Cyclone Fani Vs 1999 Super Cyclone: How Odisha Fared On Both Occasions
Two weeks after the category-four hurricane equivalent Cyclone Fani propelled into the coast of Odisha and caused heavy destruction, the state seems to be making a heady recovery. Fuelled by active volunteers pouring in from all over the country and aided generously by the government and the common people, relief and rescue operations have been launched in no time. Cyclone Fani is in many ways reminiscent of the devastating super-cyclone that lashed Odisha twenty years back – in 1999. Yet, differences are appreciably marked.
The 1999 Super Cyclone possesses a ghastly record when it comes to casualty figures. While official figures cite 9658 deaths, more than 10,000 people were killed in the wake of the cyclone by unofficial estimates, and around two lakh livestock were killed. The storm battered an approximate twenty lakh houses and affected an estimated two to three million people. It severely hampered agricultural productivity as farmlands were too saline for the growth of cash crops.
In comparison, cyclone Fani had less severe effects. While damages from the 1999 cyclone stood at $4.44 billion (1999 prices), the damages from Cyclone Fani were announced to be around Rs. 525 crores ($74.68 million).
On Tuesday, the Odisha Housing and Urban Development Department put forward a release on the spectrum of losses incurred post-Fani. Fifty-three urban local bodies have been severely affected, and 291 km of drains, 750 km of roads, 267 culverts have been damaged. Other properties including parks, playgrounds, community centres, town halls and more have also been badly dented. Most importantly, however, the death toll was contained in double-digit figures. Official figures claim the death toll at 64, with Puri recording the highest deaths with 39 casualties.
The 1999 super cyclone by far remains the strongest cyclone recorded to hit the Indian subcontinent, and quite possibly one of the strongest ever to hit in the twentieth century. One way to measure the strength and intensity of an impending cyclone is to observe variations in the ‘pressure drops’ that take place within the cyclone. It is the pressure drops that help sustain and further intensify cyclones. The average atmospheric air pressure at the sea-level is considered to be 1013 millibars. When the 1999 Cyclone was at its peak, weather reports state that the pressure at its eye was 912 millibars – a departure of nearly a 100 millibars from the normal mark.
“A pressure drop of 100 millibars is very big and provides tremendous strength to the cyclone. The bigger the pressure drop, the stronger the cyclone, and greater the wind speed associated with it,” notes Prof. U.C. Mohanty, of IIT Bhubaneswar.
Cyclone Fani was comparatively weaker with a surge pressure drop of 63 millibars, as it had a pressure of 950 millibars at its centre. Consequently, the 1999 cyclone recorded sustained wind speeds of 260 km/h. Fani had, in line with a lower pressure drop, was able to notch up peak speeds of 215-220 km/h.
What made the 1999 super cyclone fearsome was its sustenance even after making landfall. Normally, tropical cyclones dissipate rapidly in strength once landfall occurs; this is primarily due to a lack of moisture source (which was earlier provided by the sea), and high resistance to wind forces on the ground. But on the contrary, the 1999 cyclone pursued with relentless intensity for nearly thirty-six hours, with rain lashing the Odisha coast for more than two days. In stark contrast, Cyclone Fani started weakening just before landfall, and its convective structure rapidly de-generated thereafter. After gaining its peak speeds on 3rd May, it turned into a remnant low on 4th May and finally dissipated on 5th May.
The IMD’s preparedness before the 1999 Super Cyclone is also questionable. The Indian Meteorological Department had installed the nation’s first cyclone detection, tracking and warning system in the 1970s. However, even in 1999, the IMD’s ability to track and predict a cyclonic path was at best, elementary. With computing resources severely hampered by crude and weak models, and communication with other global agencies at a minimum level due to weak internet connectivity back then, the State government had no data beforehand to estimate the intensity of the impending doom.
Fast forward to today; the IMD’s ‘pinpoint accuracy’ in predicting the exact severity and timing of Fani has won several international accolades. The tracking and timely reliable updates were crucial in evacuation operations.
In 1999, Odisha had barely 75 cyclone shelters (all built by the Red Cross Foundation), and almost no evacuation work was carried on. While 2019 was a marked change. Before Fani hit, the government had evacuated around 1.2 million people from the coastal areas (that consequently suffered the maximum damage), and over 7000 shelters were thrown open to the populace. About 45,000 volunteers, coupled with help from NDRF, ODRAF, Odisha Police and other paramilitary forces, helped to reduce the distress levels.
The Odisha government, after suffering humongous losses in the aftermath of the 1999 cyclone, had vowed to never let repeat damages of this scale. Turns out, the prophecy has been met with administrative efficiency and speedy implementation. While history shall always repeat itself in the form of cyclones and other natural calamities, it is always possible to minimize casualty figures: and Odisha has just proved that, yet again.