Mumbai municipal body activates disaster plan amid fears of flooding
The maximum city breached the 40,000-mark of Covid-19 positive cases at the start of the week on Sunday. Its mid-week forecast doesn’t look too rosy either — barely 9 nautical miles or 16 km (over sea) south of the city, a severe cyclonic storm is expected to make landfall on Wednesday afternoon.
Already stretched in resources due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) on Tuesday scrambled to activate its disaster response plan for cyclone Nisarga, which is likely to cause very heavy rainfall and bring with it the threat of inundation in the city’s low-lying areas including Dharavi, Dadar and Mahim, all of which fall within G-Ward, which has the highest number of Covid positive cases in the city.
In fact, many of the city’s low-lying areas, such as Kurla, Byculla, Wadala, and Andheri have recorded some of the highest numbers of infections, thus raising concern over the impending strain on healthcare facilities. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) said that Mumbai is likely to experience extremely heavy rainfall and high speed winds due to the cyclone, which in turn is expected to have the worst impact on slums and tenements, as well as disrupt power and water supply and cause havoc through tree falls and flooding.
Municipal Commissioner IS Chahal instructed all ward officers to identify evacuees, and safe shelters, and prepare evacuation plans, the BMC said in a press release. However the details of these shelters and evacuation plans were not made available by the municipal body. Assistant commissioners of at least three wards that HT spoke to confirmed that all preparations for evacuation were being made, but evacuees were not actually moved to safe shelters yet. This will only be done if it is absolutely necessary — an indication that the spread of Covid-19 continues to remain top concern for city officials.
“I have identified evacuees, and have two-three schools ready as shelters. But social distancing is a must in Covid-19 times. So they are safe in their homes also. They will be moved immediately if it appears cyclonic conditions are worsening,” an official, who did not wish to be named, told HT.
In a meeting with state minister Aaditya Thackeray, Chahal said that in light of the possibility of torrential rains, dewatering pumps have been installed at potential water storage sites. Contractors have been given notice to secure cranes at construction sites and lifeguards have been deployed at various intersections. Equipment like rescue boats and jet skis have been deployed.
The BMC also announced that it had identified high risk localities as well as residents, who may need to be moved to shelters, which are being readied in municipal schools across the city. At least 150 Covid-19 patients were shifted out of a temporary facility constructed at the Bandra Kurla Complex on Tuesday. “The structural stability of all temporary Covid Care Centres and health facilities is being checked. But the one at BKC was constructed temporarily in an open ground, to house covid-19 patients,” a senior civic officer said.
However, the BMC’s emergency helpline 1916 — with 60 hotlines operating from the disaster control room at the municipal headquarters — which is used for all disaster response and Covid-19 related calls, became un-operational on Tuesday evening. A phone call to the helpline played the message “This number does not exist”. Officers from the disaster management department remained unavailable for comment.
“The overall preparedness of the city is good because we were already preparing for monsoon, which is torrential in Mumbai. So trees have been trimmed, dewatering pumps are active for monsoon, preparedness to handle inundation in low lying areas is there. An evacuation plan for residents living along Mithi river has been activated; landslide prone areas have been identified, along with dilapidated buildings,” a senior civic officer, who did not wish to be named, told HT.
Even as the city is listed as being highly prone to cyclones, Mumbai has been shielded from being directly hit owing to what climate scientists describe as steering winds and a sub-tropical ridge.
“Cyclones in the Arabian Sea are mostly formed in the central Arabian Sea. The reason that Mumbai has been shielded is because they do not form close to the coast. And even if they do form close to the coast, they move towards Oman, Yemen or Somalia because of upper level steering winds that move from east to west,” said professor Sridhar Balasubramanian, associate professor, department of mechanical engineering and associated faculty, IDP Climate Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.
Taking into account the probability climate change driven increase in pre-monsoon cyclones hitting the coastline, Raghu Murtugudde, professor, department of atmospheric and oceanic science, University of Maryland, said policy makers going forward must incorporate cyclone-level storm surge and innundation in the city’s disaster management plan. “There is a need to modify the plan that goes beyond flooding to factor in the consequences of the ocean being pulled into the city. Policy makers need to keep in mind that to a one in 100 year event can begin to occur once in 20 years.”