|Above: People collect debris on the train tracks at the damaged railway station in Puri on Saturday, May 4, 2019, after Cyclone Fani swept through the area. Image credit: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images.|
Vastly improved warning systems appear to have helped India avoid the catastrophic death toll widely feared from Category 4 Tropical Cyclone Fani, which smashed into the coast of Odisha state on Friday morning, May 3. The Associated Press reported on Saturday that Fani had taken 15 lives, including at least 3 in India and at least 12 in Bangladesh.
Citing local media, Al Jazeera reported that at least 16 lives had been lost in India, and the death toll may rise as rescue personnel reach the most remote villages hit by Fani. In central Bangladesh’s Kishorganj, lightning strikes in thunderstorms ahead of Fani took at least four lives, and two residents of the nation’s Barguna district were killed when a tree fell on their home on Saturday morning.
According to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC), Fani's top sustained 1-minute winds peaked offshore at 155 mph, near the top end of Category 4 strength. (Satellite imagery suggests that it may have briefly hit Category 5). The lowest surface pressure analyzed by JTWC was 917 mb, among the lowest on record for the Bay of Bengal. Fani was still packing sustained 1-minute winds of 150 mph about two hours before the eye began moving onshore near Puri. Before its weather station went out of service, Puri reported sustained winds of 88 mph with gusts to 108 mph at 7:30 am IST Friday, when Fani’s northern eyewall was nudging ashore.
Based on the JTWC-analyzed strength just before landfall, Fani is the strongest cyclone to make landfall in India since the 1999 Odisha cyclone, which struck the cost northeast of Puri on October 29 as a Category 5 storm with 160-mph winds. That catastrophe killed 9,658 people and left $2.5 billion in damage (1999 dollars), making it India's most expensive and fourth deadliest tropical cyclone in the past 100 years.
|Figure 1. People look through the debris next to damaged buildings near the seafront in Puri in the eastern Indian state of Odisha on May 4, 2019, after Cyclone Fani swept through the area. Image credit: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images.|
Sitting only about 40 miles downstream of Fani’s landfall in Puri, the Odisha state capital of Bhubaneswar and its 837,000 residents were hard hit by the cyclone’s eyewall. Sustained winds at Bhubaneswar officially reached at least 61 mph at two three-hour intervals on either side of the storm’s center. Top speeds approached 105 mph, according to the Guardian, with trees and power poles flung onto almost every major road. At least six people died in Bhubaneswar, reported Al Jazeera.
Reporter Soumika Das (The New Indian Express) shared her first-hand experiences from Friday afternoon local time in Bhubaneswar: “The howling sound of the wind was something straight out of a horror movie. A hazy and white sheet of gushing winds enveloped the City. In minutes, the cyclone had chewed the lush gardens of my neighborhood and the road [was] blocked with uprooted trees.”
Fani’s storm surge appears to have indundated large parts of the near-coastal areas of Odisha north and east of the cyclone’s landfall. Water also funneled up the notoriously surge-prone Bay of Bengal well east of Fani. In coastal Bangladesh, the surge overtopped seawalls, inundated at least 36 villages, and destroyed more than 2000 homes, according to AFP.
|Figure 2. A view of Grand Road in Puri, India, during Tropical Cyclone Fani on Friday, May 3, 2019. Image credit: Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times via Getty Images).|
|Figure 3. A marooned elderly couple sit on a log close to their home surrounded by high waters in Khulna on Saturday, May 4, 2019, after heavy rains and storm surge from Tropical Cyclone Fani indundated parts of coastal and near-coastal Bangladesh. Image credit: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images.|
Preparations and evacuations avert the worst impacts from Fani
Massive evacuations appear to have saved the lives of thousands who might have otherwise been swamped by Fani’s widespread storm surge or caught in mud and thatch homes destroyed by the cyclone’s winds. AFP reported that some 1.2 million people went to shelters in India’s Odisha state, and 1.6 million took shelter in Bangladesh.
After the 1999 catastrophe, the Odisha state government embarked on a thorough effort to improve communications and safety ahead of strong cyclones. The efforts paid off phenomenally well during Fani. As the New York Times put it: “To warn people of what was coming, they deployed everything they had: 2.6 million text messages, 43,000 volunteers, nearly 1,000 emergency workers, television commercials, coastal sirens, buses, police officers, and public address systems blaring the same message on a loop, in local language, in very clear terms: “A cyclone is coming. Get to the shelters.”
The state employed more than 4000 shelters built in the wake of the 1999 Odisha cyclone, each able to hold several hundred people.
Visuals from Kendrapara where our officers are carrying infants and guiding children, women, and other locals to safety.— Odisha Police (@odisha_police) May 3, 2019
Nothing deters our personnel's determination! #DutyAvoveElse #CycloneFani pic.twitter.com/Uo2GTIZ0lR
The success in Odisha is especially remarkable given the poverty in this largely agricultural state—one of India’s poorest, with an average income of less than $5 a day. On Friday, the head of the United Nations’ Office for Disaster Risk Reduction praised India’s integrated “zero-casualty” approach to cyclones. India's strategy meshes with the UN’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, a 2015-to-2030 initiative that aims to reduce disaster-related deaths, injuries and damage. The framework “recognizes that the State has the primary role to reduce disaster risk but that responsibility should be shared with other stakeholders including local government, the private sector and other stakeholders.”
Thus far, the remarkably low death toll in India from Fani stands in stark contrast to the tolls in recent U.S. cyclones, including the catastrophic Katrina as well as several subsequent storms. As Andrew Freedman (Axios) put it: “The U.S. could learn a lot from India’s 0 fatality goal.”