Ockhi was the deadliest storm to hit India’s coast after supercyclone of 1999
Cyclone Ockhi that struck the Indian coast in the end of November 2017 killed 365 persons, according to information shared by the ministry of home affairs in Parliament this week, making it the deadliest since the Odisha supercyclone of 1999 that claimed around 10,000 lives.
Ockhi claimed 203 lives in TN, taking into account those who died and those still missing, and presumed dead. Kerala reported 60 dead and 102 missing, all of whom have now been presumed dead by the state government.
The heavy death toll from Ockhi is surprising given that it wasn’t the strongest of storms. It emerged as a cyclone in the last week of November, wreaked havoc in Lakshwadweep, the southern coast of Tamil Nadu and Kerala before dissipating close to the Gujarat coast. “Cyclone Ockhi was an unusual cyclone, it emerged quickly and travelled rapidly towards the Kerala coast,” M Mohapatra, a senior scientist at IMD said. Cyclone Phailin that struck the Odisha coast in 2013 attained maximum wind speeds of 215km/hour while Ockhi reached maximum wind speeds of 185 km/hr. Phailin caused 23 deaths. The 1999 super cyclone in Odisha attained maximum wind speeds of 260km/hr. The damage it caused prompted the government to ask IMD to improve its advance forecasting abilities.
Ockhi was Kerala’s fourth cyclone since 1891 and the state has less experience and preparedness in dealing with these than, say, Tamil Nadu or Odisha.
Cyclone early warning dissemination doesn’t just mean having the right information but getting it to vulnerable populations in time. This month, a Lokayukta enquiry was announced to examine whether Kerala State Disaster Management Authority acted quickly enough to get the information to the state government and subsequently to the fishermen at sea. Sekhar L Kuriakose, member secretary of the KSDMA said he had no comments to make.
The Centre and the state authorities are currently in a tussle over who is responsible for the missing fishermen. Officials at the National Disaster Management Authority who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that while those who were outside the range of cellular networks could not be contacted, even those fishermen who were within range were not alerted.
Under the second phase of the National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project (NCRMP) which started in July 2015 and ends in March 2020, six states including Kerala are supposed to develop early-warning dissemination systems for cyclones.
According to an audit by the World Bank, which is funding the project, of the ₹158.95cr that is allocated, the state government had spent no money till July 2017. During the first two years of the project, only ₹6.44cr was released of which ₹1.1 crore was utilised by the centre. More than 85% of the released funds were unutilised.
Kerala had not even signed an agreement with Telecommunications Consultants India Limited (TCIL), its knowledge partner in setting up an early warning dissemination system.
The other five states who are part of the project, including Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra and West Bengal haven’t done any better. As of January 2017, the percentage of targeted coastal population covered by the EWDS was 0%. Mohapatra said IMD was refining its cyclone forecasting models to improve forecasts. The difficult task is finding ways to get the information across to the fishermen, even those hundreds of kilometres out at sea. India’s space agency, ISRO, recently announced that it would be giving fishermen in Kerala 500 sets of satellite receivers and those in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district, 200, that will rely on an indigenously developed GPS system called NavIC and also be used to relay weather alerts.