The enormous destruction that the tropical cyclone Hudhud has left in its wake, including the loss of 24 lives (a figure that will perhaps increase), should not be allowed to obscure some real progress. To get a sense of what could have happened, it can be recalled that the super-cyclone of 1999 – which, of course, had winds of far higher speed – devastated coastal Andhra Pradesh and took away 10,000 lives. The credit for minimising damage this time goes first of all to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), which was able to predict with all three elements of the natural phenomenon – land fall, timing and wind velocity. It is necessary to see what can be learnt from this success at predicting and managing the onset of a cyclone when it comes to floods, such as those that devastated Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir, and parts of Assam. The IMD has to predict exceptionally heavy spells of rain much better – the way they have tracked cyclones – and local administrations have to be much more prompt in both issuing early warnings to people likely to be affected and force them to take the necessary precautions. In the case of Hudhud, advance warnings issued days before the actual occurrence allowed the authorities to take elaborate measures to prepare for the worst and mitigate the adverse consequences. Over 400,000 people were evacuated from vulnerable areas lying in the path the cyclone was likely to take, thus minimising both human and material loss.
The fact that the Odisha government was able to similarly minimise the damage caused by another cyclone, Phailin, a year ago because it was able to take advance precautions as a result of accurate early warnings issued by the weather forecasters reaffirms that a critical national capability has been achieved whose price cannot be calculated in material terms. The elaborateness of the preparations made can be gauged from the fact that teams from the National Disaster Response Force and personnel from the armed forces, including navy rescue teams, deployed boats and swimmers to aid the rescue operations.
However, the task is only half done. There are no signs that an equal success is being made of bringing things back to normal as quickly as possible. Rehabilitation, arduous and unglamorous, should not fall victim to bureaucratic sloth once the media turns its attention elsewhere. A big unnecessary hurdle has been created in the way of restoring normal services by the bureaucracy gearing itself to first taking care of VIP visits. The prime minister has conducted the usual aerial survey and announced a financial grant. These VIP visits should be stopped forthwith.
Some other things should also have been learnt. New structures, such as Visakhapatnam’s airport, should not have been the first to give way. It appears that neither architecture nor urban planning on this cyclone-vulnerable coast has taken the possibility of high winds into account – a shocking negligence on the part of those who were responsible for such planning. Even the navy base there suffered an outage of communication; by some accounts, two-thirds of power transmission towers in affected districts were damaged. Coastal urban planning has special needs. As Andhra Pradesh chooses a new capital, with the building and planning that entails, this is a point that must be kept in mind.