NEW DELHI — A day after one of the largest storms in decades slammed into India’s east coast, authorities are crediting mass evacuations for a minimal loss of life from Cyclone Phailin. At least 14 people have been killed so far in storm-related incidents.
Indian authorities knew Phailin was on its way, and did not waste time dispatching hundreds of members of the army’s National Defense Response Force to the eastern states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh on Saturday in anticipation of the very severe cyclone.
Meanwhile, police, television and radio reports helped spread the word getting nearly a million people to take shelter in government buildings, schools and temples as more than 200-kilometer winds bore down on the coast late Saturday into early Sunday.
Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik credits one of the largest evacuation operations in India’s history for saving lives.
“Normalcy will come back soon. Our primary responsibility was to protect the valuable lives of our citizens. I think we have been successful in minimizing the loss of precious lives,” said Patnaik.
Patnaik said military helicopters that were on standby to rescue storm victims did not have to be deployed during Phailin.
Officials did not want a repeat of 1999, when a cyclone formed in the Bay of Bengal hit the same area, causing widespread damage and killing at least 10,000 people.
Still Cyclone Phailin left a trail of destruction, downing power and communication lines, uprooting trees, and damaging more than 200,000 homes. Officials say some nine million people have been affected by the storm.
The Director General of India’s Meteorological Department, L.S. Rathore, says the priority now is rehabilitation and recovery, with workers mobilized as soon as the brunt of Phailin passed through Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.
Rathore said, “when it comes to the downed trees, authorities have been working since the morning to clear roads and lessen the impact for travelers.”
Orissa’s Revenue and Disaster Minister S. N. Patro told reporters the cyclone damaged some 500,000 hectares of crops - a huge blow to the impoverished state, which relies primarily on agriculture.
And it’s not over yet. Meteorological officials say the effects of Phailin will be felt as far away as the Himalayas. The cyclone is expected to become a severe depression, weakening gradually - but still causing heavy rain and strong winds of at least 50 kilometers per hour until early Tuesday as it moves inward through Chhattisgarh and Bihar states. Flood warnings are already in place in some areas.