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E A S Sarma: Constructive lessons from a destructive cyclone

The damage caused by Cyclone Hudhud in Visakhapatnam underlines the need for the government to follow some basic disaster management and environmental rules

E A S Sarma 

E A S Sarma

Hudhud, a severe cyclonic storm, originating in the Andaman Sea around October 6, crossed the coastline near Visakhapatnam at 11:30 a m on October 12, spewing venom and ferocity unknown in these parts for at least a century.

Hudhud's first spell, which preceded the landfall, lasted six to seven hours. It wreaked destruction, uprooting huge trees and breaking whatever that was fragile in its way. The eye of the cyclone, when it hovered over the city for about three hours, brought in a deceptive but eerie sense of relief, followed this time by the more ferocious, highly destructive second spell that levelled everything that the first spell had missed. After the cyclone, Visakhapatnam bore no resemblance to what it used to be, with its lush green cover. But, its impact was more drastic on the lives of the poor, the slum dwellers and fishing villages along the coast.

There are many lessons to be learnt from Hudhud.

Mangroves and casuarina plantations along the coast and the thick tree cover on the hills used to protect the city in the past from the vagaries of cyclones. Indiscriminate denudation, in defiance of environmental laws in force and the Visakhapatnam Urban Development Authority's mandatory Master Plan, have rendered the city vulnerable to high-velocity cyclones.

The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) requirements are indispensable for protecting the coastal and marine environment of Visakhapatnam. For example, CRZ prohibits mechanical pumping of water through borewells within 500 metres from the high tide line since it will cause saline sea water to contaminate the ground water aquifers. This rule is wantonly breached. When Hudhud disrupted municipal water supplies, potable ground water, had it been available, would have provided relief.

Conserving mangroves, raising casuarina and other durable species of plantations along the coastline and regulating quarrying over the hills should, therefore, form part of the city's future plans. The laws to protect the environment need to be respected rather than held in contempt.

Following the killer Diviseema cyclone and tidal wave of 1977 in Andhra Pradesh, 146 cyclone shelters were constructed along the Visakhapatnam coast. These shelters need to be maintained in a state of readiness. However, few of them came in handy for providing relief to the people. For a government that makes huge investments on statues and decorative arches, to invest in the upkeep of these cyclone shelters should not be difficult.

Post-1977, the state had set up a Coastal Zone Management Authority with its counterpart institutions in each coastal district. These institutions have become defunct. They need to be revived and adequately equipped and empowered. The same is the case with the state and district disaster management authorities.

Cyclones seem to attract VIPs like lights attract insects. Each VIP puts pressure on the already strained local resources such as food, water, milk, vehicles, fuel and so on. When one VIP arrived soon after the cyclone this time, a truck carrying food packets for the victims had to be stopped for several hours for security reasons, causing the food to rot. A taxi booked by a patient was requisitioned for a VIP. One important lesson that our VIPs should learn is to stay at their respective places of work and provide help to the local institutions to deliver.

Hudhud gave the state government more than a week to plan. Knowing that the city's municipality, its police force and the local urban development authority were headless, the government could have quickly responded and posted able officials to give them direction. In times of emergency, nothing can substitute well-managed institutions that can respond on their own.

No government can ever match the spontaneous effort that could come from local communities. Andhra Pradesh has a law providing for area sabhas/ward committees in towns, but the law has remained on paper. Similarly, gram sabhas in villages can play a crucial role in facing calamities. If fallen trees could be cleared along many lanes in the city within five days after the cyclone, the credit should go to self-help groups and some NGOs. The government should, therefore, involve civil society as a part of any disaster management effort in the future.

Lastly, the city's airport was a sad spectacle and so were the petrol stations and many other structures. The design and the architecture of all large buildings should provide for aerodynamic stability at high velocity winds. The material used should be corrosion-free in view of the salinity that pervades any coastal environment.

The writer is a former Union power secretary

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First Published: Mon, October 20 2014. 21:46 IST