GANJAM/BHUBANESWAR: A mass evacuation saved thousands of lives when India’s strongest cyclone in 14 years struck, but aid workers warned yesterday that around a million would still need help after their homes and livelihoods were destroyed.
Cyclone Phailin was expected to dissipate within 36 hours, losing momentum as it headed inland after making landfall on Saturday from the Bay of Bengal, bringing winds of more than 200 kph (125 mph) that ripped apart homes and tore down trees.
Authorities in the eastern state of Odisha said the death toll stood at seven people, all killed as the storm slammed in from the ocean. 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 like 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.