Mumbai escapes Cyclone Nisarga unscathed, but Maharashtra govt would do well to take lessons in disaster-preparedness from Odisha

FP Staff

Mumbai may be breathing a sigh of relief after Cyclone Nisarga, which slammed into the Maharashtra coast with wind speeds of up to 120 kmph, left the city largely unscathed on Wednesday, but the city and state authorities would do well not to sit on their good fortune.

Mumbai will remain under threat for the foreseeable future thanks to climate change. Mumbai, for a variety of reasons, is not hit by cyclones very often. Indeed the last major storm to hit Mumbai occurred in 1948. Cyclones in the Arabian Sea are relatively rare. As per a historical average, there are only one or two per year. But all that is changing.

Cyclone Nisarga uprooted several trees in Raigad, Palghar and Pune districts. News18

Cyclone Nisarga uprooted several trees in Raigad, Palghar and Pune districts. News18

Mumbai at increased risk

The IMD recorded 126 cyclones in the Arabian Sea compared to 520 in the Bay of Bengal between 1891 and 2018. But all that is changing.  Nisarga, the second cyclone to hit India in three weeks, is also the second cyclone to form in the Arabian Sea over the past week.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN body, has found the sea surface temperature of the Arabian Sea to be rising. A temperature around 30 to 33 degrees Celsius in the tropical seas favours origin of cyclonic depressions. A paper by Hiroyuki Murukami and his colleagues has not only shown that the cyclones in the Arabian Sea are more likely today, but also that this is attributable to climate change.

In 2013, Mumbai was listed by the journal Nature Climate Change as the fifth coastal city in the world to be most affected by flooding in the future, measured by economic losses. The first four are Guangzhou, Miami, New York-Newark and New Orleans.

City spared the worst 

The cyclone hit the coastal districts of Maharashtra from the Arabian Sea with wind speeds of up to 120 kmph on Wednesday afternoon.  The neighbouring coastal districts of Raigad and Palghar bore the brunt of the storm experiencing strong winds, heavy rainfall and raging sea surge. Tidal waves measuring up to six to eight feet lashed parts of the coastal areas. Tin roofs erected on the terraces of residential apartments flew away in some places and several trees and electricity poles were also uprooted.

Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray deployed ten teams of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) in different parts of the state. Over 40,000 people living near the coast in Mumbai were shifted to safer places, said the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).  The Indian Navy kept five flood teams and three diving teams on stand-by in Mumbai, the official said.

Town planning authority MMRDA said nearly 150 patients at its COVID facility in Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC) in Mumbai were shifted as a precaution ahead of the cyclone. Mumbai Police also said that hundreds of people living in areas near sea shores like Colaba in South Mumbai, Worli and Dadar in Central Mumbai, and Juhu and Versova in Western Mumbai were shifted to safer places.

Look to Bengal, learn from Odisha

While Mumbaikars heaved a sigh of relief as the cyclone's damage appeared limited to uprooting of trees in some areas that led to vehicles being crushed, they would do well to look at what happened when Super Cyclone Amphan slammed into West Bengal and Odisha.

Amphan took 98 lives and inflicted damages worth Rs 1 lakh crore. A similar super cyclone  would wreak havoc were it to hit India's financial capital head-on. Kolkata in the aftermath of Amphan was reduced to flooded streets and homes, uprooted trees, no power, people huddling together without regard for the COVID-19 pandemic. Imagine such scenes in the Mumbai.

Amidst the chaos, it has been left to the Odisha Fire Services personnel to pick up the pieces in Kolkata. The 372-member team headed by Chief Fire Officer Maheswar Swain reached West Bengal on 24 May to undertake restoration work and was able to remove 2,070 fallen trees and electric poles at 515 places which were obstructing communication in Kolkata city and its adjoining are

That West Bengal is relying on help from Odisha is no surprise. Odisha, which has had previous experience with Cyclone Fani in 2019, has learned to prepare for such disasters. As per a report in The Wire, regions with disaster-related experiences are better prepared than their counterparts. Of these, the districts 'traditionally' not in the cyclone's path fail to be prepared, such as Puri district under Cyclone Fani, as per the report.

"Districts with prior experience, which also had media attention, were better prepared. They had received much more support from the state. For example, control rooms in different blocks tracked the cyclone's path and preparedness in those areas. Despite the annual occurrence of cyclones, the experience in Puri was described as being the "first of its kind" and "unprecedented". It has never been the site of landfall and was thus underprepared."

Odisha has evolved its disaster preparedness from lessons learnt over time. It has developed resilient housing in the cyclone-prone areas and innovative relief packages that address diverse livelihoods, as per the report. Thus the Maharashtra government would do well to observe what happened to Bengal and look to Odisha for lessons.

What a cyclone hitting Mumbai would look like

Amitav Ghosh, in his 2016 book The Great Derangement, laid out what such a scenario would entail in vivid detail: "The winds of a cyclone will spare neither low nor high; if anything, the blast will be felt most keenly by those at higher elevations. Many of Mumbai's tall buildings have large glass windows; few, if any, are reinforced. In a cyclone, these exposed expanses of glass will have to withstand not just hurricane-strength winds but also flying debris."

"Many of the dwellings in Mumbai's informal settlements have roofs made of metal sheets and corrugated iron; cyclone-force winds will turn these, and the thousands of billboards that encrust the city, into deadly projectiles, hurling them with great force at the glass-wrapped towers that soar above the city," Ghosh wrote.

Ghosh has once again taken to sounding the alarm about the precarious situation Mumbai finds itself in, saying that though he had predicted just such an event, he had never imagined it occurring during a pandemic.

'Bombay paralyzed by cyclone'

Many senior citizens, recalling the fury of the cyclone that hit in 1948, said strong winds and rain had lashed the city incessantly, trees were uprooted in large numbers and there was extensive property damage. Pune-based Sucheta Nadkarny (81), who lived in Mumbai suburb of Vile Parle in 1948 said, "I remember huge trees in our area were uprooted and plants in our garden destroyed. I was 10 years old then and remember this because my mother was heart broken as the plants she had lovingly nurtured were destroyed," Nadkarny told PTI.

"On 22 November that year Mumbai, then Bombay,was completely paralysed after the fierce storm which raged for 20 hours. Intermittent rains caused floods in several parts of the city," another senior citizen said. The Times of India's headline on 23 November, 1948, read "Bombay paralyzed by cyclone".

The cyclone struck Mumbai on 21 November shortly after sunset, the newspaper said. The city was without power supply. The Bombay station of All India Radio was affected, telegraphic communication breached,electric supply cut off and local transport system was disrupted, the newspaper reported. Seven people were killed and over 100 injured in a single day, it said. The casualties were due to house collapses and were roads blocked by uprooted trees, it added. Fishing boats, motor launches in the harbour were either sunk or damaged, it said.

Mumbai was extremely fortunate that history didn't repeat itself on Wednesday.  But fortune doesn't just favour the brave, it also favours the well-prepared.

With inputs from PTI

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