In 1999, when a massive cyclone hit the Odisha coast, the death toll was 10,000. When Cyclone Phailin hit the same coast over Saturday and Sunday, the death toll was just 15.
This suggests that the state administration not only took early warnings of the fearsome cyclone seriously but moved very rapidly to take people out of the danger zone.
For this Odisha chief minister Navin Patnaik deserves all praise. He made it clear that his priority was to save lives and to this end he allowed his officers and other agencies to work unhampered in evacuating people well before the cyclone raced to the shore.
While it is not confirmed, the cyclone is reported to have been of the proportions of Hurricane Katrina that caused massive devastation in the US.
The real challenge that the state faces now is in containing the aftermath of the cyclone. For a start, there is the enormous damage to homes, to crops and other buildings. Over a seventh of the state’s paddy crop has been destroyed and the cost of all destroyed crops is estimated to be around `2,400 crore.
Yet, within almost 24 hours, the power supplies have been restored in many parts, the trains have begun running and life is returning to semi-normal. But the aftermath of every cyclone is huge flooding.
This is what will test the state administration’s mettle. With flooding will come water-borne diseases, especially since the carcasses of animals have yet to be removed. This means that the government will have to disburse large supplies of medicines and sanitation material to contain a possible outbreak of disease.
But apart from having pulled off this amazing feat of minimising loss of human life, the noteworthy part is that the chief minister did it with little fanfare. He did not call press conferences or bring any politics into it, he just hunkered down and got on with the job.
However, there are dangers ahead. The damage to the Paradip port has been substantial and the cost of getting it up and running will be huge. Several ports are being planned on the Odisha coast. Given the fact that the coast is prone to cyclones, these should have as many built-in safeguards as possible to minimise damage.
Natural barriers against weather phenomena like cyclones are mangroves, much of which has been destroyed by unplanned industrialisation. It is no one’s argument that industrialisation should be shelved, but a more equitable model of sustainable development has to be worked out.
The Odisha model of dealing with this natural disaster bears further study and perhaps could form the basis of a blueprint for other areas which are vulnerable to cyclonic storms and hurricanes.