Cyclone Thane -- Disaster Preparedness and Response
Cyclone Thane -- Disaster Preparedness and Response
By Annie George, CEO, BEDROC with additional information from Ahana Lakshmi, TRINet; based on field observations and various reports on the internet. The views are of the authors alone.
Banana plants destroyed by the cyclone
Cyclonic disturbances develop regularly in the North Indian Ocean of which the Bay of Bengal is a part. Cyclones are seen mainly occurring in May-June and October- November, with the primary peak in November and secondary peak in May. Cyclone Thane was a little out of season, in that way. However, for those living in Tamil Nadu, it just added a little more to the weather uncertainties that we have been experiencing in recent times. Cyclone Thane started off as a depression over the southeast Bay of Bengal on 25th of December, 2011. After intensifying into a deep depression and then, into a cyclonic storm, it crossed the coast on 30th December bringing with it large scale devastation in Puducherry and Cuddalore.
The Indian Meteorological Department has a network of meteorological observatories (both surface and upper air) covering the entire coastline and islands. With the Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project in place, the early warning systems are to be strengthened further. After being tracked by satellites and weather buoys during its formation, as soon as Cyclone Thane came with range, the Doppler Weather Radar at Chennai began monitoring the system providing accurate monitoring of location and better estimation of intensity and associated landfall processes including heavy rainfall location and intensity and gale wind speed. The extensive warnings that were constantly transmitted by multiple means (radio, TV, websites, newspapers…) and the precautionary measures taken such as evacuation, closing schools, switching off power - resulted in low numbers of casualties, less than fifty. However the damage caused was very extensive – this despite the fact that it was finally described as a Category 1 cyclone as the maximum sustained wind speeds hit only about 140-150 kmph which is supposed to cause minimal damage!
Early Warning Systems:
In any such crisis situation, when there can be very frequent updates and changes, it certainly makes sense to use such mass communication channels. While the idea was theoretically perfect, the Electricity Board had their own priorities where safeguarding the communities from getting electrocuted by live fallen lines took greater priority over latest information. Hence, although information was being aired very frequently, it was not received by many as the power supply was cut off twenty-four hours before the cyclone struck and was reinstated only after a week or two depending on how far away the place was from the mainstream areas.
Electrical posts felled by the cyclone
Probably the Emergency Operation Cell (EOC), at each District, should start functioning as a help desk even before the hazard hits and the number of this EOC should be made public so that concerned public can get information directly from the EOC on the latest trajectory, the shelters closes to them and other relevant information.
The mobiles continued to function as long as power lasted and this channel could have been utilized to send out mass messages from the EOC. BSNL was exploring this possibility and had some working models which can be adopted by the States as a whole. There should also be alternate systems for charging of mobiles made popular so that a sudden cut in electric power supply does not result in a breakdown of communication systems.
The person giving the message also seems to be of crucial importance. While in Melemoovarkarai, during the 2005 floods, the communities refused to relocate despite the rising water unless their traditional leader decreed; in the Thane Cyclone it was a case of the “Officials not giving them the message”. Though the Collector of Puducherry was appearing on the channels urging the people to move to safety, there were no follow-on instructions on the safe places to move to or any organized attempt to shift them. While one can argue on “shifting whom?” when it’s a cyclone as one never knows its exact trajectory, at least shifting people away from the more vulnerable areas like the coast could have been attempted. The relocation of vulnerable people to safe shelters was successfully done in Cuddalore.
One interesting fact was that in Karaikal, the AIR station appeared to have played an important role – there was a phone in facility and a number of people made calls regarding fallen trees and blocked roads so that help could go out to them.
Decentralised EWS for ensuring last-mile connectivity, though an oft-repeated concept, needs to be brought to the forefront of Disaster Preparedness. This is already supposed to be a key element in the NCRMP but needs to be implemented on a priority basis.
Damage due to cyclones is mainly classified under
2. Damage due to gale force winds
3. Damage due to storm surge.
The storm surge was predicted to be 1-1.5m above astronomical tide, a relatively small surge and it did not have devastative impacts except for some localized flooding. Damage due to rain was secondary to the damage caused by heavy winds, not surprising as Cyclone Thane was supposed to be a wind driven system.
Community level Disaster Preparedness
The Boat damages in Nagapattinam were far lesser than the boat damages in Cuddalore or Puducherry. On enquiring, the fishermen said that they had heeded the early warnings and tied up their boats at much higher levels on the beach, ensuring that they do not dash against each other or get washed away. Although similar warnings were issued in the other two districts, no such preventive action was taken. Was it a question of “once bitten, twice shy”?
Damage to fishing boats
With the vast range of devastation, the district administrations of both Cuddalore and Puducherry had their hands full and priority was rightly given to clearing the roads, moving away all the huge trees, restoring power and then assessing the other damages. The State Govt. of Tamil Nadu quickly moved in support from the neighbouring districts and work proceeded quite fast in Cuddalore. Puducherry was left to valiantly fight its battles on its own. It is not quite clear why the Centre did not move in to support this small little UT. Apart from the NDRF, there were no other supports seen. It took one whole fortnight to restore power supply in some of the rural areas.
Water and dry rations were a priority. The Administration in both districts provided cooked food for 2 to four days. After that, even the regular PDS supply of rice was not available in Puducherry till the 19th when this was resumed. The rice stocks were damaged in the cyclone and they did have a legitimate reason. Meanwhile, cost of essentials shot up in the market, kerosene was being sold in the black market for Rs. 80- 100/litre and candles for a princely sum of Rs 8/candle.
Though there was no damage in Kancheepuram district, for example, and the communities said so when the assessment team reached within the first few days, soon after compensation packages were announced, the number of damaged boats suddenly grew in numbers and there were even reports of infighting among the panchayats of their (in)ability to attract more compensation.
Support from Humanitarian Agencies
Most NGOs were loath to visit the affected villages as they did not have any supports to offer and the villagers were looking to them for help.
The time taken to swing into action by NGOs is constrained by their lack of funds and other resources. The need for information before formulating a proposal, the time taken to clear the proposal, the time taken by the regional office of the donor agency in getting approvals from higher authorities before they can meaningfully intervene, all these are road blocks that we still have not been able to resolve and meanwhile, the communities continue to suffer.
Role of the Panchayat and local MLAs
The most optimal solution would be to strengthen the PRIs with resources and capacitate them to respond equitably and appropriately. This move will also ensure that the “mini/ localized disasters” are also taken care of and not only the ones termed by the media or disaster management gurus as “disaster”.
Community Involvement in clearing up debris and getting back to normalcy
When the NGOs were asked why they could not help the communities to get involved in the local cleaning up, repairs to whatever could be repaired, the NGOs gave a very interesting explanation. They said that the communities did not want to do any clearing up till the Administration came around and assessed the damages. Unless the Administration was convinced of the damages, the affected communities would not be eligible for relief, especially of their damaged assets like house, land, crops etc.
If the Relief Code was modified to accept photographic evidence with reasonable supporting documents, then the communities could have moved on with small repairs, clearing of their agricultural land and even planting another crop as there were still three more months of water availability which could have been utilized.
House damaged by the cyclone
This would also be a good occasion to look at incorporating other safety norms as well or including indigenous methods that protect tiles from being displaced under strong winds. The knowledge exists, maybe in places as far away as Gujarat, where Hunnarshaala has devised simple technologies to hold tiles in place. It only needs a political willingness to look at what can be in place of what is.
Agriculture:While fishing can be resumed just by putting a new boat out into the sea, restoring agriculture is a different ball game which is also dependant on various other parameters like availability of water, soil conditions after the siltation/salination, and appropriateness of the crops planned etc. Samba is the main cultivation season in these coastal areas which are largely dependent on rain-fed cultivation. With three more months of water being available in the canals, it would have been possible for farmers to salvage whatever time is left to plant short-duration varieties of paddy or have two crops of pulses.
This brings back the relevance of seed banks at the Panchayat level which will support quicker turn- around time for the farmers without having to wait for kits from a central source, which may not even be relevant for the current conditions.
Similarly, a soil analysis of the affected areas by the Govt. would go a long way in assisting the farmer decide on most appropriate land reclamation practices thereby bringing down his cost of inputs. Currently the farmer is flying blind and using a package of fertilizers which may not be appropriate or necessary.
Unlike Nagapattinam, which is totally dependent on paddy cultivation, farmers in Cuddalore and Puducherry also derive income from horticultural crops like banana, sugarcane, coconuts and cashew. Traditional varieties of Coconut palms take about 8-10 years for yielding nuts and Cashew takes even longer. Although the Dept. has promised hybrid varieties that will yield nuts faster, the farmers are not too enthused as they claim that the quality of the traditional varieties cannot be matched by these hybrid varieties.
Another matter of concern is the compensation which is announced. Rs. 800 for a Coconut palm which currently was giving them a minimum of 20 nuts every 30- 40 days, each fetching them Rs. 8-10 per nut, cannot be compensated by Rs. 800 per tree lost as is the current package in Puducherry.
Some creative thinking will have to be done to ensure this income for such farmers. Quick yielding horticultural crops as relay cropping in limited portions of their land while the other trees mature, in a phased manner or even in-between the palms/ trees planted will have to be promoted to ensure regular income for those affected in this manner.
The workers have been given time off, sometimes with some cash compensation but mostly without, till the factory is repaired and work restarts. While some of the workers may be covered through the public distribution system in place, there are many migrant workers who do not come under the purview of this social security mechanism. Neither will they get at least the basic essentials nor will they be compensated for the loss of their assets, houses or livelihoods. The migrant population is largely unrecognized by either of the Governments.
While the learnings are interesting, are they important enough to be discussed and incorporated into future action plans? Are the learnings by themselves enough, or are there more hidden facets to the politics of disaster management that mere field level practitioners will not be able to recognize or comprehend? Although the latest responses show some light of hope, we still have a long way to go in understanding the nuances of this elephant called Disaster Management.