Dhanada Kanta Mishra
experienced Typhoon (as cyclones are called in these parts of the world) Mangkhut which hit Hong Kong with a top speed of 175 km/hr last year on September 16th, which was a Sunday. The same typhoon had earlier hit Philippines on its way, with wind speeds of up to 250 km/hr and had caused widespread damage. By the time the storm hit Hong Kong, it was less ferocious, but still ranked as one of the worst typhoons experienced by Hong Kong since 1943. This storm caused a record tidal surge, uprooted some 1,500 trees and left hundreds of windows smashed all over the city. The damage was “serious and extensive” as per local media reports, and the number of calls for help or reports of injury were as many as five times more than when typhoon Hato battered Hong Kong in August 2017. The Hong Kong observatory said that the intensity of the storm, which required a typhoon signal No 10 to stay in place for 10 hours, was the most powerful since records began even though the eye of the storm remained 100 km away from Hong Kong itself. When Mangkhut made landfall in the northern Luzon region of the Philippines where it killed 79 people and injured hundreds affecting 7 lakh families and over 30 lakh people, the maximum sustained winds near the centre once reached 250 km/hour. By the time the storm reached Hong Kong, the wind had dropped to 175km/h. Around1,500 people sought refuge at government shelters on Sunday, five times the record in the past. There were no deaths and about 394 people were injured. The police received 20,000 calls for help on that Sunday, compared to about 6,000 they receive on a normal weekend. Hong Kong is a city of about 74 lakh people living in a very dense area – no bigger than greater Bhubaneswar region currently hit by the very serious cyclonic storm Fani.
As I watched Mangkhut rage from my University staff quarters that Sunday, it was incredible to see the destruction to the trees outside through the windows. However, what was more astonishing and impressive was the fact that there was no power cut or disruption to internet connection, let alone water supply or emergency services. The next day was a working day and I could walk to the University with some difficulty, as the emergency crew were still clearing the footpaths. But everything was more or less back to normal! The only disruption was at the metro stations as the government had not declared a public holiday and everybody wanted to get to work even though the underground rail service – MTR – was not yet ready to run normal service! After one day’s disruption to public transport, life returned to normal for this amazing island, which is a nation within a nation, where the resilience of the infrastructure against natural disasters like typhoons has to be seen to be believed.
Compare this with the very serious tropical cyclone Fani, packing similar winds as Mangkhut, that made landfall near the coastal pilgrim town of Puri on the morning of 3rd May. While Odisha is no stranger to natural calamities, and cyclones in particular, the outcome couldn’t have been more different. Unlike the super-cyclone that hit Odisha coast in the year 1999 and killed over 10000 people, recent cyclones have resulted in fewer casualties. The main reason for this has been the construction of cyclone shelters all along the coast and the efficient relocation of vulnerable population to the shelters by the local authorities.
While the government remains focused on minimizing loss of life, the post cyclone recovery of normal life has been woefully inadequate. In spite of the best efforts by the government, the death toll had exceeded 40. Even several days after the cyclone, large regions around the capital city of Bhubaneswar and Puri remained without power and water supply. With a large number of telecommunication towers destroyed, mobile communication and internet services remain patchy at best. Long lines to collect water, withdraw cash at few functional ATMs and gasoline at working petrol pumps have become the norm for the residents of the SMART city! The situation in rural parts of the region is likely to be worse and yet to be properly assessed. To the credit of the government, main roads have been cleared of fallen trees quite efficiently – thanks to the Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF). The essential services to less damaged areas in districts like Ganjam, Bhadrak, Jajpur, Kendrapada etc have been restored quite efficiently while Cuttack, Puri and Khurda have lagged behind due to heavy damage to vulnerable infrastructure.
Many may think comparing Hong Kong with Bhubaneswar is unfair, but it provides some important lessons for future. While world class cities like Hong Kong have built solid infrastructure that is almost disaster proof, Bhubaneswar has chosen to build a SMART city on top of a rickety basic infrastructure, always vulnerable to a disaster situation like that of a cyclone! Organizing hockey world cup and building sports infrastructure appear to enjoy higher priorities than robust water supply and drainage system. We can certainly build back our city and rural areas to be made more resilient against disasters if we could reduce death tolls so drastically between 1999 and 2019? A resilient urban system responds to an emergency effectively and gets back up on its feet rapidly.
Besides moving people to shelters, the following key basic precautions prior to the cyclone would have mitigated the damage to a large extent and helped in faster recovery. First and foremost, essential services such as airport, railway station, hospitals and government control rooms must be kept functional with their own power back up, telecommunication links and water supply. Second, all structures including trees, power poles, scaffolding of the Jagannath temple and other heritage structures etc. must be secured to the best extent possible against the force of strong winds. Third, backbone of the power-supply system and key installations must be designed and built to survive worst possible disasters, especially natural disasters. Sufficient stock of back-up generators with fuel, machinery and equipment to clear debris, large manpower on stand-by in nearby districts to be deployed would ensure rapid relief and restoration. Fourth, while rebuilding, authorities must pay attention to building quality and robustness rather than going for lowest-cost suppliers, particularly when it comes to the core infrastructure facilities which are essential to prevent complete collapse, as was experienced. A simple choice like cyclone resistant pre-stressed spun concrete poles are a far better alternative over regular iron or RCC poles that break (1,40,000 were damaged in the current cyclone!!) in every cyclone leading to huge and critical disruption.
Ongoing climate crisis and ecological breakdown are leading the world to uncharted territories. The best available scientific research suggests that planet Earth is approaching an irreversible tipping point as soon as 2030. Natural disasters like floods, cyclones, heat waves and forest fires are going to be more frequent and vicious in the future. It’s time this emergency is treated as an opportunity to build models of disaster resistant infrastructure for the future.
The writer is a civil engineering professor in India currently visiting Hong Kong University of Science and Technology as a Research Scholar. e-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org