May 15, 2019

Odisha government must learn from its experiences while dealing with post Fani situation

Photograph: Urban Update/ Basudev Mahapatra
Cyclone Fani made its landfall in the coastal state of Odisha at a wind speed of 175 kmph on May 3, 2019. This was a category 4 storm, which is a notch below the worst level. Odisha government managed to minimize the human loss and evacuated over a million people from 15 Odisha districts to cyclone shelters, including schools and other government buildings. But the post-disaster situation in the cyclone hit areas remain severe

Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Odisha, had to face an extremely severe cyclonic storm ‘Fani’ on May 3, 2019, in the beginning of summer. The cyclone ravaged the city that was close to its path from Puri to northern parts of Odisha and then to West Bengal and Bangladesh. With most of the trees uprooted, many of the electricity poles and mobile network towers struck by the swirling wind at a speed around 100 km per hour, highest sustaining speed of 98 kmph at 14.30 hrs of May 3 as per IMD, Bhubaneswar turned into a non-commutable city with no electricity, no mobile or data connectivity making life of the dwellers worse as they couldn’t even talk to people far away who would be worried about their relatives in Bhubaneswar.

Such situation continued for quite some days reflecting unpreparedness or under-preparedness from the side of the government, which claimed to be prepared to face any situation to be caused by the cyclone.

Preparedness in question

“Trees, uprooted or broken by the cyclone have fallen everywhere, in every major road and lanes. It’s five days since cyclonic storm Fani visited the city and the roads have not yet been cleared. We don’t see the desired promptness from the government to restore normalcy in the capital city,” said Prasanna Kumar Parida, a city based businessman. “Even though we are about to complete a week since Fani occurred, we are still uncertain about restoration of power supply and other essential services because actions from the government are very slow.”

The cyclonic storm was predicted much before it finally hit Odisha. “Officials and the Chief Minister regularly conducted meetings and reviewed the plans to deal with any and all situations during and post the cyclone. Having experience in dealing with so many cyclones since the super cyclone of 1999, they must have minimum knowledge of the possible damages to be caused by the cyclonic storm and there could have been all preparedness for quick recovery,” said Ranjit Kumar Parija, staff member of a city based college.

Didn’t the officials know that the cyclonic storm could uproot trees, which would then block roads, would disrupt electricity supply in any city? “What preparedness the government had to deal with such situation? As we see now, there was absolutely no preparedness on the part of the government, no sufficient backup plan, no equipment or manpower, nothing,” Parija added with so many questions.

“This government claimed big about its preparedness; now it claims equally about restoring services. It only claims and does nothing,” people of Salia Sahi said while staging demonstration and road blockades demanding immediate supply of water through tankers.

Harsher than others

Fani, though not as intense and severe as many cyclonic storms like the super cyclone of 1999 and the Phailin of 2013, has been harsher than the others in many ways. The primary difference that affected life largely in Bhubaneswar as well as other cities like Puri is that Fani occurred in May, the beginning of summer while other recent cyclones experienced during last few decades occurred during the months of October-November, the beginning of winter.

While winter days are somehow manageable without electricity, sunny summer days are just unbearable in Bhubaneswar. As the city is known for coming under heat island effect and becoming the hottest city of India on many days during the summer, life in the city without electricity during this season just cannot be imagined because everyone needs at least a fan at home to cool the body to escape heat stress.

“Post Fani, people in the city are now forced to live hot summer days without electricity, which would make many vulnerable to acute heat stress that would lead to heat stroke. Even nights without electricity are more painful because one can’t close the doors and windows when atmosphere is warmer. Then comes the danger of mosquitoes that also grow faster in a warmer climate. While series of summer days without electricity increases the risk of heat stroke for the dwellers of Bhubaneswar, series of warmer nights with mosquitoes may lead to the threats of malaria and dengue in the city,” public health experts apprehended and urged for quick restoration of power supply.

No connectivity

To make life worse, the city dwellers were completely disconnected from the rest of the world as there was no mobile, data and internet connectivity to either communicate or access information through mobile data. “In the age of information, a life without access to information is just unthinkable,” said an undergraduate student Mayank Mahapatra. This is not about making calls or accessing information only but also affecting cashless business by using debit or credit cards. “ATMs (Automated Teller Machines) are not working because of internet failure; even transactions through cards are not possible,” said a Bhubaneswar based hotelier and real estate developer Brundaban Dalabehera. “This has made life further miserable as we are unable to buy something essential due to non-availability of cash in hand.

“There is no way contacting anyone in an emergency situation but to visit physically when the person is important for the work,” Dalabehera added.

Take lessons

The state government often mentioned that restoration works continued in fast pace and teams from other states were invited and engaged in such works. “As Fani caused large scale devastation, it will take some time to resume all services in a fool proof manner,” a government official said.

However, the government cannot ignore public health issues like heat stress and people being forced to experience sleepless nights in the absence of power supply, said Bipra Charan Das who had decided to move to his village in Nayagarh district till the city came back to normalcy.

Whatever the official pleas, the response from the government reflects utter callousness in regard to restoration works. It should have taken the seasonal factor into serious consideration while planning for post cyclone actions. “The government can’t leave people to suffer in a helpless situation after such a calamity. It must take lessons from the failures this time and build a strong, well equipped mechanism to deal with any such calamities in future more efficiently,” Arun Sahu, a city dweller urged.

This piece first appeared on the Urban Update.

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