Since the disaster wreaked by the 1977 cyclone in Andhra Pradesh, we have come a long way in developing weather warning systems and curtailing loss of lives and property.
India’s ‘missile man’ and former President, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, is known for his anecdotes on indigenous technology.
One of his compelling tales relates to the denial of the Cray supercomputers by the US to India in the mid-1980s; India had sought access to these fast data-crunching machines for solving complex computational problems.
The denial spurred Indian scientists to action. The result was the building of home-made supercomputers, including PARAM by the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, PACE by the Defence Research and Development Organisation and ANUPAM by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and FLOSOLVER by NAL, Bangalore.
These machines are deployed to analyse data from monsoons, cyclones and storms to aerodynamic issues faced by aircraft and missiles or DNA in modern biology. The National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (NCMWRF) uses these high performance computers — in addition to those of IBM and Silicon Graphics — to operationalise its weather forecasting models.
The experience with the Cyclone Phailin clearly shows the importance of sophisticated computing technologies for ensuring accuracy of early warning systems and providing timely bulletins.
The way the present cyclone has been tracked — right from its formation to its progress and finally hitting the land — represents a watershed moment for Indian weather and atmosphere scientists.
From Diviseema to Phailin
The progress registered over the last four decades can be best seen in relation of the November 19, 1977 cyclone in Andhra Pradesh.
This disaster in the Krishna delta region led to villages vanishing overnight — including the Diviseema island — and loss of over 14,000 human lives, besides livestock and property. That cyclone left scars that remained etched in people's memories. The next big such disaster was the Paradip Super Cyclone of 1999 in Odisha. Unlike in 1977, there was some advance warning in place. But there were no Doppler Weather Radars (DWR). Nor was there sufficient capacity to interpret data provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other agencies.
The savage storms, rain and winds left over 10,000 dead. But there were important lessons to be learnt this time in forecasting, preparedness and rehabilitation.
Going by the way Odisha and Andhra Pradesh have responded so far to Cyclone Phailin — not to forget the round-the-clock data provided by the India Meteorological Department and the National Disaster Management Agency’s (NMDA) pro-active role — these lessons have been well learnt and put to practice.
A Comparison of capability
The importance of this cannot be underestimated for a country with a 6,000-km long coastline naturally vulnerable to cyclones. Andhra Pradesh alone has faced 70 cyclones in the last 100 years, of varying intensity.
It is interesting to see how India compares globally in its forecasting capabilities. The US handled Hurricane Sandy, which hit its north-east coast in October 2012, most efficiently.
The loss to human life was minimised to under 100. This was possible only because of elaborate and precise weather forecasts, which drastically improved after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, which claimed some 1,400 lives and caused widespread damage.
Closer home, the severe Cyclone Sidr of November 2007 in Bangladesh resulted in roughly 10,000 deaths, while Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 killed about 1.3 lakh people in Myanmar. India, on the other hand, has been able to contain both human and economic losses.
The network of DWRs seems to have come in handy, in addition to advanced satellite imagery beamed by ISRO and greater international data-sharing along with ability to process this information.
The DWRs provide useful estimates of cyclone speeds, which conventional radars don't. Once the formation of a depression is known, our scientists’ capabilities to track its progress, analyse wind speeds and issue regular bulletins have significantly improved.
As the IMD Director-General, L.S. Rathore has pointed out, refined modelling based on more parameters, accurate observation of atmosphere and sea-level data, and latest computational facilities have aided in vastly improving early warning systems.
The Hyderabad-based Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Systems, for instance, has installed a real-time INSAT-based wave rider buoy at Gopalpur in Odisha to monitor and validate ocean state forecasts. The network of moored buoys, coastal wave rider buoys and satellite imagery, which is quickly analysed, gives important leads.
According to Marri Sashidhar Reddy, vice-chairman of the NDMA, the IMD this time was proved right in its forecast on Phailin. While the US Navy, NOAA and other agencies forecasted a much higher intensity cyclone, the IMD stuck to its version, even inviting criticism that it was underplaying the development. That its forecast came true indicates some maturing of our technological capability, he claims.
The IMD today has 21 DWRs, of which 12 have been procured from China’s Beijing Metstar Radar Company and another five from Germany’s Gematroniks Corporation. The remaining have been indigenously developed by Bharat Electronics.
In the current 12th Plan, the IMD plans to set up 34 more DWRs, taking the total to 55. Besides, the ISRO has also developed its own version of the Doppler radar, while the DRDO has one by the name INDRA. The latter has already been inducted into the Air Force for surveillance purposes.
Relief and Rehabilitation
The capability to forewarn an impending cyclone or natural disaster is only half the battle won, though. The aftermath, especially rescue and rehabilitation of the people, their livestock and property, is no less important.
Compared with the heart-rending scenes of the Diviseema or the Paradip supercyclones, Phailin is a refreshing study in contrast. Both the Governments of Naveen Patnaik in Odisha and Kiran Kumar Reddy’s in Andhra Pradesh have done a commendable job of taking a wide range of precautionary measures, including shifting nearly 15 lakh people to safer zones.
The co-ordinated efforts of the NDMA, State Governments and IMD have yielded real results. As many as 2,300 highly trained National Disaster Relief Force personnel were positioned this time in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.
The focus would now have to shift to restoring essential supplies, power, roads and communication connectivity. Thankfully, here too, there are examples to emulate, as seen in the post-Tsunami reconstruction work in Tamil Nadu or the post-Bhuj earthquake in Gujarat.
Natural disasters have a capacity to bring the nation and its people together. We saw it in the recent Uttarkhand floods.
This is the time for our Governments in the Centre and the States to help rebuild the battered lives of people and reconstruct a future that heals wounds, both natural and manmade.