Cyclone Fani: How India saved more than a million lives and averted a disaster of epic proportions

Cyclone Fani: How India saved more than a million lives and averted a disaster of epic proportions

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When a natural calamity of epic proportions strikes, humans are mostly rendered helpless. However, proper use of technology may help us prepare for the worst and minimize loss of precious lives. This was evident in the way India managed early warning and disaster relief operations and rescued more than a million people from impending disaster. Extremely Severe Cyclonic Storm Fani was the strongest tropical cyclone to strike the Indian state of Odisha since Phailin in 2013. Fani originated from a tropical depression that formed west of Sumatra in the Indian Ocean on 26th April, 2019. The Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC) monitored a tropical disturbance that formed in the North Indian Ocean, and designated it with the identifier 01B. Fani slowly drifted westward, finding itself in an area conducive for strengthening. The system intensified and two days after being named, it became Cyclone Fani.

Simulated depiction of cyclonic winds, Fani
Simulated depiction of cyclonic winds, Fani

Fani moved northward and began to rapidly intensify. It became an extremely severe cyclonic storm on 30 April 2019, the first severe cyclonic storm of the season. Fani reached its peak intensity on 2nd May, as a high-end extremely severe cyclonic storm, and the equivalent of a high-end Category 4 major hurricane. Fani continued to maintain its strength up until landfall in the Indian state of Odisha on 3rd May when the coastal state witnessed torrential rain and wind-speeds reaching 200 kmph. Trees were uprooted, huts and temporary shelters blown away, vehicles over-turned, cranes toppled and buildings damaged. As people sought safety inside their homes, doors and windows were no match for Fani’s might. Power-supply was cut off and transportation services were grounded. At least 14 people were reported killed and several others injured. Considering the power of the super typhoon, the number of casualties was miraculously low.

Trees uprooted by cyclone Fani, Odisha
Trees uprooted by cyclone Fani, Odisha

So, how did India manage to keep casualties at a minimum? What was different from the India of 20 years ago when it experienced a similar super-cyclone which ripped through the state of Odisha and left 10,000 people dead in its wake? The answer lay in early satellite-based meteorological forecast and warning, preemptive evacuation and speedy supply of relief materials to the affected areas. Prior to its landfall, authorities in India had moved at least a million people from Fani’s projected path onto higher ground and into cyclone shelters, which is thought to have reduced the resultant death toll. The Central Government released preemptive aid to the tune of 1000 crore rupees for the coastal states and naval ships and reconnaissance aircraft were used to monitor and patrol the coastline.

Fani topples a crane
Fani topples a crane

Approximately 1.2 million people were shifted across 13 districts to the safety of 5000 cyclone shelters within a span of 24 to 36 hours. This was a tremendous achievement and required meticulous planning and herculean effort by both the state and central governments. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and several other agencies were pressed into action and an operation ensued which involved 45,000 volunteers and 2,000 emergency workers.

NDRF Team for Cyclone Fani, Odisha
NDRF Team for Cyclone Fani, Odisha

Some 3 million targeted text messages were sent asking people to get to their nearest shelters and warning messages were repeatedly circulated across television and radio. The reach was more personal, and magnified several times over. Public address systems on government vehicles and auto-rickshaws moved around, telling people that they need to move. There was elaborate planning and everybody worked as a team.

Relief aid for Cyclone Fani, IAF C130J Super Hercules
Relief aid for Cyclone Fani, IAF C130J Super Hercules

Technical teams were kept on standby to repair fallen poles, broken wires and telecom lines; to move debris and fallen trees quickly to restore road connectivity. Air connectivity was restored in 36 hours. Those stranded, were air-lifted and essential supplies were air-dropped by army helicopters. The United Nations praised India for its early warning systems and its well-coordinated efforts aimed at rapid evacuation and relief.

After wrecking havoc in Odisha, Fani’s convective structure rapidly degraded. The tropical storm passed through Kolkata as a cyclonic storm. On 4th May, Fani weakened to a depression, before degenerating into a well-marked low later that day and moved on to neighbouring Bangladesh. India’s well coordinated efforts saved the day for a million people and goes on to prove, yet again, that technology can be and should be used for the benefit and welfare of mankind.

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