On October 12, 2013 Cyclone Phailin lashed Odisha with winds that clocked up to 260 kilometers per hour. But this is not that story. This is the story of the evacuation of a record 984,000 people across 18,000 villages in Odisha to coastal shelters in the face of clear and present danger. The story of an operation on a scale unprecedented in modern times, and one impressive by any standards worldwide. The story of those who remembered a nightmare past and were determined not to repeat it. The story of those who lived it and lived to tell the tale


Zero casualties

A girl runs for shelter in Srikakulam district of AP. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi 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.

Satellite image of Cyclone Phailin/ REUTERS

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.

Phailin's advance as of October 10/ REUTERS

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.

A big wave smashes into a breakwater at a fishing harbour in Jalaripeta in the Visakhapatnam district in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh October 11, 2013. Tens of thousands fled their ... more 
A big wave smashes into a breakwater at a fishing harbour in Jalaripeta in the Visakhapatnam district in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh October 11, 2013. Tens of thousands fled their homes in coastal areas of eastern India and moved to shelters on Friday, bracing for the fiercest cyclone to threaten the country since a devastating storm killed 10,000 people 14 years ago. less 
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Reuters | Photo by REUTERS/Stringer
Sat 12 Oct, 2013 10:30 PM IST

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.


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Vivekananda Nemana is a journalist from New York. He has written for the New York Times, the Nation and the Village Voice. He is working on a book about how adivasi youth are finding new identities amid two decades of Maoist insurgency and liberalization. Find him on Twitter or his blog, Brown White and Blue.