Preparedness saved thousands of lives during Cyclone Phailin; now the recovery begins

Published: 17 October 2013 14:24 CET

By Maude Froberg in Odisha.

Despite the successful evacuation of 1 million people and minimal loss of life, Cyclone Phailin – the most powerful tropical storm to hit India’s east coast in 14 years – has still left significant needs in its wake. 

In the village of Sunapur, the Red Cross cyclone shelter has towered above every other structure since its construction in 1995. Over the weekend, it once again became the temporary refuge for 500 villagers – and, in some cases, their animals – as Cycline Phailin made landfall on India’s east coast.

Kamla, who is eight-months pregnant with her second child was one of those who rushed to the shelter on hearing about the approaching cyclone.

"I acted as soon as I heard the early warnings from the Red Cross volunteers. That was the day before the cyclone was supposed to make landfall, but I went anyway. I didn't want to risk anything,” she says. “Then the cyclone and heavy rain hit the following night. I was scared, knowing I couldn't move very fast.” 

The shelter saved hundreds of lives, but effective disaster preparedness requires more than strong buildings. The safety of people in Surapur lies in the hands of a dedicated network of Red Cross community volunteers that make up the Shelter Disaster Managing Committee. This group is responsible for the early warnings, and maintaining the safety of those that come to the shelter.

The cyclone and the floods which followed have affected over 11 million people, with five districts in the State of Odisha left submerged. More than 400,000 hectares of crops have been damaged and 200,000 houses damaged or destroyed. Thousands have no choice but to remain in shelters or take refuge in evacuation centres.

Dr SP Agarwal, Secretary General of the Indian Red Cross Society, said the preparedness efforts of the society and communities had saved the lives of thousands of people. "In the wake of the cyclone, people have been left destitute, and the needs for food, shelter, water and sanitation will remain high for a considerable period of time." 

For K Simadri, a fisherman from the village of Gupalpur, these words reflect his experience. As the cyclone gained force while crossing the Bay of Bengal, he and others form the village helped carry the heavy boats to higher ground where they thought they would be safe. However, as the storm died away, he went down to the wide-stretched beach but couldn’t see his boat. All that remained was a tangled mess of fishing nets and debris.

"How should I make a living now?” he asks. His house has been damaged by the storm. "With no roof, the rain water will come in, and my family will not be protected. The little we have to eat will soon go bad,” he says.

The Indian Red Cross Society with support from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, is scaling up their support in the area. The number one priority being shelter and safe drinking water. 

15,000 tarpaulins have been brought in from the regional warehouse in Kolkata and will be distributed in a family package also containing kitchen utensils, clothing, mosquito net, towel, bucket and bed sheets. Water treatment plants are also being deployed to provide clean water for drinking and cooking.