Three days after the dreaded Cyclone Phailin battered the heavily populated eastern coast of India with torrential rain and terrifying winds in excess of 200 kilometers (124 miles) an hour, a delicate consensus has emerged on its impact.
As anticipated, the material destruction has been terrible, and the flood waters left in the cyclone's wake have caused a second crisis as tens of thousands wait for relief operations to reach them. But here's the good news. Decisive interventions by the state, including a mass evacuation of almost 1 million people as the cyclone approached, were able to minimize the loss of human lives. The death toll from the cyclone was at least 43. Some of these casualties were the result of the floods following the storm.
By comparison, as many as 10,000 perished in 1999, the last time a cyclone on this scale hit the east coast of India. Overall, the price of life continues to be far too cheap in India -- the same weekend as Phailin, more than 100 people died needlessly in a stampede near a temple in the center of the country. But the handling of the cyclone by multiple state agencies, from the Indian Meteorological Department to the Odisha Disaster Management Authority, sets an improved benchmark for responding to natural disasters.
For the inhabitants of the coastal regions of the eastern states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, it was a terribly tense week. Around midweek, it became clear that meteorological warnings about the depression brewing in the Bay of Bengal were probably accurate, and a cataclysmic storm was on its way. All eyes in India turned east on Oct. 12, with Phailin expected to hit the coast that evening.
Power went out in Odisha that afternoon as a defensive measure against the storm, and phone networks blanked out soon after it began to blast the state. All weekend, news from the region was hard to come by. What information there was came from satellite pictures of the storm -- a vast, coiling mass half the size of India. Trickles of news about the impact of the cyclone didn't begin to emerge until Oct. 14. Although the human toll from the cyclone was a fraction of what was feared, the restoration of homes and livelihoods in the affected districts will take years.
Between the terrible death toll of 1999 and the limited one of 2013 is a story not just of improved weather forecasting systems and disaster management systems, but of a revolution in telephony. Even the humblest Indian villager now usually possesses a mobile phone, and authorities were able to able to keep village-level heads and ordinary citizens in the loop about evacuation programs, contact numbers and addresses and weather alerts.
Paradoxically, one of the major sources of resistance faced by government authorities in their evacuation efforts was that the people of the coast, especially fishing communities, had weathered so many cyclones in the past. The Bay of Bengal is one of the world's most cyclone-prone regions, and cyclone alerts leave many people curiously sanguine or fatalistic, inclined to stay put just where they are. (A wonderful portrait of a fishing community living a hand-to-mouth existence at the mercy of the elements, and rebuilding life after a cyclone, can be found in the book by the great Bengali novelist Manik Bandyopadhyay, "The Boatman of the Padma.")
On the New York Times's India blog, India Ink, Vivekananda Nemana reported from the coastal village of Bhavanapadu in Andhra Pradesh, one of thousands evacuated before Phailin made landfall:
“Our village has seen hundreds of cyclones since the time of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers,” said Mr. Appa, 37, a fisherman in the coastal village of Bhavanapadu. “And we never had to leave the village before. We thought, ‘Why should we leave now?’”...
“The fishermen are not educated, so they have very conservative mindsets,” said Baliah Katamgari, a Prime Minister’s Rural Development fellow working in Srikakulam who was present for the evacuation of Bhavanapadu. “They just say, ‘We have seen many cyclones like this; nothing will happen.’ They have tremendous faith in their sea goddess. They have less faith in the government."
Perhaps the clear difference made by the state's evacuation efforts means that in the future there will be greater faith vested in government and less in the mercy of the sea goddess. In the Indian Express, Baijayant Panda -- a member of Parliament from Odisha's ruling party -- wrote:
This experience could well prove to be a turning point. The successful containment of casualties, and the attention and all round kudos that the preparations for Phailin received, have set a high standard for what governmental authorities can do when they apply themselves. Even more importantly, it serves as a benchmark for what citizens throughout the country can, and indeed should, expect of their government.
But as Odisha's government battles with post-cyclone relief operations, there is a larger question. Are cyclones such as Phailin connected to global warming? The scientific literature on the subject is cautious on this point, suggesting that the higher sea surface temperatures of our warmer world don't necessarily cause more cyclones -- but they probably cause more intense ones. In a piece in the environmental magazine Down To Earth called "Cyclone Phailin and climate change," Vibha Varshney summarized the implications of a recent study of cyclones in the Atlantic Ocean, saying that "in the 21st century there could be a twofold to sevenfold increase in the frequency of Katrina magnitude events for a 1°C rise in global temperature."
If so, we're probably thinking too myopically, and reactively, about natural disasters when we focus merely on better weather forecasting and disaster-management systems.
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter.)
To contact the author of this blog post: Chandrahas Choudhury at Chandrahas.firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this post: Max Berley at email@example.com