NEW DELHI — The powerful cyclone that struck India’s eastern coast this weekend washed away thousands of mud homes, knocked down power lines, blocked many of the region’s roads and damaged crops and fishing boats. But reports from the region on Sunday showed the success of one of the biggest and most rapid evacuations in India’s history, an operation that moved more than 800,000 people to safety.
Just 14 years ago, a cyclone in roughly the same place killed more than 10,000 people, and during the past century, the storms that have roared out of the Bay of Bengal have left much death and destruction in their wake. But while an accurate assessment of the damage caused by this weekend’s storm will probably take weeks, the official death toll reported Sunday evening was 17, an astonishingly low number considering that 12 million people live in the storm’s path.
The success of the evacuation operation was possible largely because of vast improvements in the country’s physical infrastructure and communication systems, although at times the police found it necessary to coerce reluctant villagers to leave their mud and thatch homes, which were vulnerable to high winds and drenching rain, local officials said.
Most of the deaths were attributed to falling trees and collapsed houses, officials said. The cyclone, named Phailin, was expected to drop up to 10 inches of rain over two days in some areas. By late Sunday night, it had been downgraded from a cyclone to a depression, with sustained winds of 25 miles per hour and gusts of 34 mph.
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Change can come slowly to India. The caste system still predominates, grinding poverty remains endemic and clean water is rare. But the effective response to the threat this weekend demonstrates that Indians are transforming their country, particularly in the ways that they communicate and get their news.
Nearly 1 billion people routinely use mobile phones in India, up from fewer than 40 million a decade ago. Even many of the poorest villages now have televisions, and India’s numerous 24-hour news channels have blanketed the nation’s airwaves with coverage of the storm.
As the cyclone approached, many villagers tried to stay behind to safeguard their land and livestock during the worst of the storm, according to local news reports, but almost none were unaware of the coming danger. And that is a huge change.
Another crucial change has been a boom in the construction of cement houses, schools and businesses that provide crucial shelter in even the remotest areas. Villagers who stayed until the last moment had somewhere to go for safety.
With at least 1,000 acres of farmland submerged and many thatched homes and fishing boats destroyed, officials said their efforts proved effective. But K. Baliah, a district official from Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh state, said that because the cyclone was not as severe as predicted, officials would have a harder time persuading large numbers of people to evacuate in the future.
India’s state and central governments spent days preparing for the worst. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement Saturday that he had been briefed on preparations for the storm and had directed the central government to extend all needed assistance to state officials.
Service members from the country’s army, air force and navy were deployed to help with rescue and relief operations, said A.K. Antony, India’s defense minister, and hundreds of shelters were set up.
The Bay of Bengal region is among the most vulnerable in the world to the effects of climate change, and experts have predicted that storms are likely to become more intense. India and Bangladesh together have more people at risk from rising sea levels than any other place in the world. So the government’s relatively effective response to the most recent storm is an encouraging sign.