Tuesday, November 4, 2014

learning from Hudhud Cyclone - Do's & don'ts of disaster management

In the last week of September 2014, there was news regarding an impending low pressure tropical cyclone “Hudhud” likely to hit coast of AP/Odisha on Oct 12. As I was waiting for posting in the State Government of Andhra Pradesh upon completion of my stint in Government of India, I was posted as Special Officer, relief and disaster management to be stationed in Visakhapatnam (vizag) in an order issued dated Oct 8, 2014 and to report there immediately. I accordingly reached Visakhapatnam on Oct 9 and had detailed review with concerned officials including District Collector, Commissioner of Police and DIG NDRF (National Disaster Response Force). There were number of video conferences with the state officials in Hyderabad and with the Cabinet Secretary along with Secretaries of various ministeries in Government of India.

Hudhud originated from a low pressure system that formed under the influence of an upper-air cyclonic circulation in the Andaman Sea on October 6. Hudhud intensified into a cyclonic storm on October 8 and as a Severe Cyclonic Storm on October 9. Hudhud underwent rapid deepening in the following days and was classified as a Very Severe Cyclonic Storm by the IMD. Shortly before landfall near Visakhapatnam (AP) on October 12, Hudhud reached its peak strength with wind speeds of 185-195 km/h (125-130 mph) and a minimum central pressure of 960 mbar (28.35 inHg). The system then drifted northwards towards  Uttar Pradesh & Nepal, causing widespread rains in both areas and heavy snowfall in the latter. I was staying in the circuit house and could feel the impact of Hudhud on early morning of Sunday (Oct 12) when the strong gale accompanied by rains kept hitting all windows furiously and rain water entered in the circuit house as a result. I couple of window panes broke as a result. As the day progressed, I realized the severe intensity of the cyclone. I did venture out couple of times and the vehicle was hit by heavy lashes and strong winds. I could with difficulty reach Collectorate by 9.30 am and was there throughout till late evening when the cyclone subsided. I hadn’t seen anything like this ever.  


The intensity was so severe that tree got uprooted, electrical poles fell down and hoardings flew in the air like kites. Hudhud caused extensive damage to the city of Visakhapatnam and the neighbouring districts of Vizianagaram and Srikakulam of Andhra Pradesh.
The relief and rescue work carried out, before, during and after the cyclone was exemplary and loss to human lives could be minimized as a result. It was a herculean effort during which more than 200,000 people were shifted to safer places (relief camp or other safe places) and as a result, the number of deaths could be minimized.

I would like to draw upon the learning based on the actual relief, rescue and rehabilitation. First, the positives based on the relief and rescue efforts.
The use of technology, in terms of tracking and monitoring the movement of cyclone, its direction, intensity and location, was perfect. The dynamic maps, posted by Indian meteorological department on its website as well as some of the sites maintained overseas, provided almost perfect information about the impending cyclone. When the cyclone actually struck the land at Kailashgiri Hills in Vizag city, it coincided with the likely timing, intensity and periodicity. It was due to this perfect knowledge in advance that all necessary efforts required for carrying out relief and rescue could be put in place. The vehicular movement on Chennai-Kolkata National Highway was stopped 16 hours in advance from Oct 11 onwards and this helped minimize the vehicular damages likely to have been caused by felling of trees and cables. People were informed at least 3 days in advance and they were kept continuously updated on cyclone’s progress and as a result, there was minimum movement on the day of cyclone. All Schools and other educational institutions were closed on Saturday ie a day in advance. The exact and near perfect information about the cyclone could thus prevent and minimize casualties in a very major way. This was also pointed out by the Prime Minister during his interaction with officials on Oct 14 in Vizag.

Sufficient availability of NDRF (National Disaster Response Force) in advance – Each unit of NDRF consists of 45 skilled personnel trained in carrying out first medical relief, tree cutting and rescue operations. A total of 15 units of NDRF were sent to AP and they were in position by Oct 10/11. A DIG level officer of NDRF monitored their operations from Vizag. The number of NDRF units was further increased to 24 and each team was further divided into two teams and thus we had at least 48-50 units in places. Their timely presence and flexibility in increasing their presence plus the commitment shown by them in carrying out relief and rescue work, esp getting the roads cleared by removing fallen trees was exemplary.

The coordination between the district administration, police, NDRF, Indian Navy and other state government departments was perfect and this enabled the district administration to evacuate a large number of people esp fisherman families from the low-lying coaster vulnerable villages to relief camps.

The immediate rushing of the Chief Minister of AP Mr Chandrababu Naidu on Oct 13, within 12 hours of Cyclone hitting the coast and his camping in Vizag for a week ensured that relief, rescue, rehabilitation and restoration work was carried out with an amazing speed and sincerity. While there are theoretical concerns with the presence of a VIP post disaster and whether it affects the relief work, I can, based on the experience of Hudhud in Vizag can confidently say that not only immediate relief in terms of ex-gratia distribution of rice and other civil supplies commodities could be arranged, the restoration work whether making roads traffic worthy by clearing the debris of fallen trees or restoration of electricity, which suffered massive damages due to falling of electrical poles and damages to sub-stations, could be carried out with an amazing speed.
In fact, at one point of time within 4 days of Cyclone hitting the city, there were 14000 skilled specialized field level personnel of electricity distribution company working day and night to restore electricity. In fact, most parts of the city had electricity restored within less than a week and this is truly praiseworthy. Further, as a result of his presence, the HODs of almost all line departments such as roads & building, municipal administration department, civil supplies, transport, medical & health and animal husbandry were camping in Vizag personally monitoring relief and rehabilitation work. Chief Minister’s presence speeded up restoration and helped built people confidence in administration.

Now, let’s look at the learnings and how some of the interventions could be improved.

When a natural disaster, of a magnitude such as Hudhud strikes, the effort of the administration on the eve of impending disaster is primarily focused on the rescue operations which include identifying vulnerable areas, setting up relief and rescue camps, shifting people to these camps and evacuation from the vulnerable areas. The underlying objective is to minimize losses whether its human casualties or damage and loss of properties. However, somewhere, in the process, the post disaster relief operations  gets neglected. A detailed micro-planning is therefore simultaneously needed not only for the rescue operations but also on the relief arrangements once the disaster has struck.
Civil Supplies and Food grains.
Stocking Civil Supplies requirements, esp rice, sugar, K oil and salt for the month’s requirement at each of the MLS points. Effort should be made to distribute the month’s quota, esp. for the October month when its more of an annual phenomenon, of rice, sugar & K oil in advance so that all card holders have the month’s supply with them. Additionally, MLS points can be filled with stocks for a month for the next month which can immediately be moved out in case ex-gratia supplies are announced.

The inventory availability of essential items, in addition, such as Dal, spices, salt and their stock situation for the district as well as all the neighboring districts can be ascertained and keep in ready condition so that the same can be moved in quickly if needed after the disaster.

Private traders/retailers/shopkeepers plus government/semi-government outlets can be advised to store all such items in sufficient quantity from July onwards and a strict vigil may be kept to ensure against hoardings and speculative price rise anticipating shortages. People can be asked to purchase such essential food-grains in advance for October so that everybody has them in the month of October.

Pruning of trees – the Prime Minister, during his review meeting with the District and State Officials in Vizag highlighted the need for pruning of trees and how a timely intervention in this regard, based on a scientific method could have prevented damages esp on the electrical installations and poles resulting due to falling of trees and their branches. It was observed that most of the heavy branches while coming down took along with electrical wires and poles too fell down as a result. In fact, the forest department and social forestry department along with Municipal Administration department can take up scientific pruning of all trees esp in the coastal belt and cities as a regular exercise in the month of April –July for all trees in commons /open areas /road side/ parks. They should also take up pruning of trees in private plots, based on individual requests, free of cost. Such as annual exercise will also enable fresh growth of greens and trees will be healthier and safe in the long run.  This has been one of the major learning.
Hoardings – it was observed that a major reason for damages was due to falling of the weak iron frame structures used for roadside hoardings. Municipalities, in order to get resources from advertising often permit indiscriminate hoardings on the roadside margins, traffic islands and other open spaces. There are no guidelines or standards for the kind of frames these hoardings should use and advertisers, in order to cut corners, compromise by putting very weak frame for these hoardings. It was seen that most of such hoardings fell down causing widespread damages to the nearby structures, vehicles and public installations such as electrical lines.  

 There are three learnings emanating – firstly, there should be no hoarding zones esp. vulnerable areas such as beach front roads/properties at least up to a kilometer from the beach. This prohibition should also be strictly implemented. Secondly, Municipal Administration Dept should come out with strict standards which must be mandatorily met by the advertisers while putting up these hoardings. The primary focus of these standards should be strength of the support frame and locations on which hoardings can be put up. This will prevent the likely damages in future significantly. Thirdly, all hoardings should necessarily be brought down by the advertisers at their own cost at least 10 days before the intended disaster when early warnings have been issued. They can be put up again after the disaster has passed through.
A similar exercise, prescribing strict standards for the display boards which are put up in front of every shop should be taken up. It was seen that lot of damages were caused when most of these display boards, along with their electrical fittings fell down in front of such shops and posed great danger to post disaster relief operations due to littering of dangerous material such as cut-glasses, electrical fittings and display material with sharp edges. There are no specifications at present and shops/suppliers of such display boards put up flimsy though attractive material just to save on cost. 

District level postings esp at the level of those heading should be filled up – A number of crucial positions such as the position of municipal commissioner, Vizag municipal corporation, VC Vizag Urban Development Authority (VUDA) and Police Commissioner, Vizag city were vacant at the time of cyclone. In addition, the Joint Collector was under orders of transfer and waiting to be relieved. While the situation is one of the those rare ones arising perhaps due to the division of the State and confusion regarding cadre allocation of senior civil servants and police officials, the absence of such important officials at the top in district administration did impact the relief measures in a major way. The impact perhaps was most severe in Vizag Municipal Corporation which suffered from serious lack of coordination and a situation where most of field level staff esp in health and sanitation wing either stayed away from duty or had a complete lackadaisical attitude towards cleaning of the city. It led to a situation where debris and garbage continued to lie on roads and it was NDRF teams and workers sent from other municipalities who were busy clearing the debris from roads.  Such a situation can be avoided if all top level positions in the districts are filled up in time.

Need for a detailed micro-level planning at the district level – while district collector and his team of officials did a yeoman service and worked round the clock, it was, at some level, more a reaction to an emerging emergency situation from time to time and their efforts could have been better put in place if there was a detailed micro level planning done in advance. To give an illustration, there was no planning done to decide on parking of vehicles coming from other districts carrying relief material such as packed food, water and milk sachets, the areas requiring distribution of these materials and the distribution plan. There was utter chaos on the day after the cyclone when trucks carrying packed food and milk came right in front of collectorate and there were looted immediately by the mob in a near stampede situation. This caused tremendous embarrassment to all other efforts which were done. The situation could have been totally avoided if it was planned in advance where the trucks will be parked (preferably at the entrance of the city), the division of material received based on where it needs to be sent (relief camp wise and areas which were vulnerable or where slums are located and were affected) and the man-power planning for carrying out this entire exercise. It would have been best if this exercise was done in advance and officials put in place accordingly and the entire exercise could be scaled up depending upon the gravity of damage.
Detailed manpower planning and deployment plan is needed thus for the following such situations:

1.      Receipt of relief material (food packets/water & Milk sachets), its storage, re-segregation based on end use requirement, and its transportation plan 

2.     Receiving and distributing civil supplies material (ex-gratia announcements of rice etc) from other districts, the exact transportation plan till the FPS level and the entire logistics needed therein

3.     A detailed plan is also needed for forming teams consisting of members of NDRF, Police, Municipality and Electricity department for road clearance. This can be done in advance or immediately after such disasters and municipal commissioner should be in charge of such an exercise.

4.    The municipal corporation must ensure that there is no letup clearance of garbage etc and that teams are in place and working.

5.    At the State level, HODs of electricity department, civil supplies department, medical and health department should plan for the material and manpower requirements as needed for restoration of electrical installations, civil supplies requirements and medical and health needs. While the actual requirements will vary depending upon the impact, advance planning and manpower and material placements will be extremely useful in speeding up relief efforts. Specifically, electrical materials such as additional poles, wires and other material required for restoring sub-stations can be stored in such vulnerable districts in vulnerable months (for Sept-Oct months) in advance.

6.       Teams required for carrying out enumeration of damages and their immediate deployment at the earliest. State Government was extremely prompt in doing this and the enumeration was carried out in record time. However, all efforts must be made to ensure cent percent enumeration as number of complaints comes in regarding incomplete or wrong enumeration.

Need for insurance cover – the coastal belt in AP as well as some of the neighboring states have a long history of cyclones and associated natural disasters striking at regular intervals. In fact, cyclone warnings are issued almost every October in the coastal belt. The damages that occurred as a result of Hudhud cyclone can broadly be classified into four categories (i) damages to public properties and installations such as roads, electrical installations, trees; (ii) damages to individual properties which was mainly private vehicles (cars/auto-rickshaws/two wheelers) and breaking of glass panes of windows or damage to property due to the impact of a fall of a tree/pole; a major damage within private property category is fishing boats and equipment such net;(iii) damages to agriculture fields with standing crops and horticulture plantations including coconut trees and (iv) damages to public sector undertakings including buildings of the state governments (collectorate for instance), Vizag Steel Plant, Naval installations etc. Most of these damages, except four wheeled private vehicles such as cars, are not insured and as a result, the financial impact of such damages came directly on the owner of such properties.



While the state government has been prompt enough to announce ex-gratia relief pertaining to crop including horticulture crop damages, losses to fishermen and damages to kutcha houses, the fact remains that the owner will have to bear the loss in most of the other categories whether it’s a private individual or an institution. It is also a fact that this will cost a huge burden on the state government.

All this point to an urgent pressing need to bring in maximum number of properties and other instruments which are insurable under the insurance cover. The general insurance companies do provide insurance cover for properties, vehicles, agriculture crops and against natural disasters and individual losses and the disastrous financial impact of such a calamity can be minimized if there’s insurance cover.
A drive thus needs to be taken up for providing insurance cover to (i) the entire agriculture area cropped during the kharif season including horticulture crops – the state government can be a facilitator between the agriculturists and AICL (a Government of India insurance company exclusively for the purpose of agriculture insurance); (ii) vehicular insurance including two wheelers and third party insurance of three-wheelers auto-rickshaws as well as fishing vessels (iii) individual properties such as houses; (iv) Government /institutional properties such as Collectorate building etc. A team at the state government level can be constituted now and it will carry out the task of maximizing insurance cover in the entire coastal belt.
Such a move would not only imply for covering of losses of individuals including farmers and timely compensation, it would ultimately imply a huge saving for the state government.  In fact, the premium of providing such insurance cover could be on a sharing basis between the individual and the state government (on a pre-determined transparent criteria depending upon the category) as the state government’s portion of this entire premium will be fraction of what’s being paid as ex-gratia.

Need to relook at the building designs and material being used in such cyclone prone areas
 Vizag airport which was recently opened and was state of the art on par with any other new airports is a modern building whose outer façade on all sides primarily was glass. A look at the damage caused to the airport building by the cyclone where all glasses as well as the roof of the building was destroyed and literally blown away, is scary. It’s as if only the skeleton remains while the cover has been taken off. Similar damages, of structures, which had relied heavily on glass material have been observed in the city whether it’s a prominent hotel or individual houses.
 This raises a question whether the town and country planning should not prescribe the building types and materials to be used in such cyclone prone areas and thereby ban the usage of certain types of construction material?

 It's been truly a very humbling experience facing nature's fury in a disaster such as Hudhud cyclone. However, proper planning, use of technology, inter-department coordination, detailed micro level planning and ability to plan in advance will help minimize damages and restore facilities at the earliest.
A detailed suggestive checklist for district administration's preparedness to meet any challenges arising out of such a natural disaster and to be in a state of readiness so as to minimize the losses and also to ensure that relief is provided immediately and restoration is taken up in the shortest possible time, can be seen here. A copy has been sent to all coastal District Collectors in AP and also the Head of Departments in the state capital. In addition, at the state level, care may also be taken to ensure that some of the key functionaries such as Commissioner, Relief is exempted from taking up any other assignment which implies his absence from the office such as that of Election Observer's


  1. experience with the Nature has always been afresh, yet the preparedness saves .. a detailed account.

  2. Excellent and timely article. Hope Government including NDMC will make best of this useful information.

  3. We all are proud of you, the AP Government, Disaster Relief Teams and the meteorologists involved in this massive operation ! Again, a curt reminder from Nature that we should take our habitations more seriously. I really appreciate your in-depth observations. In Mumbai, I see many trees with overgrown branches, which are neither cut by the local administration nor is allowed to be cut by public without bribes. Occasionally, a vehicle gets damaged or a person gets killed every few months, and it is again business as usual.

  4. Businesses and general public should be fully educated on insuring their capital equipment, merchandise or properties adequately. Government can bring out some study papers on how to store different commodities to avoid damage due to flooding etc. This will go a long way in reducing the financial burden on the government in case of disasters as also help the victims recover faster with lesser loss.

    Businesses and even houses should use only toughened glass and the structures must be made to withstand 300 kmph gales. There is no need or advantage for many Industries to be near sea coast and near urban areas; they can be advised to be atleast 40 to 50 kms inside from the sea coast.

    Government in consultation with various stakeholders should prepare an economic plan of action to support and revive the victims of natural disasters. Few of the things that need to be addressed: Postponement of collection of all types of taxes, filing of returns, bank.credit card/EMIs payments, adjourning court cases or other legal hearings, etc. Each of the businesses (that includes industry) should be encouraged to prepare a document on Plan of Action to address different kinds of disasters and keep it ready (at different places).

  5. Very useful discussion Sir. Really proud of you to have taken time and meticulously pen down all the basic issues and nitigrities in a systematic way. I hope this will be useful for future planing.

  6. Excellent documentation...My compliments.


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