Life is getting back to normal after an ‘extremely severe’ cyclonic storm Fani hit India’s eastern coastline. It ripped through several districts of Odisha and West Bengal and brought in torrential rains and winds of up to 200 km/hr. But improved responses to the disaster by way of timely warning, advance planning, evacuation, rescue and restoration operations helped mitigate casualties and damage to the region.
Massive evacuation efforts by the government of Odisha wherein nearly 1.2 million people were evacuated and sheltered saved people during the crisis. The state has been witness to nearly 10 years of capacity building for cyclone management when it was hit by the severe cyclone Phailin in October 2013. To enhance storm management capacity and reduce vulnerability in cyclone-prone areas, the state undertook many steps like making people aware of the disasters, informing them of the dos and don'ts, strengthening village-level institutions to provide immediate help and act as the link between the government and community, establishing cyclone shelters and equipping those with modern infrastructure.
A paper by Saudamini Das highlights how, with increasing threats from climate change, it is essential that the effectiveness of evacuation measures is evaluated and limitations addressed. The paper titled Evaluating climate change adaptation through evacuation decisions: a case study of cyclone management in India examines the evacuation behaviour of different coastal communities in the 480-km coastline of the state that runs along six districts bordering the Bay of Bengal. These communities had received similar disaster-preparedness training. Yet, there is heterogeneity in responses of these groups.
This study explores the impacts of such interventions implemented prior to the severe storm Phailin which damaged four of the six coastal districts of Odisha. The paper first reviews people’s preparedness efforts, their initial response to government warning and evacuation orders, and then conducts statistical analysis to examine the features affecting the evacuation behaviour. Evacuation responses are compared across the coastal districts to capture the effect of sociopolitical heterogeneity.
Evacuation a social process
Cyclone evacuation is a social process, and people’s decision to evacuate depends on how they perceive the risk from the warning message. The characteristics of the warning message—such as content, source and frequency—have important implications for disaster evacuation. When public authorities issue evacuation orders appropriate for the strength of the threat and disseminate these warning messages effectively across multiple audiences, compliance could reach as high as 90 percent in high and medium-risk areas.
Public response to risk communication was linked to perceived risk (understanding, belief, and personalisation), where perceived risk was defined to be a function of the features of warning information received (specificity, consistency, certainty, accuracy, clarity, channel, frequency, source), and personal characteristics of the warning recipient (demographics, knowledge, experience, resources, social network, cognition).
Other possible determinants were described as the presence of children in households, prior training or education for coping with crisis, neighbours evacuating, access to transport, economic condition, female head of the family, etc. Families having livestock did not evacuate as there were no facilities for livestock at the shelters.
As per the paper, the public response to the evacuation order was overwhelming. In some areas, as many as 95 percent of the residents evacuated, and they were aware of the precautions to be taken before a storm strikes whereas some other areas showed as low as 33 percent evacuation and least interest in training and capacity building programmes and maintenance of critical infrastructure like cyclone shelters. Analysing evacuation responses with logistic regression, social economic issues like unemployment, the prevalence of theft, and no provision for the evacuation of livestock to safety explained the evacuation failure significantly.
The state took many innovative steps after this cyclone to adapt to such climatic future disasters. It formed specialised disaster management departments like the Orissa State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA) and the Orissa Disaster Rapid Action Force. The state implemented various disaster management programmes and trained volunteers and conducted other capacity-building programmes at the grassroots level to help and motivate the coastal population to face such calamities in the future.
This was followed by programmes that aimed at providing technical support to strengthen the capacities of government, communities, and institutions to fast-track implementation of the planning frameworks on disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. Such efforts enhanced the cyclone management infrastructure capacity of the state. There is a Cyclone Shelter Management and Maintenance Committee (CSMMC) in each shelter village to sustainably manage the shelters and to mobilise community members for the annual awareness-generating cyclone drill, help them in preparedness and evacuations after cyclone warning is issued, and manage them in shelters after evacuation. There are other village-level groups, like the village task force, village volunteers, and disaster management teams, to help and mobilise villagers and help the CSMMC. These groups have been trained in first aid techniques, safety, and rescue operations.
Conclusion and policy implications
In the future, such extreme events are predicted to hit coastal areas with more intensity due to climate change, and this necessitates that governments address such socio-economic problems along with cyclone adaptation programmes to make disaster management more effective.
Based on evidence from cyclone Phailin, the disaster management approaches and policies adopted by the Government of Odisha, with help from the Government of India, World Bank, and the UNDP, seem to have been successful in reducing the region’s vulnerability to tropical storms. The state conducted many institutional capacity-building programmes because of which compliance with evacuation orders was high.
These findings on social behaviours and responses call for a differential disaster management strategy taking behavioural and social traits of the area into account, rather than a generic one, to mobilize civil society in different areas.
In some districts, the evacuation was very high and one of the reasons could be repeated training and mock evacuation drills being carried out in those areas. Though such trainings and drills seemed to be effective in sensitising some people and making them realise the threat to their lives, there are others who are yet to realise it. Probably, they require a differential training inclusive of behavioural and social traits to be sensitised. Simultaneously, other social issues like theft, employment options, and arrangements for evacuation of livestock also need to be addressed to manage storms better.
The paper can be accessed here