Making landfall near Puri on Friday, Cyclone Fani over the course of the next 12 hours proved its might as the strongest cyclonic storm to hit India in decades. Heavy damage with 8 casualties was reported by the end of the day. Back in 1999, more than 10,000 people had died in a cyclone on the eastern coast.
Lashing the beaches with sustained winds gusting at more than 193-240 km/hr, the storm hit the coast as a Category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, and was over coastal Odisha by Friday night.
After wind speeds reduced to 140-150 kmph, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) downgraded it to “very severe” from “extremely severe” cyclonic storm that is now moving north along the east coast.
It is expected to weaken as it moves north-northeast in the coming hours toward Kolkata, one of India’s most populous cities, and Bangladesh.
The situation in Odisha
Rescue efforts have begun in Odisha where 8 people were reported dead and 160 injured on Friday, mostly due to collapsed walls and falling trees. Reports of roads and buildings being demolished and trees uprooted came from across Puri district over the day.
A video that was shared widely on social media shows a wind-whipped crane collapsing on a nearby building in Bhubaneshwar. Many have been rendered homeless, spending the night at one of the 850 storm shelters propped up by the state government over the week.
Phone lines, internet and electricity were all down in the city but the restoration of roadways and communication has reportedly begun, according to a government spokesperson.
The Coast Guard tweeted that emergency workers had started providing aid within the first hour of the storm making landfall. At least four ships with aid supplies were stationed in affected areas, the Indian Navy said on Twitter.
What’s in store for Andhra and Bengal?
IMD has predicted that the system will weaken over the weekend, although the heavy torrential rain in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh is likely to continue.
With millions of people in the cyclone’s path, mass evacuation is underway in India as well as neighbouring Bangladesh, especially from the coastal and low-lying areas due to possible storm surges.
Cyclone Fani is predicted to drop as much as eight inches of rain on northern parts of the state of Andhra Pradesh. The threat of flooding in inland river basins still lingers, depending on its course towards the Ganga delta region, where Kolkata is home to millions.
Habitations around sea levels have always been an issue whenever tropical cyclones have hit this region, which has grown from frequent in recent years.
In Kolkata, schools and malls have been shuttered, while numerous flights flying to and from Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport have been indefinitely postponed or cancelled. Poll code has been lifted by the West Bengal government while fishermen have been cautioned against venturing into the sea until further notice. Roads were deserted for most part of the day, while passengers were spotted stranded at nerve railway junctions as several trains along the eastern line were also cancelled.
Bangladesh & Nepal on high alert too
In Bangladesh, the million-strong community of Rohingya refugees in their makeshift settlements at Cox’s Bazaar runs the highest risk from the cyclone, according to local and international reports.
UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency said it had pre-positioned emergency tents stocked with drinking water, dry food, and medicine in the camps before Fani makes its Bangladesh landfall on Saturday. The body tweeted on Wednesday that it had prepared 135 emergency response containers with sleeping mats, blankets, rope, and other resources for rescue and rehabilitation as well.
Elsewhere, ports were closed with more than 1.2 million people in 19 districts evacuated to cyclone shelters by Friday night.
The ripples of Fani reached Mount Everest as well, with climbers on their way to the summit forced to retreat due to increased cloud cover, moisture and high winds.
From Camp 2, 21,000 feet above sea level, and beyond, climbers began making their way down to Base Camp according to the Nepal government that issued warnings for mountaineers and banned helicopters from flying in high mountain areas through the end of the weekend.
Years of developing disaster response pays off?
Over the years, state authorities have strengthened coastal embankments and preparing evacuation routes, according to a World Bank report causing subsequent major storms to cause fewer deaths.
Praise for India’s level of preparedness and response came pouring from all corners during international coverage of Cyclone Fani. The authorities left no stone unturned in informing and evacuating over a million people, with Odisha deploying 2.6 million text messages, 43,000 volunteers, nearly 1,000 emergency workers, television commercials, coastal sirens, buses, police officers, and public address systems alone – all of which blared the same message in vernacular language. It was clear: “A cyclone is coming. Get to the shelters.”
With the most vulnerable people who live by the coast in mud-and-stick shacks out of harm’s way, Odisha seems to have mastered the trick to averting climate disaster – something a lot of Indian States can learn from.
The New York Times observed that the state of Odisha became better prepared for Cyclone Phailin in 2013, than it had been during the one in 1999. That is evident from the ratio of death toll which stands at 9:2000.
Centrally imposed measures included the introduction of the National Disaster Management Authority in 2005, which is a central agency charged with responding to and minimising the impact of disasters. A year later, in 2006, then UPA government established the National Disaster Response Force, “a specialised corps of highly trained men and women focused on disasters such as cyclones and earthquakes currently comprising around 25,000 personnel,” reports CNN.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.