Mumbai avoided the worst of Cyclone Nisarga, which made landfall close to the Indian financial capital in western Maharashtra state on Wednesday, but caused minimal damage, officials said.
Cyclones in that part of India are relatively rare – Mumbai, which is home to 18 million people, was last hit by a major storm in 1948.
Nevertheless, disaster response teams launched a large-scale operation in Maharashtra and Gujarat states ahead of landfall to evacuate more than 100,000 people – including coronavirus patients – from the coast and move them to temporary shelters and other facilities.
Teams were dispatched to go door-to-door urging people living in low-lying areas to seek shelter and educating those who didn’t want to move.
Officials were concerned that storm surges would inundate the low-lying areas – where many people live in flimsy or makeshift housing – and that intense rainfall could lead to deadly flooding.
The response may have averted a bigger disaster as only one person is reported to have been killed in the storm, according to Anupam Srivastava, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) commandant in Maharashtra.
“Apart from tin roofs flying off and treefall there isn’t much damage in the state and we expect to clear the roads by tomorrow,” Srivastava said on Wednesday.
Images show disaster teams on the ground in Maharashtra and neighboring Gujarat clearing trees and other debris from roads after wind speeds of 130 kph (81 mph) hit the region.
A 40 km (24 mile) stretch from Raigad to Alibag towns received the brunt of the damage – where winds stripped buildings of tin roofs and a small number of trees fell on houses.
Cyclones increasing in intensity
Last month, a study released by researchers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that hurricanes, typhoons, and tropical cyclones worldwide are becoming stronger and potentially more deadly as the globe warms due to the climate crisis.
Researchers found that the probability of storms reaching major hurricane status (category 3 or above on the Saffir-Simpson scale with winds in excess of 110 mph or higher), increased decade after decade.
Ahead of landfall, Cyclone Nisarga strengthened to the equivalent of just below a Category 1 Atlantic hurricane, or a severe cyclonic storm in the West Pacific.
It came two weeks after the strongest storm ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal hit India’s east coast and southwest Bangladesh. Cyclone Amphan weakened before making landfall but at one point was the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane, with wind speeds of up to 270 kph (168 mph).
Amphan was just the second super cyclone to hit the Bay of Bengal since records began. At least 90 people were killed, hundreds of thousands were left homeless and the storm caused an estimated $13.2 billion dollars in damage in the state of West Bengal alone.
Though the damage was extensive, large-scale evacuation efforts appeared to have saved many lives. An ambitious evacuation mounted by India and Bangladesh saw an estimated 3 million people moved to safety across the two countries, according to regional authorities.
In May 2019, another powerful storm struck the eastern Indian state of Odisha as the equivalent of a Category 4 hurricane. More than 1 million people were evacuated before Cyclone Fani struck, killing 89 people.
To compare, during the last super cyclone to hit India in 1999 – which also impacted Odisha state – almost 10,000 people died.
It was a national tragedy that spurred an overhaul of India’s disaster response apparatus – the results of which have been visible in disasters since.
Lives saved, but damage remains extensive
To avoid a repeat of the 1999 tragedy, India created a new disaster response infrastructure.
In 2005, the country introduced new laws to set up what’s called the National Disaster Management Authority, a central agency charged with one thing: responding to and minimizing the impact of disasters.
A year later, in 2006, India established a National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), a specialized corps of highly trained men and women focused on disasters such as cyclones and earthquakes. It’s now comprised of almost 25,000 personnel.
Ahead of cyclones like Fani, Amphan and Nisarga, those specially trained responders worked with volunteers, local officials and NGOs, moving door-to-door along coastal villages asking people to evacuate. Residents who insisted on staying were trained by NDRF staff in the necessary precautions to take.
The Indian Meteorological Department also publishes hourly updates, alerts and forecasts, including on Twitter.
“We have enhanced our preparedness over the time. We deploy the military, paramilitary, armed forces, disaster management teams, disaster relief, to save lives,” Aparna Roy, associate fellow and co-lead on climate change and energy at the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy (CNED) said in May.
But while advanced planning and recovery response has improved, the scale of damage and loss to livelihoods and infrastructure from extreme weather events remains devastating and hugely costly.
“What we have not improved is the resilience of infrastructure that stands the climate impacts,” Roy said.
“While we relocated a lot of people during Cyclone Fani and the number of casualties were very low, look at the amount of damage to infrastructure that the cyclone has done in the state of Orissa (Odisha) itself,” Roy continued.
Cyclone Fani devastated the livelihoods of about 28 million people, destroyed crops, left millions homeless and caused about $1.81 billion in damage, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
“We lost huge amounts of our agriculture land, which is lain barren, useless. We lost a lot of our hospital buildings which stopped functioning during the pandemic because of the damage done from flooding after the cyclone struck. Roads, connectivity, transportation, everything was damaged,” Roy said.
After Cyclone Amphan in May, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said the storm was a bigger disaster than the coronavirus pandemic, which has now infected more than 200,000 people in India.
“I have never seen such disaster,” Banerjee told reporters. “All areas have faced destruction. Nothing is left.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the central government would put forward a $132 million relief package to help those affected by Amphan.
But rebuilding after a devastating storm can take years, Roy said.
That’s a risk that’s only going to increase as the climate crisis continues to affect weather patterns, ocean temperatures and sea levels.
India’s preparedness measures have saved lives but there are calls for the country to now focus on protecting the livelihoods of its poorest and most vulnerable who live in these low-lying areas, which suffer the worst damage from cyclones and flooding. It’s a move that would save billions of dollars from averted damage.
Roy said India must look to shoring up its low-lying coastlines, building climate-resilient infrastructure such as pipes, roads, and buildings that can withstand intense storms and other climate disasters.
“Now the imperative for India is not only to have infrastructure that is resilient, functional and that can bounce back after a disaster, but also to have infrastructure withstand and be operational during a crisis,” Roy said.
CNN’s Esha Mitra and Rishabh Madhavendra Pratap in New Delhi contributed to reporting.