Cyclone Ockhi's devastating effect could have been reduced if state disaster officials had acted promptly

The fury of Cyclone Ockhi, that left a trail of destruction across Kerala, was felt more by fishermen and the people living along the coastal areas of the state.

Experts firmly believe that the intensity of the devastation could have been reduced to a great extent, if not totally averted, had the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) risen to the occasion. Information available from different sources shows that the agency failed utterly on all fronts.

The biggest lapse on the part of the SDMA was its failure to disseminate the repeated warnings they received from the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) and other agencies about the deep depression in the Arabian Sea to the people.

Trivandrum IMD Director S Sudevan said that his department had passed on three alerts about the deep depression in the sea near the state since 29 November morning. But the authorities started acting only after receiving the third alert at 12 noon on 30 November. But by the time, the depression had developed into a cyclone and started wreaking havoc.

Sudevan told Firstpost that the first alert sent to the State Emergency Operations Centre (SEOC) under the SDMA at 5 a.m on 29 November itself was suggestive of a looming cyclone. The department did not use the term cyclone as they did not want to spread panic unnecessarily.

Rescue efforts during Cyclone Ockhi. AP

Rescue efforts during Cyclone Ockhi. AP

“The message had warned of heavy rains, squally winds and high waves in south Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Lakshadweep, indicating a depression which could intensify. The alert had advised fishermen not to venture into the sea. The state officials could have issued an alert based on the message,” he added.

The senior official said that they had sent another message in the night on 29 November suggesting intensification of the depression. This meant that the storm could develop into a cyclone. Sudevan had also called an SEOC official around midnight and checked whether the department had received the message and acted on it. The official had reportedly confirmed this and assured him that they were acting on it.

SDMA officials sought to justify their inaction saying there was no indication in the alert that it could develop into a cyclonic storm. SDMA secretary P H Kurian said the alerts looked more like a regular protocol, alerting of heavy rains and high waves. No one took that seriously, he added.

The SDMA had also ignored reports about the IMD alerts in a section of the national media on 29 November and local media in the morning on 30 November. If they had issued a warning to the fishermen not to go sea on 29 November, many would have heeded the warning.

According to information available with fishermen’s bodies, hundreds of boats had gone to sea from Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Alappuzha and Ernakulam on 29 November and 30 November. Many of them are yet to return to the coast. While seven fishermen were killed, the fate of those trapped in the sea is still to be known.

Kerala Independent Fish Workers Federation president Thomas Peter said the tragedy could have been averted if the state government had acted in time. “Usually, we receive advance warnings on the weather. But this time, there was no such notification," he told Firstpost.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan admitted a lapse on the part of the officials. He said that the message was conveyed to him only around 12.30 p.m on 30 November. He said he had activated the rescue machinery immediately after he got the information.

Experts feel that the lapse could have been the result of the failure by officials to correctly interpret the inputs from the IMD. B Chakrapani, Associate Professor, Department of Oceanic Studies at the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT), said officials may also not have taken the warning seriously as Kerala was not familiar with cyclones that battered many other parts of the country.

However, Dr KG Thara, former member of the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA), said this was not correct. She said that Kerala had witnessed nine minor cyclones in the last 30 years and it is even included in the cyclone-prone area. She believes that the messages may have been ignored as they were not interpreted correctly.

Thara said that the problem with SDMA was the lack of experts to analyze scientific inputs and act on them promptly. The authority is now packed with officials, who do not have the required technological know-how to analyse scientific information. Moreover, they are too busy with routine work to consult experts when a situation arises.

Thara felt an alert could have been issued hours before the onset of the storm if there was an independent panel headed by experts working full time. She has called for a recasting of the authority with independent experts from different fields to ensure that such lapses are not repeated in future.

The SDMA lapse was not confined to issuing the alert alone. M Vincent, legislator representing Kovalam, one of the worst-hit areas, said that the agency had also failed in the rescue operations. He said the agency had not taken any step to rescue the fishermen trapped in the sea despite repeated pleas from the fisherfolk and people’s representatives.

He said that the ships for rescue were pressed into action only on 1 December. The boats trapped in the sea had exhausted fuel, water and food by then. The fishermen were found battling with high waves. Though he had informed the chief secretary about this, no action was taken till the next morning.

“The Coast Guard officials refused to go to the sea immediately after the SDMA issued the alert, citing the rough condition of the sea and their unfamiliarity with those conditions. Several fishermen, who know the sea closely, were ready to join them. However, they waited till the next day. Some ships that were sent then returned without finding any fishermen,” Vincent said.

He said that some private ships anchored at Vizhinjam were ready to go for the rescue with the fishermen, but the officials were not willing to hire them. One ship was hired on Friday after long arguments. The state government is still in the dark over the number of boats and the fishermen trapped in the sea.

The revenue department has asked village offices in the coastal areas of Ernakulam, Alappuzha, Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram to gather the details. The Kovalam MLA termed the rescue and rehabilitation as another disaster and urged the government to learn lessons from it and tone up its disaster management machinery.

According to Vincent, the urgent need is to equip the SDMA with infrastructure such as ships and helicopters. Kerala with its vast coastline and hilly areas is prone to a multitude of disasters. It is categorized as a multi-hazard prone state.

Besides floods during the monsoon, sea erosion and landslides, the state is also vulnerable to earthquakes of a magnitude of 6.5 or more, and cyclones. Possibilities of chemical and industrial disasters, and disasters like bursting of dams, also are very high in the state.

Though the state government is receiving substantial funds from the central government, experts are doubtful whether they were being used for mitigating the sufferings caused by the disasters. The state has received Rs 1,021 crore last year from the Centre to ensure disaster management preparedness in five years, but proper infrastructure is yet to be put in place.

The former SDMA member KG Thara said that half of the Rs 50 crores allotted by the Centre for setting up district-level disaster management centres were used for building a posh headquarter for SDMA. Ironically, the people sitting in the high-tech office are yet to learn the basic lessons of disaster management.

Updated Date: Dec 03, 2017 08:29 AM

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