Disaster Preparedness: What works

A quiet and serene morning four weeks after cyclone Phailin. Puri, Odisha
A quiet and serene morning four weeks after cyclone Phailin. Puri, Odisha

As I travel out of the districts affected by cyclone Phailin and head back, folks at CFR’s Asia Unbound blog ask a similar question that we have been studying here in the region – why was Vietnam (and in our case the Indian state of Odisha) was better prepared for the natural disaster (typhoon and cyclone respectively) and what worked for them?

Interestingly, the lessons from Vietnam appear to be quite similar to what we have been saying about Odisha – that the governments in both these cases showed an unprecedented coordination and communication across all its departments. And more importantly that both these governments labelled the approaching typhoon and cyclone as the most serious possible emergency.

Preparedness in Odisha’s context took just about three days of work with only 24 hours available for the administration to make its arrangements before the cyclone made its landfall in Gopalpur. In these 72 hours, the district administrations of four most prone districts had managed to evacuate every single person out from the villages and transport them to cyclone shelters (special purpose buildings made after the Supercyclone of 1999) and to designated cyclone shelters (usually schools, colleges and any other larger permanent structure which could withstand the cyclone). Vietnam did exactly the same thing and evacuated over 800,000 people from the prone areas before the landfall.

The other thing that worked for both is Рlearning their lesson. Odisha lived a devastating cyclone in 1999 which has scarred the memories of several of its officials whom we spoke to. A block development officer recalled his horrendous experience of walking through dead bodies in one of the villages during that time and contrasted it with the cyclone last month where not a single life was lost. Previous experience seemed to have made the government officials at every level invest make a high personal investment in the response efforts. Vietnam too appears to have learnt its lesson from the 2004 tsunami and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, to have made adequate preparations for the typhoon.

In short, governments today cannot afford to ignore the meteorological warnings of natural disasters likely to occur or approaching their countries. If it doesn’t happen, all is good. If it does then the costs can be so high that the country might get pushed behind by years on its development track, as we now see happening to Philippines. So, a disaster plan (preparedness, relief, rehabilitation and mitigation) is not a ‘good to have’ thing anymore but a ‘must have’!

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