On the night of October 12, 2013, Hemang Raula was in Gopalpur, the coastal town in Ganjam district of Odisha where Cyclone Phailin, the devastating category 5 storm, was supposed to make landfall. Raula, who was covering the natural disaster for his local newspaper, was huddled inside a small hotel room and expected to come out the next morning to find the town severely damaged with hundreds dead and lakhs of house damaged. The memory of the 1999 Super Cyclone which left nearly 10,000 dead was still fresh in his mind. But the next morning, all Raula found were some damaged thatched houses and uprooted trees and electric and telephone poles. No dead bodies. This was unprecedented — did a cyclone of such severe magnitude cross the Odisha coast without causing any real damage? How did it happen?
He met some people on the roads, and asked whether they had lost anything. No, they hadn’t lost anything substantial, they all said. By October 11, thanks to repeated announcements in newspapers, TV and radio, they had all been aware of the imminent danger from Phailin and had moved with their belongings to safer places.
On October 11, the Revenue and Disaster Management office announced that more than 9 lakh people had been evacuated to safety to prevent casualties. Special Relief Commissioner P K Mohapatra announced on October 12, that on that day alone 3.61 lakh of people had been evacuated, 1.2 lakh from Ganjam district alone.
Thanks to regular updates from the Indian Meteorological Department and US Navy, the government of Odisha, with timely help from the Central Government, was well prepared to face Phailin. Eighteen helicopters, 12 aircraft and two warships, 29 teams of the National Disaster Response Force and 9 of the Orissa Disaster Action Force were kept ready for rescue and relief operations in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. The government also stocked up on fuel, food and drinking water. District collectors and superintendents of police were given 50 satellite phones, in addition to 18 phones sourced from ITBP, for use in emergency.
On October 12 afternoon, Mrityunjay Mahapatra of Cyclone Warning Centre told mediapersons in Bhubaneswar that the cyclone would strike with a wind speed of 180 kmph to 190 kmph — a revision from earlier estimates that windspeeds would be in the range of 210-230 kmph, with 3-3.5 metre-high waves in Ganjam, Puri, Khurda and Jagatsinghpur districts.
Thankfully, the maximum windspeeds were even lower at 160 kmph and the waves not more than 1 metre high.
According to government estimates, Cyclone Phailin hit 99 blocks, 1,895 gram panchayats, 14,514 villages, 39 towns and 123 wards across the state, affecting 0.5 million hectares of farmland and damaged 80 per cent of the power transmission infrastructure in coastal areas. But the death toll? A bare 21.