India: Cyclone Phailin causes havoc but few lives lost

Some of those evacuated to shelters as Cyclone Phailin approached are returned to their villages. Picture: Reuters
Some of those evacuated to shelters as Cyclone Phailin approached are returned to their villages. Picture: Reuters
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A MASS evacuation saved thousands of lives this weekend when India’s strongest cyclone in 14 years struck, but aid workers have warned that around a million would still need help after their homes and livelihoods were destroyed.

Cyclone Phailin made landfall on Saturday from the Bay of Bengal, bringing winds of more than 125mph that ripped apart homes and tore down trees.

Authorities in the eastern state of Odisha said the death toll stood at seven people; six died under falling trees and one when the walls of her mud house collapsed. The relatively low number of casualties stands in contrast to the 10,000 killed by Odisha’s last big cyclone in 1999.

The building of hundreds of cyclone shelters since then, along with early warnings which started five days before the storm’s arrival and orderly – often forceful – mass evacuations helped minimise loss of lives, aid officials said.

At least 873,000 people in Odisha and adjacent Andhra Pradesh spent the night in shelters. Others sought safety in schools or temples, in what officials called one of India’s largest evacuations.

“The loss of life has been contained this time with early information and speedy action of government,” said Sandeep Chachra, executive director of ActionAid India.

Authorities also cancelled the holidays of civil servants during the popular Hindu Dussehra festival, deployed disaster response teams with heavy equipment as well as helicopters and boats for rescue and relief operations.

Over the years, organisations such as the Red Cross have mobilised thousands of volunteers across the cyclone-prone region, who are not only trained in basic first aid but also help with evacuations and relief distribution.

Drills are organised so people know what to do when an alert is issued, locking up their homes, storing their cattle in safe places and taking only a few clothes and important documents with them.

“The 1999 cyclone was a real wake-up call for India. It was at a time when economic growth was high and India was seen as developing rapidly. It was embarrassing to be seen to be not taking care of their people, even with all this development,” said Unni Krishnan, head of disaster response for children’s charity Plan International.

Still, Phailin left a trail of destruction along the coast. On the highway cutting through Ganjam district in Odisha, the countryside was ravaged. An electric tower lay in a mangled metal heap on the fields. Electric poles were dislodged, power lines tangled. Inside the villages, cranes were deployed to lift trees off crushed houses.

“The wind was so strong I couldn’t get out of here,” Gandhi Behera, a cook said.

Television broadcast images of cars flipped on their sides and streets strewn with debris in the silk-producing city of Brahmapur, one of the worst-hit areas.

The Indian Red Cross said its initial assessments showed that more than 235,000 mud-and-thatch homes owned by poor fishing and farming communities had been destroyed in Ganjam district alone.

Plan International said it was concerned about the health and sanitation needs of close to a million people and the impact of the storm on people’s livelihoods.

“They cannot stay in the shelters for long as they are overcrowded and sanitation issues will crop up,” said Mangla Mohanty, head of the Indian Red Cross in Odisha.

Already in other parts of the state, people were making their way through destroyed farmland toward their broken homes.

“There are no farms left. Everything has disappeared into the water,” said S Dillirao, a paddy farmer, as he stood on his inundated land. Seawater had swept into his fields. “There’s no way a single crop will grow here now,” he said.