Cyclone and COVID-19: A Twin Grave Uncertainties

Developing resistance: Emergent nations and Covid-19 | The Interpreter

by Md Shahid Akhter and Vaibhav Naresh Raut 19 May 2020


Countries worldwide are grappling with unprecedented and astoundingly grim realities of deadly pandemic crisis, another catastrophe involving higher stakes looming large over the Bay of Bengal. The extremely severe cyclonic storm Amphan poses a severe threat to millions of lives in Odisha and West Bengal and put them in test to combat with twin grave uncertainties at a time.


According to the IMD Director General Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, the dangerous cyclone with a wind velocity of more than 90 km per hour is brewing to hit the coastal districts of Odisha and West Bengal. He also accentuated that the cyclone will cause extremely heavy rainfall and strong thunderstorms in the landfall regions, and as a consequence, destructive storm surge flooding is anticipated. The state government of Odisha has predicted that around 7 lakh people in 649 villages along the sea coast are likely to be acutely affected. In that situation, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik asked district collectors to put extra efforts to prepare cyclone preparedness amidst of pandemic crisis and try to ensure ‘zero casualties.’


Preparedness for Amphan Cyclone


Almost 20 teams of Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF), 17 teams of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) consisting of around 45 personal each, and 335 units of Fire and Disaster Management teams are already being deployed as preparatory measures. Additionally, 20 rescue teams with Gemini boats and medical teams are also kept ready for strengthening rescue and relief operations. Further, Indian Naval ships at Visakhapatnam are also on standby to proceed to the most-affected areas to undertake Humanitarian Aid Distress Relief (HADR), evacuation, and logistic supply.


History of Cyclone


As per the statistic, 26 of the 35 deadliest tropical cyclones in world history have been taken place in the Bay of Bengal. A study by Nicholls et al. (1995) showed that for the last two centuries, almost 42% and 27% of the Earth’s tropical cyclones-associated deaths have occurred in Bangladesh and India, respectively. According to the study by Siba Prasad Mishra and Ramakanta Panigrahi (2014), in Odisha annually, around 7.4 million people get affected, out of which 40% due to floods and 18% due to a cyclone. In 1999, a Super Cyclone with a wind speed of 260-270 kmph hit the coast of Odisha and killed 10,000 people and affected 1.89 crore people across the state. In 2013, a cyclone named Phailin smacked the Odisha and ransacked nearly 12 million people. Just after one year of Phailin, a most natural expensive cyclonic catastrophe called Hudhud hit Visakhapatnam at wind speeds of 206 kmph and caused the death of 124 people. After three years of it, in 2017, another cyclone called Ockhi struck and killed more than 200 people and displaced hundreds and thousands of people. Further, in 2018 cyclone Fani left a devastation trail across Odisha and made homeless of 46 million people.


Evolution of disaster management plans


Until 1999, the state had no well laid out plan for disaster management. Consequently, after the Super Cyclone, the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority was set up. Almost 900 cyclone shelters have been built in vulnerable pockets of the state, with systems in place for evacuation of people. Besides, the Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force was set up in 2001 to conduct rescue operations and relief distribution. With the help of these clear command and control structures, a remarkable example had been made during Fani Cyclone by evacuating more than 1.2 million people within 24 hours. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) and other experts had praised India for corresponding minimal loss of life from deadly cyclone through its early warning systems and rapid evacuation strategies.


Cyclone during a pandemic: A new challenge


The majority of the world’s deadliest tropical cyclones that have struck India were in the period of ordinary circumstances. But, the catastrophic cyclone Amphan has coincided with the global pandemic crisis. While the immediate priority for the country is to battle COVID-19 and the country’s disaster management are working over-capacity, a new calamity (Amphan cyclone) is venturing to unmask glaring vulnerabilities in the healthcare, economic and political systems. For the last two months, the country is under tremendous pressure. It faces the worst financial crisis due to shutting down all the economic activities to contain the outbreak of deadly pathogens. Above that, it has a ‘further’ unimaginable impact on the country’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups.


Besides this, the scenario in coastal regions of Odisha is more horrific because almost 36 percent of people live below the poverty line. Similarly, over 4 million of India’s poorest people live in coastal West Bengal. Thus, the lockdown has disproportionately affected their lives. In such a grim plight, the cyclone is a crucial challenge for both these regions, and how deadly and devastating the impact will be, is beyond the imagination. This has also put a daunting challenge to the administration of Odisha and West Bengal government in terms of preparedness and response. Although Odisha and West Bengal have well disaster management plans. But in extreme and massive disasters, they require a lot of resources, financial support, volunteers, etc. from the country and across the world to fasten the relief, restoration, and rehabilitation operations. For example, during Fani cyclone, the Odisha government had received Rs 1,341 crore and 4000 tonnes of food items along with 48 tonnes of medical stores from the Central government, and Rs 15.5 million from the European Union. Likewise, the United Nations, Work Bank, Asian Development Bank, and various other organizations had extended their support for disaster relief.
Now amidst global health and financial crisis, which global organizations will come to support Odisha and West Bengal to save lives, prevent and alleviate human suffering is the question? Naturally, the problems also arise: In which way the Central government will support? Will there be any relief assistance from the Centre this time as well? How is the preparedness plan for Amphan cyclone? Is it the same as it was during Fani cyclone? Is there any evacuation plan of people from vulnerable zones? If, then, how social distancing and self-isolation norms will be followed? All these questions are disclosing the difficulties that affected states are going to confront.


Mitigation strategies


In this unprecedented emergency, radical mitigation measures are imperative for Odisha and West Bengal government to manage the twin threats of coronavirus pandemic and Cyclone Amphan. Both the Governments need systems in place and special attention to deliver the relief packages to the communities that need them most. Further, it is anticipated that the cyclone will cause extreme rainfall, and that leads to severe flooding and potentially compounding the emergency. In such a context, evacuation of people from low lying regions and coastal zones should be topmost priority, and there is a need for immediate identification of more and more temporary shelters to retain rescued people. Various public institutions such as colleges, schools, community houses, and religious places can be used as temporary cyclone shelters. It is of utmost importance to maintain the social distancing protocols and all other essential measures in the cyclone shelters to avoid turning shelters pandemic hotspots. In addition to these, for effective response and management, the medical staff, administrative officials, police personnel can be shifted from green COVID-19 zone to cyclone-affected regions. Finally, the great solidarity across the country and the globe is crucial to combat these grave uncertainties.

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