The Great Escape - Part 1

Grist Media

Zero casualties

IN his office in the Bhubaneswar Meteorological Centre, located within the grounds of the city’s Biju Patnaik International Airport, director-in-charge Sarat C Sahu sat staring at some troubling news.

On his computer screen was a satellite image of the spiral-shaped set of clouds that his team of meteorologists had been tracking for a few days now, and which was moving slowly towards the Andaman Sea, off Malaysia.

By comparing their measurements with historical patterns, he and his team had confirmed that the spiral — the visible manifestation of an atmospheric depression — would grow in size and strength and speed, and morph into a full-blown cyclone as it raced across the Bay of Bengal with India’s eastern coast in its sights.

Conditions were ideal for the incubation of a full-blown calamity. Cyclones grow over open seas, and the Bay’s warm waters would nourish the system over the span of the 1,200-odd kilometers it would traverse before landfall.

It was October 6. By his estimation, potential landfall was at least six days away — but it was time, he decided, to blow the whistle.

He sought a meeting with Odisha's Special Relief Commissioner Pradip Kumar Mohapatra at the latter’s office in Rajiv Bhavan, near the state secretariat.

They had been in fairly regular touch about this system, and Mohapatra had also been checking online updates from the United States Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center. The system would become a cyclone headed for Odisha, Sahu now warned him, and it would probably be the worst to hit the state since the super cyclone of October 1999.

“I was horrified to hear that, and I couldn’t concentrate on anything else for the rest of the day,” Mohapatra said. “I couldn’t even eat.” An old memory came back to haunt him: the body of a young woman, her baby still cradled in her arms, crushed by a collapsed wall.

The memory dated back to the 1999 cyclone. He had come upon the crushed woman and child as relief workers cleared debris in a town called Kakatpur. That was 14 years ago, yet the image and all it stood for could still provoke a visceral sadness. Mohapatra, then 34, was District Collector of Puri when the super cyclone had struck, killing the woman and the child and many thousands more.

Although the city was relatively untouched, parts of the district had been completely devastated. In the days after the cyclone, he had waded through flooded slums and villages in a pair of cutoff pants and vest, surveying the damage and helping orchestrate relief efforts. He had to send the police and army to escort relief convoys because survivors were so desperate that they attacked the convoys and stole their precious cargoes of rice.

The 1999 cyclone — the first ever that India Meteorological Department had labelled a ‘super cyclonic storm’ — had ravaged large sections of Odisha’s coast. The official count put the toll at 12,640, though locals insist that over twice that number had died. Many of the deaths had occurred when, in the dead of night on October 29, a storm surge carried eight meters of seawater almost 20 kilometers inland.

Even though there was sufficient advance warning, the Odisha government was “caught with its pants down,” a state disaster management official told me. The devastation of the cyclone was followed by a humanitarian crisis. Once the waters receded, bodies littered streets and paddy fields. The administration struggled to assist survivors who had lost everything.

Back then, few officials had cell phones. The storm destroyed hundreds of telephone poles, severing communication channels between the administration and relief forces. The government had stocks of medicine and food, but couldn’t transport it to the affected areas because fallen trees had blocked roads – and they had no chainsaws to clear them.

Fourteen years on, Mohapatra recalled those experiences with a renewed urgency. He briefly considered going public with the warning — but rather than trigger premature panic, he decided to wait for more information.

He did not have to wait long. Sahu confirmed his suspicions the very next day: the cyclone, known at the time by the innocuous name ‘BOBO4’ and building bulk out there in the Bay, would be a monster, and it would make landfall on October 12 somewhere along the coasts of Ganjam district in Odisha and Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh.

Mohapatra decided it was time to alert the collectors of the 14 districts in Odisha that were most severely impacted by the 1999 cyclone, and which lay in the potential path of this one now building.

As Special Relief Commissioner, it was his responsibility to command the state administration during times of calamity. He was determined to avoid a repeat of 1999 — and he had just five days to prepare. Working with the respective district collectors, Mohapatra and his team had to accomplish two things: one, conduct a mass evacuation on a potentially unprecedented scale and two, position staff and aid materials strategically so relief efforts could begin as soon as the cyclone made landfall.

Of these two objectives, evacuation was key. Millions of people along the coastline lived in thatched huts that would be easily blown down during a storm or washed away during the ensuing surge -- the single biggest cause of death during cyclones. Unless these people were moved into safe, flood-resistant shelters in time, the storm could precipitate tragedy on an unimaginable scale.

Learning from mistakes

THE 1999 super cyclone had changed everything about disaster management in Odisha and, to an extent, across India as a whole. Just one month after that tragedy, the government declared that the state was “traditionally vulnerable to disasters”, and created the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority, or OSDMA, the first agency in India to specialize in responding to natural calamities.

OSDMA analyzed everything that went wrong in 1999, and worked with different agencies of government to prepare for future disasters. Among other things, it built 247 cyclone shelters along the coast, and trained and equipped units of the state police to enable them to rescue stranded people and clear blocked roads.

“After the super cyclone, we learned that preparation is much more important than response,” Kamal Lochan Mishra, a senior official at OSMDA, told me. “We started thinking of disaster management as a proactive thing, and that requires planning and prevention.”

“You learn the most from your own mistakes,” he said.

The logistics of a successful evacuation are far more complex than simply getting people out of homes and into shelters. The administration had to study the meteorological forecasts and make a call on where to concentrate their efforts. Evacuating the entire coast was not feasible, but evacuating the wrong areas could prove to be fatal. And there was hardly enough time to wait until they were sure of how bad the cyclone would be, or where precisely it would hit — they had to act off of what they knew, keeping in mind that a cyclone could veer off its predicted path for any number of reasons, and a swerve of even a mile could open up new areas to threat.

Once the local administration had identified the areas to be evacuated, the real work would begin. In towns and panchayat headquarters, enough people owned strong, concrete homes that could shelter their neighbors. But in the poorest coastal villages or slums, where almost everybody lived in shacks or huts, the government had to provide accommodation for entire communities.

The shelters that the OSDMA had built could hold about 60,000 people – a fraction of what a large-scale evacuation would require. A school or other public building – preferably within two kilometers of each community being evacuated – had to be therefore designated as a temporary shelter. Enough buses, trucks, jeeps, autos and other vehicles had to be arranged to transport hundreds of thousands of people to the shelters. Police and government officials had to be dispatched to supervise the evacuation, and to persuade people to leave their homes.

Once the people had been evacuated, they had to be fed. Rice, dal, vegetables, oil, spices and firewood had to be procured and supplied to each shelter in quantities sufficient to feed the evacuees for up to three days. The working estimate was 300 kilograms of rice and flattened rice for each shelter (1,500 kilograms each for every gram panchayat). Each shelter would also need people to cook and provide basic first aid, as well as someone in charge who could liaise with the district administration.

Lights, first aid kits, a generator, and communications equipment — all of this had to be provisioned. All block, district and state level officers had to be in a position to monitor the whole thing – meaning that, at the very least, their cell phones had to be charged and their offices needed to have back-up power. And all this had to be done against an inexorably ticking clock.

‘Not even a stray dog...’

THE official decision to evacuate was taken during an 11 am meeting on October 9 between the senior disaster management officials and the secretaries of all the state government departments.

Sarat Sahu provided the status update: The cyclone, which IMD had by then christened ‘Phailin’ (the Thai word for sapphire), was expected to make landfall on the southern coast of Odisha by the evening of October 12, with winds as high as 185 kmph.

Mohapatra and OSDMA Managing Director Dr Taradatt then briefed the heads of the various government departments on the coordinated response that was required. Each department was assigned a role. The food supplies secretary, for instance, would speak with mill owners to obtain sufficient quantities of rice and sugar. The transportation secretary would commandeer as many trucks from the highways as possible. The energy secretary would oversee the acquisition of a sufficiency of truck-mounted generators, test them to see if they worked, and deploy them to planned locations like hospitals and government offices. The housing secretary would, among other things, ensure the designated shelters had access to drinking water.

The task was going to put an enormous strain on manpower — a situation complicated by the fact that all state employees would begin their week-long Dussehra holidays the next day. The officials took a spot decision to cancel all vacations with immediate effect.

Mohapatra was still not satisfied. Spurred by the persistent memories of 1999, he made a forceful demand: this time, the government agencies represented at the meeting needed to take complete responsibility for ensuring that every single person was moved out of harm’s way.

“I put the thing in the government’s mind that we should have an objective of no casualties,” Mohapatra told me. “We had never had a zero casualty approach before — but if we made that our stated objective, then we’d reduce the final figure.”

A few officials demurred. A cyclone of Phailin’s size was bound to take casualties, they argued, which the government could not realistically prevent. Mohapatra, backed by a few others, stuck to his guns. By that same afternoon, he had briefed state Chief Minister Navin Patnaik, who signed off on the evacuation order with an official commitment to zero casualties.

Mohapatra called each of the district collectors with that message — and reinforced it with the threat that criminal cases would be filed against them in the event of any casualties in their jurisdictions.

“I even told them to evacuate in such a manner that not even a stray dog should be visible in the sanitized zone,” he recalled, with a grin.

‘We will not let you remain behind’

ON the balmy morning of October 10, a group of megaphone-wielding police officers and municipal officials wended their way through the labyrinthine alleys of Penthakata, a sprawling beachside slum on the outskirts of Puri that was home to nearly 40,000 Telugu-speaking fishermen.

“A cyclone is coming,” they announced on their speakers. “Do not venture into the sea. And please, for the sake of your lives, leave your homes by the 12th. We will not let you remain behind.”

They roamed the slum, enlisting community leaders into their effort to ensure that the message spread to every single resident. They had received unambiguous orders from the highest levels of the state government: Cyclone Phailin, by then building up steam hundreds of miles off shore, should cause no loss of life in Penthakata.

Vasulu Jagalmani, a slim, pretty 22-year-old with large round eyes and high cheekbones and a ready, flirtatious smile, stood outside her home, watching the harried officials with a puzzled frown. She knew a cyclone was coming — the Telugu channels had been talking about it for the past two days. Jagalmani had lived in Penthakata for all of her life; this was not the first time she had seen officials warning of impending storms.

This time though, something was different. The officials showed an unusual urgency, and a determination that everybody evacuate. She and her family had never left home for a storm before; she wondered where they would even go.

Jagalmani went next door to visit her aunt Mailubilli Nakaratnam — a loquacious, motherly woman who was happiest when she had people to fuss over and care for. Their conversation turned to the cyclone.

“Do you remember the cyclone in ‘99?” Nakaratnam asked, referring to the super cyclone that had devastated the Odisha coast on October 29, 1999. Jagalmani was just eight back then, and her memories were vague.

“Well, we all stayed home for that one. But once the storm came we wished we hadn’t,” Nakaratnam told her niece. “We thought we were all going to die.”

The 1999 cyclone did not cause as much devastation in Puri as it did in other parts of the state, notably in the port town of Paradip. Nakaratnam, like other locals, attributed this to the intervention of Lord Jagannath, the presiding deity of Puri’s storied temple, among the most sacred of Hindu holy shrines. But talk of an imminent cyclone stirred uneasy memories; Nakaratnam did not want to live through that experience one more time.

Her husband was more ambivalent. Mailubilli Kondalrao was a veteran of deadly cyclones. He had weathered the 1977 cyclone that killed at least 15,000 people at Chirala, in Andhra Pradesh, and he was in Paradip when the 1999 super cyclone had struck with devastating effect.

He empathized with his wife’s concern, but he had lived through countless false alarms for cyclones that never materialized. With his thick moustache, strong arms and straight posture, Kondalrao cultivated the proud look of a veteran Telugu fisherman. He knew the sea and had learned to trust his own instincts.

Fishermen know that the first tell of an imminent cyclone is when the waves begin to crisscross each other. He gazed out to sea, where the waves continued to roll shoreward in straight, parallel lines — and saw nothing to cause alarm.

He was reluctant to evacuate, because to do so would mean leaving his property unattended and exposed to the risk of theft. His boat and net not only fed his family and put his teenage daughter through school, but also helped support kin like Jagalmani and her mother. He knew what loss or even damage to his boat could entail – the 1977 cyclone had put his boat out of commission for a month and forced him to borrow from a local don.

He decided to wait. For now, there was just not enough information for Kondalrao to act.


Turn on the radio

INFORMATION was also on NA Shah Ansari’s mind that Thursday (October 10) morning. As president of the community station ‘Radio Namaskar’ that operated out of Konark, he had to decide just how much of his station’s broadcasts to dedicate to the cyclone.

As early as the morning of October 8, Sarat Sahu and his team had publicly announced that a depression over the Andaman Sea, then located about 1,450 kilometers southeast of Paradip, was building into a major cyclone and that landfall would be along the Odisha coast. Ansari’s was among the few news outlets that picked up that early story and relayed it.

News of impending storms was critical to his core audience — the fishermen and their families who lived along the coast around Konark. Working far out at sea where cellphone coverage is non-existent, fishermen tended to rely on FM broadcasts as their primary source of information.

The IMD had not provided any information other than that a cyclone was on its way and that fishermen should return home from the seas within 48 hours, recalled Ansari, a portly man whose kurta masked a slight paunch, and whose deep-set eyes gave him the air of someone always in deep thought.

The warning seemed routine. Tropical storms over the Bay of Bengal are such a regular feature that the locals refer to October and November as “cyclone season.” There was nothing — yet — to set this latest warning apart from the many other routine warnings that are a part of the season, so Ansari’s staff settled for interrupting its regular programming every few hours with the latest weather advisory.

“We started informing the fishermen that a storm was coming and that from the 10th onwards they shouldn’t go into the sea, because basically they go into the interior parts of the sea and stay there for one or two nights,” Ansari told me. “They just needed to be aware of that.”

The story however had blown up in the national media, which framed the narrative against the memories of the 1999 super cyclone, with the impending Dussehra festivities as backdrop. As words like “Phailin” and “devastation” splashed across the screens of national news channels, listeners began frantically calling Radio Namaskar for more detail on how it would affect their community.

To Ansari — who, as head of a community radio station, was by definition an area activist — the sheer volume of calls was a clear indicator of Radio Namaskar’s role. “The mainstream media was talking about the cyclone, but wasn’t providing clear, up-to-date reports,” Ansari said, as he recalled the thinking behind the decision to launch round-the-clock coverage though the cyclone was still more than 48 hours away from landfall.

“The situation was so dangerous that every hour we were getting hundreds of phone calls from listeners about what was happening. That’s why we thought, why not start a live broadcast and give people free information, so that people can listen to the radio and preserve the batteries on their cellphones.”

‘Get out of its path’

BY noon October 10, two conflicting mindsets pervaded — and divided — the region.

Hordes of government officials, mandated to ensure zero casualties and threatened with prosecution if they failed, had stepped up effort to get the message out that Cyclone Phailin was a real and present danger, and that evacuation, at the very latest by the morning of the 12th, was compulsory.

Their efforts acquired an added urgency because of Sarat Sahu, whose team at the Bhubaneswar Meteorological Center had begun tracking the cyclone’s progress every hour. Phailin was by then just 950 kilometers away and had grown to roughly the size of France; the prognostication was that it would make landfall on Saturday evening/night, with windspeed around 185 kmph. Sahu had been ordered to report directly to the IMD’s main office in New Delhi — the storm had by then assumed national meteorological importance.

In their efforts to spread the message, officials were aided by the likes of Ansari, whose radio station was providing continuous updates, and by a national media that had by then jumped on the story with both feet. All India Radio had also begun broadcasting special bulletins featuring no less than Special Relief Commissioner Mohapatra himself.

“Don’t take chances with your life, because the cyclone’s path cannot be changed,” Mohapatra announced repeatedly, in Odiya. “Everybody needs to get out of its path and into a safe place.”

None of this was news to the intended recipients of the message. The 1999 super cyclone had caught the coastal residents of Odisha largely by surprise because back then, none of them had televisions and very few had landline telephones, let alone mobiles. Now, however, in a testament to how well connected India was becoming, it was almost impossible to not know about the cyclone. Even if you hadn’t heard the news on radio or television, someone else had — and would have alerted you by word of mouth, or on mobile.

It was not therefore information that the locals – specifically in the southern parts of Odisha, which were relatively spared in 1999 but would be hit first by Phailin – lacked this time, but the impetus to make the decision to move. They heard the warnings, but then they looked out at the calm seas fringing their homes and decided there was no visible urgency, no real reason, to uproot themselves leaving their homes and belongings behind.

“I needed to change the mindset of the people,” Debasis Rath said.

Tall and well dressed, with rimless glasses and an incongruous paan-stained smile, Rath is a Puri-based social worker of some 20 years standing. An easy, articulate communicator, Rath had first heard the news online, realized it would hit his city hard, and recognized the danger.

Experience had taught him that the people of Puri, particularly those who lived in the slums and made up almost 60 per cent of the city’s population, had the ingrained notion that their Lord Jagannath would protect them from calamity. This attitude had fostered nonchalance towards impending disasters.

Rath knew that in reality, Puri’s 49 slums were exceptionally vulnerable. They had only grown larger since the 1999 super cyclone; today, they were crammed with flimsy dwellings, a section of them below sea level, and no proper drainage. Rath’s own home, behind the city’s railway yards, was about 10 feet below sea level, so he and his family were sure to be impacted in the event of a storm surge.

“I realized there would be problems because of Phailin,” Rath recalled.

That realization had also sunk into official circles. By noon, the IMD had updated its forecast and predicted that Phailin would make landfall near Gopalpur, which meant that Ganjam district would be the worst hit district of all.

The local administration of Ganjam got busy creating a ‘micro-plan’ for the evacuation. A list of all villages within five kilometers of the coast — and therefore under serious threat from Phailin — was prepared; 1,060 school buildings capable of housing as many as 500,000 evacuees were identified.

“We had to work in overdrive to create and execute the micro-plan,” said Ganjam District Collector Krishnan Kumar. “Which school building to house the people of which village, who the officer in charge at each location would be, how much food was already stocked and how much more needed, how the people would be evacuated… we had to get our plans worked out.”

The challenge for Kumar and his officials was to ensure that each school was stocked with sufficient food, fuel, medical supplies and money. Before the evacuation could kick in, the administration needed to procure and distribute rice and other essential items. Bureaucracy was forgotten, as was the red tape that is a corollary to all governmental functioning: the official order was to do whatever necessary.

Special Relief Commissioner Mohapatra had already authorized District Collector Kumar to spend what he needed to, and to act freely and at his own discretion without having to file reports and wait for official permission. “So I passed legal orders that my officers could commandeer any vehicles they needed, open up any ration or grocery shop and take whatever materials were required,” Krishnan recalls.

“Just give them a receipt and we will pay them later,” he ordered his staff.

It never hurt to take precautions

AS Krishnan Kumar and his team of officials got down to micro-planning, a group of officials arrived in Paika Nagar Bhasti in Bhubaneswar, with the message to its 700 inhabitants that they had to evacuate by the morning of Saturday, October 12. By way of incentive, they announced that free meals would be served at the shelters.

Prakash Chandraparida had already heard of Phailin on TV. A very fit young man with the beginnings of a beard, he was nicknamed ‘hero’ for his good looks.  As one born and raised in Paika Nagar, he was surprised by the effort the officials were making to get them evacuated. As a general rule, the slum was neglected despite being just ten minutes away from important buildings like the airport and the United Nations Development Program office.

No one had come to help in 1999, when the residents had huddled in their own homes in the face of a nightmare storm. Four feet of water had flooded the slum for days, making a bad situation worse; the local municipality had dredged the drains and cleared the water only after the active intervention of an NGO named Sakar.

Prakash was just a kid then, but he still remembered the pervasive fear of death that plagued the community. He recalled, too, how the force of the storm had blown down all the coconut trees in the neighboring compound — which was kind of a good thing for the then seven-year-old, because he and his friends could gather all the coconuts they wanted without fear of punishment.

Now he, along with the rest of the inhabitants, watched the government officials go door to door with their dire warnings. A feeling of dread gripped Paika Nagar. Most of its residents earned daily wages as laborers and vendors of chai, paan and gupchups — “small businessmen”, Prakash, a recent business graduate, called them — and were in no position to absorb any damage/loss to their homes.

The locals would evacuate, he knew, because “our lives are important to us.” But that was not until Saturday; for now Prakash had no work to do, and the weather was beautiful. He spent the rest of the day outdoors, with friends.

The weather wasn’t as nice in Gopalpur, a fading resort town in Ganjam district. It was raining there, but it wasn’t coming down particularly hard. Local fisherman B Jagannath stroked his thick, whiskery mustache, gazed out at the calm sea and wondered what all the fuss was about. He had just returned from a fishing trip earlier that morning and pulled in his boat and nets; the rain was soft and crisp and refreshing and Jagannath had seen nothing to alarm him.

He had heard the news that the cyclone was due to hit Gopalpur first — but he was now 32 and in his memory, no cyclone that had made landfall in Gopalpur had proved particularly bad.

It never hurt to take precautions, however, so Jagannath moved his boat into a canal that wrapped behind the town, where most of the area’s fishermen sheltered their boats during storms. The canal was flanked by a dense, verdant strip of palm trees that would form natural cover for the boats, protecting them from the wind and heavy waves. He wouldn’t be able to see his boat from his house, and would have to walk over to the canal if he wanted to check up on it during the storm, but it was still the safest place for it.

He wasn’t enthusiastic about evacuating, however. He lived with his wife and young son in a rented house with a thatched roof — just the sort of home official warnings said was most at risk. He was worried about the safety of his family, but didn’t quite see how abandoning his boat and home and moving into a cramped school building would make them any better off. The area school, he knew, could hold a few hundred people at best, and there were over 6,000 people in Gopalpur.

He decided to wait and watch. If it got really bad, he decided, he would take his wife and son to the home of his parents, who lived close by in a much larger home.

There was only one problem: He’d had a big fight with his parents, at the end of which he moved out of their home — and he hadn’t spoken with them since.

‘Wait till Dussehra’

FAMILY was also in the thoughts of Sunita Behera of Berhampur, the largest town in Ganjam.

When the officials arrived there to spread their warning, Sunita had already left with her husband and two kids for her in-laws’ home in the nearby village of Konitheega.

The trip was an annual ritual, timed for the festival of the local goddess Budi Thakurani, which they never missed. For three days around Dussehra time, the village brings the goddess out of the temple to worship her — but like most village festivals, it was also a carnival, a big market, a chance to catch up with the family.

Although her husband made only a modest income as a barber, this year had been particularly good to them. They had moved into a new home, their children were attending an English medium school, and they had managed to save some money. This good fortune they attributed to their daughter Anita, a sweet-faced 10-year-old they believed was their personal Lakshmi.

Almost as soon as they reached Konitheega, Anita confronted her mother over the new clothes that had been bought for the festival. Anita had indulged in her favorite color — pink shirt, pink bangles and a new pair of silver pattis — and she was impatient to try them on.

“Just for a little while,” she cajoled her mother. “Wait till Dussehra,” Sunita told her importunate daughter, though she secretly wanted to see Anita, with the curly hair and big eyes she had inherited from her father, in the new clothes.

Even as Anita threw a childish fit, Sunita was attending a call from her sister Geetha, who lived only a few minutes away from them in Berhampur. “They are really making a big deal about the cyclone,” Geetha reported. “Someone came to our home and collected names; they said it was for getting rice afterwards. Shall I give them your name too?”

“No, it’s okay,” Sunita told her sister. “We can deal with whatever it is after we get back.” The cyclone was far from her thoughts just then — Sunita was more intent on pacifying her daughter. She was not aware, then, of just how much the cyclone would affect their lives.

The sum of all fears

BACK in Penthakata, however, Jagalmani was beginning to get very worried indeed. Her uncle Kondalrao and the other area fishermen kept insisting Penthakata would be fine, and pointing out that the sea remained calm. They dismissed the warnings of government officials as so much hype by city dwellers who did not know what they were talking about.

The fishermen knew best, Jagalmani thought — but then, she had never seen this kind of alarm raised over a storm before. Government officials were blasting their message out over loudspeakers; the TV channels were playing cyclone footage on loop, and the radio was now talking of nothing else.

“The way the police spoke about it and seeing how TV9 was broadcasting, it was hard to believe the cyclone would be a normal one,” Jagalmani recalled.

Kondalrao tried to assuage her fears. If it really got bad, he told his niece, she should take her mother, grandparents and cousins to the shelter while he stayed behind to look after the boat and net and make sure nobody robbed their homes.

Her uncle had been at the epicenter of two major storms, Jagalmani reminded herself as she tried to stifle her unease at the prospect of Kondalrao facing the storm alone; he knew what he was doing.

“The police kept warning us about our lives,” Kondalrao told me. “But we were more scared for our livelihoods.” He and his fellow fishermen, he said, had used their wits and knowledge of the sea to save themselves and their boats when the 1999 cyclone had struck Paradip, and he didn’t think this was going to be any different.

“The collector had wanted us to leave, but we put our boats in the market building first. Then we went into town and took a room in a lodge. None of the Telugu fishermen died in Paradip; it was only the Oriya people, who remained in their mud homes, who lost their lives.”

Memories or nightmares?

KONDALRAO had no dire memories but even today, Paradip and the surrounding villages are a repository of sad tales and memories that resemble nightmares.

Nearly every home in Padmapur, a small seaside village some 30 kilometers from Paradip, had lost at least one family member in the 1999 cyclone. Most of the residents here made a living not off the sea, but in agriculture. Their endless expanses of lush paddy, fringed by neem, bamboo and eucalyptus, seemed almost too idyllic to be associated with tragedy, except for one very visual reminder: dozens of schools raised up on stilts, meant to double as shelters in case of future storms and floods. Stop any passing villager and he will recall on cue the unexpected surge from the sea, the floating bodies, the mounting panic as they realized there was no place to hide.

Keerthwas Das, an agricultural laborer, had lost his 9-year-old daughter in 1999, when the storm surge swept her from the street even as the family was scrambling for cover. When Red Cross volunteers came to Padmapur on the evening of October 10 to warn of Phailin and ask the residents to seek shelter in one of those schools-on-stilts, Das said, his wife burst into tears.

“We remembered our daughter,” Das said. “We couldn’t save her then, and we were scared at the prospect of facing another cyclone.”

He had reason to worry. As evening morphed into night, Sarat Sahu’s team at the meteorological department had revised its forecast for Cyclone Phailin upwards: it would hit with wind speeds of 190 to 200 kmph, with the possibility of a stronger storm surge.

TV channels, meanwhile, were quoting the US Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center’s prediction that the cyclone would be even worse than IMD was projecting; it was a Category 4 storm, the US centre declared, which would make landfall with wind speeds in excess of 250 kmph.

The varying predictions didn’t really matter, Special Relief Commissioner Mohapatra told me. “After a storm reaches 200 kmph, it makes no difference what the precise wind speed is because it will be devastating no matter what. We had to prepare for the worst — that was our mission.”

By then, he had every government department working round the clock. The health department was busy packing and shipping medicines and other supplies to the hospitals and clinics in the district; the food department was accumulating and deploying grains to the various shelters. BSNL workers were occupied in filling generators, by now located adjacent each cell phone tower, with diesel so the cell phone network would continue to function after the power went out.

And the Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force was engaged in checking their chainsaws, making sure they had spare chains.

An ominous calm

THE morning of Friday, October 11 dawned with sunshine and clear skies. But there was no light in the homes — as a precautionary measure, the government had cut power lines in those districts that were expected to be hit. Those who did not own inverters or generators — that is, the vast majority of the residents — could no longer get updates from TV, nor charge their cell phones.

The evacuation effort had by then kicked into high gear. As per plan, an army of village-level officials, police officers and community volunteers descended on the villages and towns earmarked for evacuation, directing people towards their designated shelter either on foot or in the vehicles that had been provisioned.

This ground army of officials reported to an administrator, usually at the block-level, who was responsible for a given shelter. The block-level officials updated the district administration on the evacuation’s progress, sending real time figures of how many people had reached their shelters. The district administration relayed area-wide updates to state officials like Special Relief Commissioner Mohapatra and Dr Taradatt, MD of the ODSMA. It was a calibrated web of constant interaction, designed to ensure that nobody was missed and that any problems were resolved immediately.

In Paika Nagar, Prakash began collecting the things his family could need in the days during, and after, the storm. He knew from experience to be mindful of small details. He bought matches, biscuits, dry fruits and candles; the family packed clothes, money and important documents like bank passbooks and ration cards.

Prakash made sure to include the diploma from Rajdhani College, his alma mater that had now, ironically, become his designated shelter. And just before they left their home, Prakash and his family members stuffed themselves with all the perishable food left in their house, so nothing would go to waste.

The evacuation was proceeding without a hitch in Paradip and the rest of Jagatsingpur district. Keerthwas Das and his family moved into Padmapur’s cyclone shelter Friday evening, and found it already packed. Everyone who lived in a mud home had packed up and moved into the shelter.

Because the cyclone was going to affect Ganjam, the government had directed additional resources there, and to the southern parts of Puri. It meant that people residing in Padmapur’s shelter had little to eat but plain rice, but it didn’t really matter — everyone had brought their own food.

In Puri’s slums, though, activist Debasis Rath was dismayed to find the same level of preparedness missing. He had spent most of the day checking on evacuation efforts in the city’s slums, including Baliapanda, home to mostly migrant laborers who service the tourism industry. He saw that most of the slum’s 12,000 inhabitants were still in their homes, and showed no sign of leaving anytime soon.

“People kept telling me they would be fine,” Debasis recalled. “Two or three government vehicles were still there, but I did not see any eagerness to evacuate the slums, either from the administration or the dwellers.”

State authorities shared his concern. Officials monitoring the evacuation from the Emergency Operations Center in Bhubaneswar – a control room set up to monitor evacuation and relief efforts in real time – received troubling reports that their field staff was struggling to draw communities out of their homes. On the ground, residents doubted whether an evacuation was necessary, whether the shelters would have sufficient capacity, and whether their property would be safe if they left it behind. This was particularly an issue in Ganjam.

Realizing that time was running out, the state government invoked a provision of the National Disaster Act that permitted authorities, in the event of imminent disaster, to evacuate communities by force.

Forced evacuation

THE term “forced evacuation” has an ominous ring to it, especially in context of the long history of state brutality against India’s poor. But to my surprise, the people I spoke with who had been evacuated by force did not mention violence — instead, they described the threat of beating and arrests, and a lot of the rough-tongued talk that Indian police seemed so good at dishing out.

“People were not beaten, but sometimes they were forcibly taken and put into the trucks,” said Kamal Lochan Mishra, the OSDMA official. “They’re not criminals, so it wasn’t a punishment! But if people did not go, we shouted ‘Chalo! Chalo! Either you or somebody will be given two to three shots.’”

In some areas, however, resentful community members clashed with officials. Such clashes were the reason the evacuation in Ganjam could not begin until 4 pm that day. In Gopalpur, where Phailin was now almost guaranteed to make landfall, Jagannath watched some of his fellow fishermen – the poorest of them, who lived in very small huts on the edge of town – revolt against the municipal chairman and police. They pointed to the unthreatening weather and the calm sea, and argued that the police had no idea what they were talking about and refused to listen to either blandishments or threats.

Jagannath liked the chairman, who he believed genuinely cared for the townspeople. But today, that official was not his usual affable self; he did not respond when the fishermen asked what would become of their boats. Many of them had already prepared for the cyclone, stocking food and water and so on — they just did not want to be far from their homes and their boats.

With the clock ticking, exasperated police officers began physically carrying a few people to the vans, all the while apologizing and telling them it was for their own good. But, Jagannath knew, there was no way police could evacuate the 5,000-plus residents in this fashion.

Even as this standoff continued and the evacuation ran behind schedule, the situation began to deteriorate in Ganjam and Puri. Cyclone Phailin was growing steadily in strength, and advance clouds had started lashing the coast with heavy rain. By early afternoon, the IMD had already upgraded its forecast and was predicting wind speeds of around 220 kmph when the cyclone made landfall.

The report from the US Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center was even more dire: Phailin, the center said, was now the equivalent of a Category 5 storm, the highest level of its classification system, and winds could be as fast at 270 kilometers per hour, bringing with them a catastrophic storm surge. Some forecasters were already likening it to Hurricane Katrina, another Category 5 storm that devastated the US Gulf coast in 2005 and killed 1,833 people.

The dichotomy between the IMD’s forecast and that of the US agencies had already become a preoccupation for TV newscasters and a talking point on social media. By then, the impending storm had also become an international media sensation, with global news outlets and relief organizations heaping criticism on the IMD for low-balling its forecasts. Many doubted if the evacuation efforts would succeed, and expressed skepticism about whether the Odisha government was doing enough.

“In India and Bangladesh, where so many live only a few meters above sea level, the sheer size of Phailin nearly guarantees that hundreds of thousands of homes will be inundated,” wrote meteorologist Eric Holthaus on the website Quartz. “A storm surge of 1 to 3 meters could extend for hundreds of kilometers northeast of where the storm makes landfall. In short, Phailin is a humanitarian disaster in the making.”

Officials on the ground, already struggling to cope with an evacuation going slower than planned, began feeling the additional pressure of media criticism. Director General of Meteorology Dr Laxman Singh Rathore of the IMD began holding periodic press conferences to provide status updates — and to respond to critical reporters demanding to know why the IMD was “lowering” its forecasts despite much higher projections by US agencies.

“Meteorology is such a thing that you cannot be final all the time,” said Sarat Sahu, the director of the Bhubaneswar Meteorological Center, when I asked why the IMD had stuck to its forecasts despite the chatter. “We constantly modified our predictions based on the data, but we also had some ideas based on past experience.”

A deluge of information

AT the Radio Namaste office in Konark, Ansari was monitoring the Phailin buzz on Twitter and Facebook and broadcasting translated summaries of relevant bits.

Although not everything on social media was accurate, it was exactly the kind of abundant, real-time information that was so hard to come by during the 1999 super cyclone. Most of the community radio’s audience did not have social media accounts or Internet access even on normal days; now, they also did not have power, so radio was their only source of information.

The station fielded hundreds of calls from listeners, answering their questions and relaying some of their reports on air. Ansari realized his reports were becoming an important source of information not only for his regular audience but also for local authorities, who kept calling him for updates on the weather, and even on the evacuation’s progress. The station’s round-the-clock bulletins also included tips on what to gather before the storm – drinking water, kerosene, dry fruit, and valuable documents – and encouraged listeners living in kutcha homes to move into the nearest concrete building.

“Shelters were not sufficient,” Ansari said. “So we were advising people to go to their relatives’ places. It was quite pointless to tell them to go to the shelters, because they won’t go.”

At the local administration’s request, Young India, the NGO that runs Radio Namaskar, sent around 100 volunteers to help with the evacuation. Without help from such community volunteers, evacuating one million mostly unwilling people would have been all but impossible for the government. The volunteers organized buses and trucks, and went directly to the communities. “Because fishermen generally don’t believe the government, na?” Ansari quipped.

Some of the field reports from the volunteers disturbed Ansari: some coastal villages had not been informed and were not being evacuated because village governments did not have the manpower to reach everyone. Although government officials refuted this claim, to Ansari it seemed as if the state government was giving its local branches inadequate support for such an enormous task. Radio Namaskar kept reporting, and urging communities to evacuate.

What this incessant flood of information accomplished is different matter entirely. Many of the people I spoke with in coastal communities, like the fisherman Kondalrao from Penthakata, admitted that although they heard the repeated warnings about Phailin and prepared for it in small ways, for instance by stockpiling rice and candles, they did not intend to actually leave their homes.

This mentality seems to be more a function of human nature than of economic circumstance or access to information. Even in advanced countries like the United States, local and state governments struggle to convince people to clear the coasts before a big storm, and rarely succeed in evacuating even half of the population from a vulnerable area.

“Too many people living in the most dangerous locations underestimate their vulnerability,” said Jay Baker, a professor at Florida State University, who has studied how people respond to evacuations. Instead of sending representatives door-to-door, authorities in the United States broadcast evacuation orders using local media announcements and automated calls, which Baker said were ineffective in getting people out of their homes.

“Frankly, people willingly evacuate only when they have suffered in a bad hurricane or cyclone before,” he added, “but there will never be a time when the majority of people have had that experience.”

‘Connectivity is the real power’

IN Penthakata, Jagalmani was getting panicked calls from relatives in Andhra Pradesh. Get out of there, they pleaded, before it is too late.

Cell phones were ringing all over Penthakata that Friday, and by nightfall most people were scared. The rain was driving down hard by then, and the entire city of Puri had plunged into darkness because of the power cut.

Kondalrao looked out to sea, and noticed something peculiar: the waves had changed shape, crisscrossing each other instead of reaching the shore in straight, parallel rows. The veteran of two cyclones knew this was the sea’s way of warning about a big storm.

He was not the only one to notice the change. The slum’s Telugu-speaking leaders, whose word was highly respected by all of Penthakata, much more so than that of the Odiya government, beseeched the community to evacuate. Kondalrao realized that the police had been right all along: the worst was yet to come, and when it came it would be very bad.

The good part was that people were still in touch, they were communicating, sharing information. The cell phone has become such a quotidian instrument that even defining its significance is a challenge. But the Phailin evacuation showcased how valuable connectivity had become in preventing repeats of past disasters.

The government’s evacuation plan relied on an elaborate hierarchy of calls, text messages and faxes to not only deliver instructions from the top ranks to the ground-level, and for those on the ground to communicate back up the chain. Family members far inland kept in touch with their kin in the coastal areas, and in their own way exerted pressure on them to evacuate. And Ansari culled valuable field reports from direct calls from his listeners, and rebroadcast them.

“We’re seeing that connectivity is the real power,” said Hemant Purohit, a crisis informatics and coordination researcher who worked on a CrisisMap for relief efforts after Phailin. “It’s a very macro-level phenomenon. You can think about how evacuating a million people was possible. But in order to execute that, mobile technology played a big time role.”

By the end of Friday October 11,  authorities in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh had managed to evacuate about 260,000 people from 18,000 villages. Phailin was less than 24 hours away — and they had to find a way to evacuate about 800,000 more.