Sitting through what are perhaps the last few days of the rains this season in South India, Priya Ravichandran writes about Hurricane Sandy and Cyclone Nilam, and how we reacted to the both of them. 

Starting a few days before late October from when Hurricane Sandy was to hit the eastern coast of the United States, the state governments, specifically in New York and New Jersey had started preparing for the storm that was forecast to be the biggest ever to hit the north eastern seaboard. With a sharp forecast, the focus was on who needed to evacuate, who needed to stand by to evacuate, the shoring up of supplies, emergency drills, emergency routes in case of flooding, and preparations for all other possible worst case scenarios. Information on whom to approach, where to go and when to go were all detailed out over radio, news, state and local websites, social networks. Police, fire, medical personnel, and other emergency workers were kept on stand by and information kept flowing, updating people on the nature, the breadth and the impact of the storm. Weather channels went into overdrive with the mapping and explanation of how strong and serious Sandy was shaping up to be. Mayors and government officials held press conferences informing, warning and assuring people. The hurricane made a landfall on October 29th.

A day before Sandy hit land; an atmospheric depression started gaining strength in the Bay of Bengal, off the south eastern seaboard of India. The depression was officially declared as Cyclone Nilam on the 30th of October was to hit the eastern coast of India specifically the southern coastal states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Low-key warnings on the Indian Meteorological Department’s website, which then reached people through the announcements in the weather sections of regional TV news programmes. Much of the national media however, including most English news channels had heavy programming focusing on evacuation, emergency preparedness, the potential aftereffects and worst case scenarios… not for Cyclone Nilam, but for Hurricane Sandy. Yes. Hurricane Sandy.

Hurricane Sandy hit produced high winds up to 175 kilometres per hour (110 miles/hr) while Nilam hit the coast with winds just under 80 km/hr (50 miles/hr). The death toll for Sandy in the US alone is close to 130 and might increase. Nilam has so far taken close to 56 lives. Both numbers remain a conservative estimate, given that the delay of recovery is resulting in more fatalities.  The economic damage from Sandy is predicted to approximately $50 billion USD to $56 million USD for Nilam. Most generic comparisons of the impact of the two storms remains specious because of the differing scale of both weather events. Hurricane Sandy was dubbed as a “Frankenstorm”, and became the largest ever Atlantic hurricane in size in recorded history. Nilam, while no pushover, is the strongest cyclone to have hit the Indian coast since Cyclone Jal in 2010. 

The purpose here is to use this coincidence of large storms hitting the United States and India simultaneously – and learning what public officials and governments could have done in India and what we can learn from the preparations for Hurricane Sandy.

A lot of Sandy’s preparation learnt from what went wrong when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Several critical analyses of the havoc caused by Katrina were available and all the measures carried out where announced through every media outlet possible to ensure enough people got the message and got out or took precautions. As the NPR reported, the federal Disaster Management Agency had its paperwork in order and close to $3.6 billion ready for temporary housing even before Sandy hit.

In contrast, preparations for Nilam began quite late with a weak warning and very little information available to the public. Worse, between the IMD and state governments, the cyclone was not adequately tracked after it made landfall, where an it is possible that an assumption was made that the worst was over. Though the low pressure front weakened, heavy rains fell on Andhra Pradesh well after the cyclone made landfall – resulting in much greater loss of lives, crop damage and necessitated far wider evacuations of about 68,000 people, than what was expected earlier.

The eastern coast of India is no stranger to cyclones and some of the worst natural disasters in India have occurred near coastal AP and TN. A national workshop for developing strategy for cyclone mitigation met in 2003 and came up with a list of proposals to ensure minimizing the damage from cyclones. A budget of more than Rs.1490 Crores (~$300 million) was allotted then for cyclone damage mitigation,with very little to show for the money so far.

Basic measures like radio transistors, cyclone alarms, escape routes, flood drainage, reliable, cyclone resistant, cyclone shelters, warning systems at sea, sea walls and development of mangroves were all suggested but never carried through. The lack of planning showed.

In spite of cyclone structures being available and food being arranged, there was very little instruction on how to get to those places, or information on facilities within the structures. Given the estimated strength of the cyclone, very little precautionary measures were announced for residents. While the fisher folk were evacuated and other evacuation orders for people living in low lying settlements were given, no information on emergency procedures were issued for urban dwellers. There were also no additional measures taken for the differentially abled people.

There were very little, sometimes no updates from higher officials like the mayor on storm preparedness, absolutely no information on government websites state and local, very sparse coverage by English media and over the top, sensationalist coverage by regional media that took to comparing the cyclone to the 2004 tsunami. This was in direct contrast to the regular updates by NY mayor Bloomberg who was always accompanied by a sign language translator, giving to the point updates and helping reassure the people.

A lot of damage could have been prevented had there been fairly basic preparation both on the eve of the cyclone, and in general. Unclogging storm drainage systems, covering of potholes, and warning on the hazards of driving or being out on the streets could have been handled well before Nilam started. Part of the suggestions by the workshop for cyclone mitigation called for disaster preparedness including the provision of cyclone proof infrastructure. Natural sea side vegetation like mangrove forests were strongly recommended to act as natural barriers. Very little has been done to mitigate flooding in the affected areas in spite of recommendations. Every report on handling natural disasters has usually had a committee submitting a list of recommendations, extending a budget for the states to use and the states failing to put the list into action and misusing the budget with shoddy or no implementation.

Additional measures like declaring state wide holidays, ensuring additional power for hospitals and basic resources in schools and shelters where people were evacuated to could have been carried out. The most critical part of any disaster preparation has to be for the people who are going to be affected directly to have the information well before the disaster happens and to have it from a trustworthy public source. A lower minister who has had no experience in communication being sent out to warn people in fits and measures does not inspire confidence. Indian politicians often underestimate the importance of what really good PR skills are – they are not just about taking down the opposition, but providing and projecting leadership in times of duress. Calm, prompt and precise communication goes a long way in reassuring people. With the advent of social media and 24 hour news channels, the state and other governments ought to have taken an initiative to make its presence felt.

The simple fact of the matter is that by and large, the residents of coastal Tamil Nadu as Cyclone Nilam lost much of its intensity over the sea and the impact on land was lesser than expected. Good fortune does not excuse the complacency of the officials in handling natural disasters. Naturally occurring phenomena like cyclones and hurricanes become disasters only on reaching human settlements. While we need more robust forecasts and predictions, mitigatory and adaptive measures to protect ourselves can ensure that disasters need not happen as frequently as they do.

Priya Ravichandran is a Programme Officer with the Takshashila Institution and a resident of Chennai, India. Views are personal.