The massive cyclone that hit the eastern Indian state of Orissa over the weekend destroyed tens of thousands of homes, but killed fewer than 30 people.
Another big cyclone struck the same state in 1999; 10,000 people were killed.
What was different this time? Comparing the two cyclones may not be a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, but there are a number of key differences in the way India prepared and responded this time.
Technology, for one. Here’s Reuters:
“Technological advances since 1999 mean that forecasters can accurately predict weather patterns seven days in advance. The advent of mobile phones has also made a huge difference. … At the time of the 1999 cyclone, there were less than 2 million mobile phone users in the whole of India: today, about 25 million people in [Orissa] alone – 60 percent of the state’s population – carry a phone.”
And as The New York Times reports, “Even many of the poorest villages now have televisions, and India’s numerous 24-hour news channels have blanketed the nation’s airwaves with coverage of the storm.”
India’s bureaucracy, not typically known for its efficiency, got its act together ahead of Cyclone Phailin’s impact.
Officials traveled through coastal regions of Orissa and neighboring Andhra Pradesh state, warning residents to take refuge in government shelters. After the storm, they distributed food to those displaced and tarps for makeshift shelters.
As one civil servant told Reuters: “That’s the first thing I asked, that I be completely authorized to take decisions at my own level.” That official, in turn, allowed those under him to act without authorization.
Thirdly, the state learned lessons from the disaster in 1999. This time, nearly 1 million people were evacuated – some of them forcibly – from their homes.
In 1999, Orissa had barely more than 20 cyclone shelters. This time around, the state provided evacuees with shelter.
Again, Reuters: “Both [Orissa] and Andhra Pradesh now have disaster management departments, both have built hundreds of cyclone shelters along the coast, and drills are conducted regularly so people know what to do when an alert is issued.”
The Times reported that India’s response to Phailin demonstrated how the country had changed.
“Change can come slowly to India. The caste system still predominates, grinding poverty remains endemic and clean water is rare. But the effective response to the threat this weekend demonstrates that Indians are transforming their country, particularly in the ways that they communicate and get their news.”
But it’s important to point out that such success are still not that common.
As recently as June, flooding in the northern state of Uttarakhand killed more than 6,000 people.
And even in states like Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, the system has inefficiencies. The Wall Street Journal reported that many measures of a $240 million National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project, put in place after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, have yet to be implemented.
And, the newspaper warned, that while the toll from Cyclone Phailin has been low, it “could climb if the millions stranded without enough food and clean water are not taken care of.”