Aid workers in India this week said an organized early warning and evacuation system helped minimize the death toll as Cyclone Phailin lashed the country's eastern coast, and they said the experience underscores the type of disaster preparation nations will need as climate change leads to fiercer and more frequent storms.
By yesterday, about 25 people had been reported killed, according to news reports. While tragic, officials noted, the numbers pale in comparison to 10,000 people who were killed the last time a storm of the same magnitude lashed the same coast in 1999.
"There was an early warning, and the state administration and government agencies, they took it very seriously. They were able to evacuate almost 1 million people in two days, evacuate people and take them to safe places," said Ambika Prasad, the Odisha State Programme officer for the United Nations Development Programme.
Prasad, who has been working on disaster planning in different capacities since 1999's devastating Cyclone Odisha, said local governments in recent years have started to focus not just on managing disasters once they have occurred, but actually reducing risks by conducting mock evacuation drills, developing typhoon centers and preparing in advance for cleanup efforts.
"Yesterday, you could still feel the disaster, but you didn't see fallen trees on the roads. It was cleared so quickly. The roads are open for the movement of relief and other rescue operations," he said. Still, Prasad noted, Cyclone Phailin destroyed homes, infrastructure and crops worth millions of dollars. "The cyclone has gone, but districts are very badly affected. What is required right now is to get into well-coordinated relief operations."
Army and navy mobilized
The warm waters of the Bay of Bengal have created 26 of the 35 deadliest tropical cyclones in the world's history. When Cyclone Phailin lashed the east coast of India on Saturday evening, maximum sustained winds reached 124 miles per hour and a storm surge engulfed miles of coastline. Forecasters projected a storm surge of up to 14 feet but said it will take weeks before a measurement becomes final.
As a massive loss of life was averted, scientists warned that rising sea levels due to climate change pose a hazard for densely populated coastal areas that lie in the path of future storms. The bay is one of the most active basins in the Pacific, with a physical geography that lends to heavy storm inundation, meaning pounding waves that can flood inland towns and city centers.
"Sea-level rise is more of a long-term hazard, while a storm surge can happen in a day, but those two hazards work together," said Hal Needham, a meteorologist tracking tropical cyclones and storm surge at Louisiana State University.
The concave shape of the Bay of Bengal funnels water into areas of India and Bangladesh where shallow offshore water borders low-lying areas. The shallower the water is offshore, the higher the storm surge that comes inland. More than 12 million people in Odisha were in Cyclone Phailin's path, and a catastrophic loss of life was prevented with the evacuation of more than 800,000 residents, according to Indian officials. In 1970, a storm that hit neighboring Bangladesh killed more than 300,000 people.
In the capital of Odisha in Bhubaneswar, Santosh Nanda, 86, hosted friends from the coastal town of Puri, an area known as a popular tourist destination. On the night before the storm made landfall, Nanda praised the government for deploying the army and navy in areas expected to be hardest hit. The only problem, he said, were the electrical grids that are still vulnerable to strong wind.
"It goes up for an hour and goes down for two to three hours," Nanda, a retired officer of the Odisha State Electricity Board, said Friday night. "We're afraid that when the storm will really be hitting, the lines will get damaged. This happened last time in 1999, and we were badly affected then."
A day after the storm weakened and left Odisha, Sudha Nayak, 64, and her family in Bhubaneswar checked on relatives in the city. After two full days without it, electricity was restored in her home yesterday evening.
"We did a lot of panic buying. We bought a lot of groceries like rice and vegetables because last time, the worst of it lasted a week," Nayak said, recalling India's last major cyclone, which killed more than 10,000 people 14 years ago.
Indian officials cited the improved disaster response efforts and a meteorological department that tracked the storm and provided data that were contrary to the findings of U.S.-based forecasters.
"We are not trying to downplay the intensity of the cyclone," M. Shashidhar Reddy, National Disaster Management Authority vice chairman, said at a news conference Saturday, according to the Associated Press. "In fact, U.S. authorities are overplaying it."
Villages and crops wiped out
Satellites have been observing the Indian Ocean only since the early 1980s, scientists said.
"We don't have hurricane hunter aircraft flying into this storm, and we don't have many ground troops," said Jeff Masters, a meteorologist and co-founder of Weather Underground, an online service that provides local and long-range weather forecasts.
"Satellite data are suspect because you're not taking a direct measurement but inferring what the strength is based on the shape of the storm," Masters added.
Despite the discrepancies between the projections, what is certain from the caution displayed is heightened awareness about the threat from intensifying storms. According to the World Bank, by the end of the century, storms will dump about 20 percent more precipitation because the hotter the ocean, the more water vapor there is going into the atmosphere, which in turn contributes to heavier rain.
Eilia Jafar, head of emergency preparedness and response for Care India, said that having averted massive loss of life, governments and relief workers must turn to preventing massive loss of livelihoods.
"There are complete villages wiped out," she said. "Crops of bananas, mangoes, they're all gone. Even the fishermen, they were told to anchor their boats, but the cyclone was so strong that the boats have been wiped out." She said marginalized communities especially need to be protected from economic devastation as storms become more frequent and intense.
Jafar added, "Knowing that with climate change such cyclones are only going to increase, we need more preparedness from the government [to save lives], but also for how to cope in terms of alternative livelihoods and in terms of food security."