Monday, October 14, 2013

Cyclone Phailin heralds the winds of change

It was as if the news media was so starved from a lack of Hurricane activity in the Atlantic that when Cyclone Phailin quickly intensified from a Category 1 to a 4 in just over 24 hours, the internet exploded at the prospect of dramatic news coverage. Never mind that Super Typhoons Utor and Usagi in the Pacific caused widespread damage earlier this year to little domestic fanfare. 

What captured everyone's attention is that Cyclone Phailin underwent explosive intensification, leaving little time for Indian Authorities to alert the densely populated coast where Phailin was due to strike. With memories of the 'Himalayan Tsunami' that killed thousands in June still fresh on everyone's minds, the prospect of a Category 4 Cyclone hitting the coast seemed impossible. Couple this with the fact that the US Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center was calling into question the reports the IMD (Indian Meteorological Department) was issuing, claiming they were downplaying the speed and the intensity of the storms potential impacts, and it looked as if a major humanitarian crisis were about to unfold before our eyes.

photo credit: Luke Villapaz 

In a bold move, the State government of Odisha publicized their intent to make Cyclone Phailin a 'zero casualty' event and conducted the mass evacuation of all citizens within 5km of the coast. Local leaders went through towns and villages aggressively moving close to 1 million individuals and families out of harms way to the network of shelters built after the 1999 Cyclone that killed 10,000.

The outcome is that the number of deaths reported are at 14 and expected to climb but not by much, major thoroughfares were cleared of debris within 24 hours, train service has been restored, and the power to much of the impacted states will begin to be restored on Monday. 

While damage assessments are ongoing and the true scope of Phailin's impacts are still being calculated, it would appear that India has managed to take lessons learned from the past and apply them to a current crisis and actually have it pay dividends. India has just proved to the world that investing in disaster preparedness is a worthwhile proposition. Even in the face of governmental turnover, political infighting, a massive geographic area in which to implement the plan, and over a decade to let disaster amnesia sink in, the rapid evacuation of close to a million people and what appears to be the speedy restoration of access and infrastructure point to the fact that India got it right.

As reports emerge about what recovery will look like, it'll be interesting to read how the increase in mobile technology aided in the delivery of critical information that helped expedite evacuations.

It also raises the question, while we're still less than a decade out from Katrina making landfall, how would we fare if faced with another Katrina-like storm hitting the Gulf Coast? Would we rise to the occasion, learning from the past or are we doomed to make the same mistakes again and again?

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