Posted by: John Elliott | October 14, 2013

Odisha’s cyclone shows India can handle disasters but longer-term action is needed

When a massive cyclone hit the eastern Indian state of Odisha (Orissa) at the end of October 1999, at least four district officials abandoned their posts in panic or rushed to their homes, and the chief secretary flew on a private visit to the US a few days later. Some 10,000 people were killed as a result of inefficient administration and a lack of preparation, together with inaccurate weather forecasts and a chief minister who was reportedly told by his astrologers that the cyclone would not be serious. That was typical of the lack of responsibility and preparedness, plus trust in the stars and a belief that everything will work out ok, which accounts for many of India’s dreadful disasters.

Villagers returning home - PTI photo

Villagers returning home – PTI photo

As a result of lessons learned in 1999, Odisha successfully protected human life from a serious cyclone that crossed the Bay of Bengal and hit the coast on Saturday night at more than 200kms an hour.

Some 950,000 people were evacuated from the area in the previous few days, and fewer than 25 people are believed to have been killed, even though fishing villages, homes, ports, and farming areas were devastated.

National and state level disaster management and other services worked well, and the country’s meteorological department accurately predicted Cyclone Phailin’s strength and focus area, dismissing criticisms from American experts who alleged that the storm could have been as serious as New Orleans’ Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Odisha is generally known for being sleepy and ineffectual, but it has shown what can be achieved when someone takes charge with determination to succeed and forces officials and state politicians to carry out their duties. This runs counter to India’s record of badly handled natural disasters – seen most recently in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand where environmental degradation and an indifferent state government led in June to more than 6,000 deaths after devastating floods. In another disaster yesterday, more than 120 pilgrims were killed during a stampede in Madhya Pradesh at a river where 50 people were killed during the same religious festivities in 2006.

Odisha’s evacuation plans were drawn up in time and infrastructure that was missing in 1999 such as cyclone shelters, satellite telephones and trained rescue staff had been prepared. This was backed up by effective national disaster management arrangements and modern weather forecasting and monitoring technology.

Naveen Patnaik Oct 13 '13Naveen Patnaik, Odisha’s chief minister (right) who presided over the activity, was elected a few months after the 1999 disaster by a state that wanted change. He had been a dilettante international socialite and author (mixing abroad with people such as Mick Jagger and Jacqueline Onassis, who had been his editor at Doubleday, his publishers) until he fell unexpectedly into politics a few years earlier. That  followed the death of his father, who had also been chief minister.

He now lives a semi-reclusive lifestyle in Odisha, relying on a few close advisers and cronies, and has managed to retain a “clean” image despite the state’s widespread corrupt and illegal mining.

Not enough has been done however to protect the coasts of Odisha and the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh that was also hit by Phailin – and there is now a risk of widespread floods. A report on the Wall Street Journal’s blog site suggests that they have failed effectively to implement a Rs14.9bn (about $240m) five-year cyclone disaster management programme that was set up in 2009 after a massive tsunami killed more than 15,000 people on India’s east coast in 2004. Recent government reports (see the project’s website) suggest that the programme is far behind schedule, especially in Andhra Pradesh where the government has been wracked by political crises over deep-rooted corruption and plans to split the state in two.

Patnaik now needs to ensure that his state-level politicians and officials continue to work effectively and honestly on relief, rehabilitation and stronger coastal defences. If he succeeds, he could be re-elected for a record-breaking fourth term in state assembly elections due next year. This will test his ability as a political manager because the usual reaction in India after such a success is to relax and let life takes its course. Moving nearly a million people in a few days was a massive task, but maintaining focus, and ensuring continuity of efficient and clean government, will be much more difficult over the longer term.

before the storm - AP photo

before the storm – AP photo


  1. India still has a long way to go. It is incorrect to compare our National Disaster Management Authority to FEMA. While they are gloating on the success of disaster management during cyclone Phailin, I find little to believe they did anything at all. They now have an articulate spokesperson who will address the camera. That to me is not strategic planning or feet on the ground execution. There were many agencies that contributed to the success of disaster mitigation, but it embarrasses me to no end to not find a Central Command for such disaster management.

    Also to compare FEMA’s incompetence during Katrina and NDMA’s success during Phailin is absurd. The reasons for loss of life during Katrina is completely different from the lesser impact of Phailin. Indian media did not appear to have picked that difference at all.

    Thanks to Stephen Cohen for his work. I was a bewildered schoolboy in Andhra Pradesh during the cyclone of 1977. It was my first exposure to the devastation that a cyclone could cause.

    There was no TV, twitter, facebook to tell us what happened. There was newspaper and radio. We were fortunate to have a few first eye-witness Jesuit priests who traveled wide bringing relief and spreading the word around in schools. I am amazed that that cyclone should be referenced here!

    Some of my thoughts on NDMA expressed here: and

  2. John: I did a book in 1977 on the cyclone in Andhra that year, the state began to reform its cyclone mitigation/prediction policy, the subsequent storm had little damage. Technology now makes mass deaths unnecessary, as warning and evacuation technologies are available,e when the are absent it is sheer politics; on that count the Indian record is not worse than that of the US, where we dismantled FEMA and the LA administration was incompetent. The book is out of print, but still relevant.

    Stephen P. Cohen, Senior Fellow Brookings Institution 1775 Massachusetts Ave. NW Washington DC 20036 202 797-6015 Mobile: 202 270-1242

    on “Walk the Talk,” discussing the book and other things,

    see the US launch of “Shooting for a Century” ________________________________

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