Mobiles, radios saved our lives during Cyclone Phailin: Survivors

Bhubneshwar: Gajendra Jena, 55, kept his radio switched on for updates when Cyclone Phailin, the strongest storm to hit India's eastern coast in 14 years, was nearing.He packed essential items such as beaten rice, sugar,
mobiles radios saved our lives during cyclone...
IANS 21 Oct 2013, 05:57 PM IST
Bhubneshwar: Gajendra Jena, 55, kept his radio switched on for updates when Cyclone Phailin, the strongest storm to hit India's eastern coast in 14 years, was nearing.



He packed essential items such as beaten rice, sugar, clothes, money and his radio set and went to the nearby cyclone shelter along with his wife and two small children, immediately after a special radio bulletin said people needed to evacuate.

The bulletin warned those who are staying within five km of the coast in dilapidated, thatched house or homes with asbestos roofing to move to safer places, Jena said.

"Our house got damaged which we will re-build, but thank god we could save our lives. It was the radio which informed us about the danger," the cyclone survivor told IANS while sitting near his destroyed house less than two km from the coast at the beach town of Puri, about 56 kms from capital Bhubaneswar.

The storm ripped off the asbestos roof of his house and destroyed both the rooms. Only some broken bricks are scattered around. Jena has been trying to resume his life at the site where he returned a day after the storm crossed the coast, tearing apart hundreds of thousands of houses like his.

Not only Jena, the radio helped a large number of families make their plans ahead of the storm and decide their next course of action.

The very severe tropical cyclone that struck October 12 night near state's port town of Gopalpur in Ganjam district, left a trail of destruction, bringing heavy rain and causing floods.

Although damage to property was estimated at several thousand crore rupees, the loss of humans was minimal compared to the 1999 super-cyclone that claimed over 10,000 lives. The toll from the latest cyclone and flooding has so far remained at only 44.

The fewer casualties have been attributed to the evacuation of more than one million people to safety hours before the disaster.

While government officials played a major role in the evacuation, without mobile phones and the radio it would not have been possible to achieve this, a senior official in the disaster management department admitted.

Arun Kumar Subuddhi, the owner of Time and Sound that deals in Philips radios in Bhubaneswar, said the demand was so high that he sold more than 600 sets within hours after the first warning of the cyclone was sounded.

"Three days later, people were still looking for radios and we sold more than 100 sets," he added.

The state-run broadcaster All India Radio (AIR), which reaches more than 80 percent of Odisha, particularly the interior rural pockets, prepared days before the cyclone struck and stocked adequate diesel to ensure uninterrupted transmission from its various centres.

"Radio penetration is very high in rural areas. Any village you go to, you will find at least one battery-operated radio. Therefore, we had made elaborate arrangements," AIR Bhubaneswar station director Sudha Mishra said.

"We started airing information related to the disaster three days before the cyclone struck and continued until it had weakened. We also broadcast special bulletins and were advising people what to do and what not to do hours before it struck," she added.

Besides, AIR, which has its main centre at Cuttack and smaller centres in several district headquarters, also aired a few live phone-ins to enable people relate what was happening around them she said.

"Mobile phones, which were working in most of the areas despite adverse weather conditions, also helped us a lot to connect with people and staff," Mishra said.

"We had asked our people to get SIMs of multiple operators. If one stopped working, they could use another and this trick worked very well," she said.

Mobile phones also helped many to get up-to-date information about the severe weather conditions. In 1999, there were only a few hundered mobile phone users in the state. Today, there are more than 20 million users, while state-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) alone has three million subscribers, an official said.

BSNL sent weather update SMSes to 1.5 million people, mostly in the coastal belt, on Oct 11 and 12, BSNL Odisha circle general manager (Mobile) Balaram Pal said.

S.C.Sahu, director of the Bhubaneswar meteorological centre, said sent sending SMS alerts to some 150 people, mostly top functionaries of the government, railways and airport officials updating them about the weather conditions.

"I had kept my mobile switched off for hours to save the battery. When the cyclone neared, I switched it on and listened to the weather bulletin using the radio avilable in the mobile," internationally acclaimed sand artist Sudarsan Pattnaik said, recollecting the horror.
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