While Cyclone Phailin, which hit the eastern coast of India over the weekend, was not as intense as the super cyclone of 1999 that killed many thousands, it was nevertheless the sort of extreme weather event that has hitherto come along maybe once in a decade. The 1999 cyclone hit Odisha with wind speeds of over 250 kilometres an hour; by the time it made landfall, Phailin recorded wind speeds of around 50 km/hr less. But it is true that fatalities could have been tragically high; instead, only around 14 deaths have been reported so far. Many more will no doubt be registered as relief work proceeds, but it is clear that the number of those killed will be vastly fewer than in the 1999 cyclone or even the one that hit West Bengal and Bangladesh in 1991.
For this, the government must be given a great deal of credit. The same state apparatus that appeared to be bumbling and bungling the Uttarakhand flash flood relief earlier this year has, given a minimal amount of time to prepare, organised an evacuation and demonstrated preparedness in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh that is quite admirable in terms of effectiveness and scale. Perhaps as many as 900,000 people - at least 700,000 - have been evacuated in those two states, from as many as 12 coastal districts. The Centre despatched 26 teams from the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) to Odisha, and 15 to Andhra Pradesh, with some kept on standby for later relief work. The Army organised several composite units to help; and the Air Force's fleet of transport aircraft was sent into Bhubaneswar ahead of the storm. The Navy arranged for several vessels to be on standby to ferry civilians from isolated villages - including the huge amphibious platform dock INS Jalashwa, formerly the USS Trenton, which was bought from the United States after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Both the Odisha and the Andhra Pradesh governments performed admirably in setting up district-level hubs for evacuation in the 24 hours before Phailin made landfall. Hundreds of relief camps were prepared to house evacuees at short notice. And last but not least, the oft-criticised India Meteorological Department was proved to be absolutely correct in predicting that Phailin would weaken before hitting the coast, while most global weather forecasters said the opposite.
Now, the various agencies of the Centre - the NDRF and the National Disaster Management Authority foremost among them - will have to co-operate with state governments in evaluating the impact of Phailin on coastal houses and livelihoods. Many plantations have been inundated and rendered unproductive; fishing fleets have been lost. A large proportion of the hundreds of thousands in relief camps will have no homes and incomes to which they can return. While the government can certainly reflect on a job well done so far, it cannot afford to sit back even for a moment. As Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said, rehabilitation will be a major challenge. Nor should New Delhi forget that extreme weather events like Phailin are likely to get more common if the earth is allowed to keep on warming - it must renew its commitment to a multilateral agreement to control climate change.