minimised.

Most houses that have collapsed are reported to be kutcha structures, shanties and houses with light material like thatched roofs. Today technology is available for construction of cyclone and wind-resistant buildings. Location of houses behind natural barriers, using right material and following specific buildings codes can make houses safer. In Uttarakhand too, precious lives could have saved if guidelines were followed to siting of buildings and prescribed building codes were enforced.

Dinesh C Sharma writer is a science journalist and author based in New Delhi.

Dinesh C Sharma