While Odisha government is busy cornering all the glory for handling the cyclone threat very successfully, the truth is it had little option than do anything less. And Phailin, thankfully, turned out to be a much smaller storm than was initially expected.
One has reasons to salute the dedicated and untiring efforts of some senior officers, including collectors and hundreds of men who worked under them round the clock. But it was the media hype – or overhype, as it turned out to be – over the possible enormity of Phailin’s destructive powers as well as constant references to how an earlier government had fallen after its abject failure to tackle the1999 super cyclone that made it a do-or-die battle for an election-bound government.
Again, it was media reports on the ‘killer cyclone’ that had scared the people to death and they needed little persuasion to scurry for safer places. This is what actually helped the evacuation process although there are serious doubts over the government’s claims that one million people were shifted in 36 hours. No one can beat bureaucrats in manufacturing and manipulating data to please their political masters. But this time round, it was a bit too much to digest.
The great accuracy of the IMD predictions did help in a big way because the route of the storm was known in advance and adequate arrangements could be made. (After all, it was heading for the chief minister’s home district, Ganjam!)
Throughout, the focus was Ganjam, Ganjam and Ganjam.
Odisha tackled Phailin successfully because both state and Central agencies, the media as well as the people in the vulnerable zones came together and acted in unison to meet the challenge of an unknown nature and quantity .
The fact that the weakened Phailin was at best a category 4 tropical storm, a notch lower than the 1999 super cyclone and far less ferocious in its impact and extent of damage, also helped.
But if one were to ignore the hyperbole and make a dispassionate assessment of the level of preparedness, one needs to do no more than look at what happened in Baripada on Sunday. When large parts of the Mayurbhanj district were submerged in 5 to 8 feet deep flood water the morning after Phailin hit the Odisha coast, the administration said it was taken ‘by surprise’ and took over 12 hours to start the rescue and relief operations. The state administration which boasts of its super-preparedness must explain why it was taken by surprise, especially since the Met department had all along predicted that the landfall of Phailin would be followed by heavy rains in northern Odisha and Jharkhand.
No wonder the disaster management team was under no pressure from the media which was busy covering the aftermath of Phailin, some 425 kms away and had little time or inclination to focus on another disaster taking place elsewhere in the state.
But disaster management is all about anticipation of and preparedness for the worst possible scenario in a given situation of natural disaster.
Its failure to respond to the flash floods in Mayurbhanj and Balasore even after repeated Met warnings and its shoddy post-cyclone relief operations expose the hollow claims made by the state government about how well they were prepared to deal with the disaster.