India carried out the largest evacuation in the nation’s history, shifting one million people from the path of a cyclone that slammed into its eastern coast in a move that helped limit fatalities and highlighted the effective response of the government.
At least 17 people were killed as Cyclone Phailin, Thai for “sapphire,” made landfall Oct. 12 near Gopalpur in Odisha about 600 kilometers (373 miles) southwest of Kolkata. Heavy rains and winds as high as 210 kilometers an hour lashed the region, flooding roads and uprooting trees. Phailin is the strongest to hit Odisha since 1999, when a tropical storm with wind speeds of 260 kilometers per hour killed 9,000 people.
“We must congratulate the government on its handling of an extremely dangerous situation,” said Manish Choudhary, a director of the Indian Red Cross Society, who is based in New Delhi. “The government has been much better prepared than in previous disasters and this has saved numerous lives.”
The state administration, which helped restrict casualties by facilitating the evacuation of people from their homes in low-lying coastal areas, faces the challenge of restoring power and opening roads to enable villagers to return, said Surya Narayan Patro, Odisha’s minister for disaster management. About 15 percent of the state’s rice planting area was destroyed, jeopardizing the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of farmers.
“The cyclone has damaged a lot,” Patro said in a phone interview. The challenge is to “bring back normalcy. In many parts of the state, there’s no electricity.”
Food relief is being provided to people who have taken shelter in public schools and buildings, he said. Television images showed electricity and telephone-line poles knocked out by the storm, and roofs ripped off shops and houses.
The Odisha government’s “bold” decision to forcibly evacuate families from their homes was crucial to keeping the death toll down, said Devandra Tak, a spokesman for Save the Children.
“Undoubtedly, the government’s role in terms of disaster preparedness has been phenomenal,” Tak said by phone from Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha. “The approach has paid rich dividends in reducing the loss of life.”
The government’s response to the cyclone was much better than its reaction to flash floods in northern India four months ago, when more than 5,000 people were presumed dead, he said. That was the country’s worst natural disaster since the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.
Changes in infrastructure, weather forecasting and emergency services probably mean the death toll from Phailin won’t be high, according to Jeff Masters, founder of Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Twenty-six of the world’s 35 deadliest tropical cyclones, the storms that include hurricanes and typhoons, have occurred in the Bay of Bengal, he said.
“As scientists, we stuck to our scientific opinion,” L.S. Rathore, director-general of the India Meteorological Department, said in a briefing yesterday. “Our predictions proved to be more or less accurate.”
As much as 600,000 hectares of the state’s rice area were affected, probably destroying an estimated 1 million tons of the grain, said Trilochan Mohapatra, director at Central Rice Research Institute based in Cuttack, Odisha.
“The winter-sown crop may be affected because of inundation with saline water from the sea following the cyclone,” Mohapatra said. “Most of the standing crop was going to be harvested in the next 15 or 20 days.”
India is the world’s largest rice exporter. About 10 percent is produced in Odisha, said David Streit, a senior forecaster for Commodity Weather Group LLC in Bethesda, Maryland.
The National Disaster Management Authority dispatched a 1,500-strong rescue force to Odisha and Andhra Pradesh states, while the government put the military on standby, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said.
Airlines changed flight paths on the route between Mumbai and Bangkok, and between Bangkok and the Middle East, the Business Standard reported, citing an air traffic controller it didn’t identify. India’s railways also canceled or diverted some trains in the region, the Times Now television network reported.
In Jayapur village, about 40 kilometers from Paradip in Odisha, several trees were uprooted, said Hare Krishna Barik, a supervisor at a construction company.
“We have purchased enough rations to last a week,” 57-year-old Barik said in a telephone interview. “The two rivers near the village have swollen up.”
Traffic on the state’s highways toward the high-risk areas has been restricted by the government, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.
“The worst is over,” Pradipta Kumar Mohapatra, Odisha’s chief of relief operations, said by phone. The cyclone affected about 8 million people in 15 districts, he said.
An estimated 320 million people, or about a quarter of India’s population, are vulnerable to cyclone-related hazards, according to the NDMA, which says the storms are four times more common in the Bay of Bengal east of the nation than in the Arabian Sea off its west coast.
“What is most important is that lots of lives may have been saved because they were evacuated,” Mohapatra said from Bhubaneswar.