Cyclone Thane -- Disaster Preparedness and Response

Cyclone Thane --  Disaster Preparedness and Response 

By Annie George, CEO, BEDROC with additional information from Ahana Lakshmi, TRINet; based on field observations and various reports on the internet. The views are of the authors alone.


Banana plants destroyed by the cyclone


Cyclonic disturbances develop regularly in the North Indian Ocean of which the Bay of Bengal is a part. Cyclones are seen mainly occurring in May-June and October- November, with the primary peak in November and secondary peak in May. Cyclone Thane was a little out of season, in that way. However, for those living in Tamil Nadu, it just added a little more to the weather uncertainties that we have been experiencing in recent times. Cyclone Thane started off as a depression over the southeast Bay of Bengal on 25th of December, 2011. After intensifying into a deep depression and then, into a cyclonic storm, it crossed the coast on 30th December bringing with it large scale devastation in Puducherry and Cuddalore. 

The Indian Meteorological Department has a network of meteorological observatories (both surface and upper air) covering the entire coastline and islands. With the Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project in place, the early warning systems are to be strengthened further. After being tracked by satellites and weather buoys during its formation, as soon as Cyclone Thane came with range, the Doppler Weather Radar at Chennai began monitoring the system providing accurate monitoring of location and better estimation of intensity and associated landfall processes including heavy rainfall location and intensity and gale wind speed. The extensive warnings that were constantly transmitted by multiple means (radio, TV, websites, newspapers…) and the precautionary measures taken such as evacuation, closing schools, switching off power - resulted in low numbers of casualties, less than fifty. However the damage caused was very extensive – this despite the fact that it was finally described as a Category 1 cyclone as the maximum sustained wind speeds hit only about 140-150 kmph which is supposed to cause minimal damage! 

Disaster Preparedness: Some important lessons:

Early Warning Systems:

Reports say that EWS went high-tech and all warnings were being aired over the radio and television. Both Cuddalore and Puducherry had started announcing the imminent arrival of this Cyclone through mass- communication channels, like the Television and the Radio. 

In any such crisis situation, when there can be very frequent updates and changes, it certainly makes sense to use such mass communication channels. While the idea was theoretically perfect, the Electricity Board had their own priorities where safeguarding the communities from getting electrocuted by live fallen lines took greater priority over latest information. Hence, although information was being aired very frequently, it was not received by many as the power supply was cut off twenty-four hours before the cyclone struck  and was reinstated only after a week or two depending on how far away the place was from the mainstream areas.

Electrical posts felled by the cyclone
While moving to the newer and purportedly “more efficient” technologies are praiseworthy and forward looking, we must, in times of crises, look at utilizing all channels: the ringing of the temple/ church bells, the public announcements, the word-of-mouth using traditional messengers who have a place in every village.
More than a critique on technology, this is to ensure that people listen and respond to information and this is easier accomplished when it is through sources they have been used to and trust implicitly.

Probably the Emergency Operation Cell (EOC), at each District, should start functioning as a help desk even before the hazard hits and the number of this EOC should be made public so that concerned public can get information directly from the EOC on the latest trajectory, the shelters closes to them and other relevant information. 

The mobiles continued to function as long as power lasted and this channel could have been utilized to send out mass messages from the EOC. BSNL was exploring this possibility and had some working models which can be adopted by the States as a whole. There should also be alternate systems for charging of mobiles made popular so that a sudden cut in electric power supply does not result in a breakdown of communication systems.

Whose message: 

The FM radio may be a good choice for dissemination of public awareness messages when it is a “take-it-or-leave-it” kind of a situation.  Theoretically, this channel may have the most following and may be able to reach out to many more people than the newspapers or the regular bands. However, the glitch was that the FM radio is primarily known as an entertainment channel and very few were inclined to take these chirpy, bouncy youngsters seriously when they predicted serious matters.  There seem to be many more facets to Behavioral Change Communication than we, as DM professionals, have understood.

The person giving the message also seems to be of crucial importance. While in Melemoovarkarai, during the 2005 floods, the communities refused to relocate despite the rising water unless their traditional leader decreed; in the Thane Cyclone it was a case of the “Officials not giving them the message”. Though the Collector of Puducherry was appearing on the channels urging the people to move to safety, there were no follow-on instructions on the safe places to move to or any organized attempt to shift them. While one can argue on “shifting whom?” when it’s a cyclone as one never knows its exact trajectory, at least shifting people away from the more vulnerable areas like the coast could have been attempted. The relocation of vulnerable people to safe shelters was successfully done in Cuddalore.

One interesting fact was that in Karaikal, the AIR station appeared to have played an important role – there was a phone in facility and a number of people made calls regarding fallen trees and blocked roads so that help could go out to them.

Decentralised EWS for ensuring last-mile connectivity, though an oft-repeated concept, needs to be brought to the forefront of Disaster Preparedness. This is already supposed to be a key element in the NCRMP but needs to be implemented on a priority basis.


Damage due to cyclones is mainly classified under

1. Damage due to heavy rain
2. Damage due to gale force winds
3. Damage due to storm surge.

The storm surge was predicted to be 1-1.5m above astronomical tide, a relatively small surge and it did not have devastative impacts except for some localized flooding. Damage due to rain was secondary to the damage caused by heavy winds, not surprising as Cyclone Thane was supposed to be a wind driven system.

Puducherry reported maximum wind of 68 knots (125 kmph) and Cuddalore reported maximum wind of 76 knots (140 kmph) at the time of landfall. In some places in Puducherry, solar heaters on rooftops, plastic water storage tanks and even the anemometers placed on rooftops were found broken.  The gale wind blew off sheet roofing, photovoltaic solar panels and solar water heaters placed on rooftops, and the area was carpeted by green leaves from trees and there were many damaged boundary walls.
The wind whipped up waves as high as 7 metres but the storm surge was between 1-2 metres and did not affect Puducherry town though the beach road was reportedly covered with sand and small boulders. Fishing boats were extensively damaged, in many cases, the engines were found buried in sand.
Photos of the disaster have been shared by some netizens show coconut trees (those still standing) with their fronds all pushed to one side by the wind, electricity poles and street bent out of shape, trees snapped like matchsticks and as if a giant has been jumping on them, buildings with signboards ripped off, collapsed hoardings and so on.
Clearly those who lived in thatched houses were the worst affected – some 3.8 lakh huts and tiled houses had been damaged in Cuddalore district alone and large numbers had been moved to safer shelters before the cyclone.

Safe Shelters

This brings us to the interesting aspect of safe shelters. Cuddalore had invested in Cyclone shelters and this proved very useful during this cyclone. People were shifted to these shelters without much ado and fairly early.
However, Puducherry lacked such facilities and reports are that the Administration was frantically looking for large halls which could accommodate the affected people “after” the cyclone had wrecked its devastation.In the temporary relief camps, women suffered due to lack of privacy. There was shortage of drinking water too. In fact, according to a report by the SSP, in one village (Kandankadu), people were incensed with the poor response from the VAO regarding water supplies that they locked him up and only after higher officials intervened and promised supplies was the VAO released.

Community level Disaster Preparedness

Interestingly, of the 12 most devastating cyclones that have struck the east coast of India, none crossed the Tamil Nadu coast. There have been cyclones crossing the coast every year, but the destruction has not been on this scale. As one respondent pointed out, they would count the number of trees that had fallen after a cyclone – this time they had to count the number standing up. The most recent disaster in the memory of people is the 2004 tsunami and the fact that the cyclone, unlike the tsunami, caused destruction well inland resulted in people saying that they had never before witnessed such ferocious weather or such extensive destruction.

The Boat damages in Nagapattinam were far lesser than the boat damages in Cuddalore or Puducherry. On enquiring, the fishermen said that they had heeded the early warnings and tied up their boats at much higher levels on the beach, ensuring that they do not dash against each other or get washed away. Although similar warnings were issued in the other two districts, no such preventive action was taken. Was it a question of “once bitten, twice shy”?

Some interesting responses when the same question was asked in the other two districts- the people in Puducherry spoke about how there was a certain level of complacency as they did not have much problems even during the tsunami and so were not too concerned about a mere cyclone. There was also another reason stated- that of a “crying wolf” syndrome- they have been warned about cyclones every year during this period, but never had to face it as it always veered off during the end and so they did not expect to be hit even this time.
Most families in Puducherry were caught in the fury of the cyclone with only their flimsy thatched roofs providing them with any form of protection. They recount tales of running out in the night and desperately begging for shelter from the pucca houses in the vicinity.

Immediate Response

The Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Ltd (TANGEDCO) reportedly suffered a cumulative loss of over Rs. 835 crore in the cyclone hit areas. The damage was to electrical infrastructure such as EHT towers, substation equipment, transformers, poles and other distribution materials. Apart from 35 110-KV and 220-KV EHT towers, 45,000 electric poles, 6,000 pole structures and 4,500 distribution transformers have been damaged. Cuddalore was the worst-hit district where almost half its distribution transformers and 20 per cent of electricity poles collapsed under the intensity of the cyclone and hence the restoration means recreating of the electricity infrastructure.
Damage to fishing boats
The cyclonic winds played nine pins with the stately looking palms and grand old trees that lined the main roads of Cuddalore and Puducherry. The electricity poles and transformers did not fare any better and resembled broken twigs once the winds had died down. The imposing looking factories in Cuddalore looked very different with their roofs blown off and glass fronts blown to smithereens.  
Transportation could not be resumed without the roads being cleared of all this fallen debris. However, the heavy machinery required to clear this debris could not be brought into action without the official site-visit and approval of Govt. Officials….who could not visit the site as the road was blocked….classic case of chicken and egg problem. We came across one group of villagers who collected money to hire a JCB to clean the debris so that the Govt. official could visit and assess the damages.

With the vast range of devastation, the district administrations of both Cuddalore and Puducherry had their hands full and priority was rightly given to clearing the roads, moving away all the huge trees, restoring power and then assessing the other damages. The State Govt. of Tamil Nadu quickly moved in support from the neighbouring districts and work proceeded quite fast in Cuddalore. Puducherry was left to valiantly fight its battles on its own. It is not quite clear why the Centre did not move in to support this small little UT. Apart from the NDRF, there were no other supports seen. It took one whole fortnight to restore power supply in some of the rural areas. 

Water and dry rations were a priority. The Administration in both districts provided cooked food for 2 to four days. After that, even the regular PDS supply of rice was not available in Puducherry till the 19th when this was resumed. The rice stocks were damaged in the cyclone and they did have a legitimate reason. Meanwhile, cost of essentials shot up in the market, kerosene was being sold in the black market for Rs. 80- 100/litre and candles for a princely sum of Rs 8/candle.

Damage Assessment

Both the Districts did their own damage assessments and also had the Central Team visiting them for their own assessments. There is no disagreement about the fact that the worst affected is the agriculture sector, especially the horticulture division with coconut and cashew trees bearing the brunt of the impact. The break-up of damage in Tamil Nadu was:  standing paddy crop - 75,523 ha,  cashew - 28,000 ha, sugarcane – 8,309 ha, coconut – 1,253 ha, cotton – 225 ha, groundnut – 2,474 ha, horsegram – 5,108 ha and palm oil trees – 159 ha according to early assessments.
Some of the NGOs also started with their own assessments. Bedroc which started their assessments in Nagapattinam, Puducherry and Cuddalore by the 30th of January had some interesting experiences. The shell-shocked communities were very forthcoming on the first two to three days and gave the actual figures of damages and losses. However, this quickly changed and in the repeated trips to same areas, the communities started giving inflated figures hoping that such assessments would lead to some compensation from either the Govt or the NGOs.A similar response was heard from the fisheries department. 

Though there was no damage in Kancheepuram district, for example, and the communities said so when the assessment team reached within the first few days, soon after compensation packages were announced, the number of damaged boats suddenly grew in numbers and there were even reports of infighting among the panchayats of their (in)ability to attract more compensation.

This was also perhaps the first cyclone where such compensations were being offered, a repercussion of the 2004 tsunami’s generous reaction. Has the response to the tsunami disaster changed the mindset of the people so much that they now demand compensation as a right and not look at whether they have been affected and really deserve it?

Support from Humanitarian Agencies

With the withdrawal of most of the Humanitarian Agencies from Tamil Nadu, on the basis of it being a developed State, the support for relief activities in both these districts were slow and apart from ADRA , CASA and the Red Cross Agencies, there were no other agencies visible in here in the aftermath of this disaster.
Even their support was limited to some areas. The other Agencies are still taking time to decide if they will be able to support any relief or rehabilitation activities. This stark difference post tsunami and post Thane even led to some scathing reports in the media about the total invisibility of the NGOs in the affected areas. There was a marked difference even in the supports offered- the Agencies were largely meant for Tamil Nadu and could not offer support to Puducherry despite it being only 30 kms away on the grounds that Puducherry did not come under their jurisdiction and they would require clearance from their higher authorities before offering assistance in Puducherry. 

Most NGOs were loath to visit the affected villages as they did not have any supports to offer and the villagers were looking to them for help. 

The time taken to swing into action by NGOs is constrained by their lack of funds and other resources. The need for information before formulating a proposal, the time taken to clear the proposal, the time taken by the regional office of the donor agency in getting approvals from higher authorities before they can meaningfully intervene, all these are road blocks that we still have not been able to resolve and meanwhile, the communities continue to suffer.

Role of the Panchayat and local MLAs

The local Panchayat were also caught unprepared but, wherever possible, they played a strong role. However, their role is limited due to lack of financial resources.
The MLAs did swing into action and provided hot meals, change of clothes and some other relief material. However, in most cases, their intervention left a lot to be desired as their support was targeted support, only for those areas and people who presumably voted for them!!! It is a sad state of events when disaster relief is targeted by the very people who have taken an oath to work for the development of their people - one probably needs to redefine the meaning of “their people”.

The most optimal solution would be to strengthen the PRIs with resources and capacitate them to respond equitably and appropriately. This move will also ensure that the “mini/ localized disasters” are also taken care of and not only the ones termed by the media or disaster management gurus as “disaster”.

Community Involvement in clearing up debris and getting back to normalcy

When the NGOs were asked why they could not help the communities to get involved in the local cleaning up, repairs to whatever could be repaired, the NGOs gave a very interesting explanation. They said that the communities did not want to do any clearing up till the Administration came around and assessed the damages. Unless the Administration was convinced of the damages, the affected communities would not be eligible for relief, especially of their damaged assets like house, land, crops etc. 

If the Relief Code was modified to accept photographic evidence with reasonable supporting documents, then the communities could have moved on with small repairs, clearing of their agricultural land and even planting another crop as there were still three more months of water availability which could have been utilized.

House damaged by the cyclone
Tamil Nadu has announced a forward looking package, where debris cleaning is being taken up under MNREGS and, more important, farmers clearing up their fields have also been brought under this network. MNREGS is a very good social security mechanism which can ensure “cash- for- work” during these desperate times and best of all, it takes care of the asset-less people like labourers who are not eligible for any compensation for assets lost. As the decision making and disbursements are through the PRIs, this is a good move towards decentralizing disaster management.

Rehabilitation Challenges


Both TN and Puducherry have already announced rehabilitation packages, Puducherry being more generous, as usual. However, will a package, generous or otherwise, ensure a safe house for people living in vulnerable areas? Instead of continuously investing in rebuilding of unsafe houses, be it after the Aila or the Thane- would it not be better if the Govt. invested in safe houses? Cannot these vulnerable houses also be brought under current housing schemes available with the Govt.? It would not take much effort to do a zonation of geographically vulnerable locations, identify all vulnerable houses in such locations and convert them to safe houses in a phased manner. This is anyway being done under the tsunami rehabilitation efforts. Can we not explore possibilities of expanding this scheme to non-tsunami affected areas which are vulnerable nonetheless to other, more frequent, more likely hazards?

This would also be a good occasion to look at incorporating other safety norms as well or including indigenous methods that protect tiles from being displaced under strong winds. The knowledge exists, maybe in places as far away as Gujarat, where Hunnarshaala has devised simple technologies to hold tiles in place. It only needs a political willingness to look at what can be in place of what is.

Livelihood Restoration

Agriculture:While fishing can be resumed just by putting a new boat out into the sea, restoring agriculture is a different ball game which is also dependant on various other parameters like availability of water, soil conditions after the siltation/salination, and appropriateness of the crops planned etc.  Samba is the main cultivation season in these coastal areas which are largely dependent on rain-fed cultivation. With three more months of water being available in the canals, it would have been possible for farmers to salvage whatever time is left to plant short-duration varieties of paddy or have two crops of pulses.

However, the delay in assessments and provision of rehabilitation packages has totally lost us this window of opportunity. The kit of seeds and fertilizers will be of no use to farmers who are without their own means of irrigation which rules out at least two-thirds of the farmers, mainly the small and marginal farmers. They have no other go but to wait till the next samba for even utilizing this rehabilitation package. Is the cash compensation for crop loss provided enough to sustain them till then? Or, can the Agriculture Dept. swing into quick action to provide seeds appropriate for the current conditions and help the farmers recoup at least some of their losses?

This brings back the relevance of seed banks at the Panchayat level which will support quicker turn- around time for the farmers without having to wait for kits from a central source, which may not even be relevant for the current conditions. 

Similarly, a soil analysis of the affected areas by the Govt. would go a long way in assisting the farmer decide on most appropriate land reclamation practices thereby bringing down his cost of inputs. Currently the farmer is flying blind and using a package of fertilizers which may not be appropriate or necessary.

Unlike Nagapattinam, which is totally dependent on paddy cultivation, farmers in Cuddalore and Puducherry also derive income from horticultural crops like banana, sugarcane, coconuts and cashew. Traditional varieties of Coconut palms take about 8-10 years for yielding nuts and Cashew takes even longer. Although the Dept. has promised hybrid varieties that will yield nuts faster, the farmers are not too enthused as they claim that the quality of the traditional varieties cannot be matched by these hybrid varieties. 

Another matter of concern is the compensation which is announced. Rs. 800 for a Coconut palm which currently was giving them a minimum of 20 nuts every 30- 40 days, each fetching them Rs. 8-10 per nut, cannot be compensated by Rs. 800 per tree lost as is the current package in Puducherry.

Some creative thinking will have to be done to ensure this income for such farmers. Quick yielding horticultural crops as relay cropping in limited portions of their land while the other trees mature, in a phased manner or even in-between the palms/ trees planted will have to be promoted to ensure regular income for those affected in this manner.

Again unlike Nagapattinam, there are large number of small, medium and large scale factories in Cuddalore and Puducherry which have also been badly affected. 

The workers have been given time off, sometimes with some cash compensation but mostly without, till the factory is repaired and work restarts. While some of the workers may be covered through the public distribution system in place, there are many migrant workers who do not come under the purview of this social security mechanism. Neither will they get at least the basic essentials nor will they be compensated for the loss of their assets, houses or livelihoods. The migrant population is largely unrecognized by either of the Governments.

While Puducherry Govt. has requested support from the NGOs to identify this migrant population, no such attempts have been visible from the TN Govt. A quick survey of the migrant population is a necessity and needs to be done at the earliest and also providing them with necessary supports to regain their lives and livelihoods with dignity.

Last word: 


While the learnings are interesting, are they important enough to be discussed and incorporated into future action plans? Are the learnings by themselves enough, or are there more hidden facets to the politics of disaster management that mere field level practitioners will not be able to recognize or comprehend? Although the latest responses show some light of hope, we still have a long way to go in understanding the nuances of this elephant called Disaster Management.