The United Nations and other experts have praised India for its early warning systems and rapid evacuation of more than a million people, which helped minimise the loss of life from a deadly cyclone that battered its eastern coast.
Cyclone Fani, among the biggest and, according to Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, the “rarest of rare” tropical storms to hit the Indian subcontinent in years, tore into the coastal state on Friday.
Fani left a trail of devastation across Odisha, home to 46 million people, before swinging towards Bangladesh, where it killed at least 34 people and forced a massive evacuation.
The majority of deaths, 21, have been in Puri, Jyoti Prakash Das, the district magistrate, told Al Jazeera. He said that the death toll could rise.
There had been only limited communications with the area, and relief officials said they not been able to contact rescue teams in Puri, home to the 12th century Jagannath temple, which was damaged.
“Because of [its] rarity, the tracking and prediction was very challenging. In fact, till 24 hours of landfall, one was not sure about the trajectory it was going to take because of the predictions of different agencies,” Patnaik said in a statement.
“This led to one of the biggest human evacuations in history – a record 1.2 million people were evacuated in 24 hours.”
In 1999, the same state was hit by a devastating 30-hour super-cyclone that saw a storm surge sweep 20km inland, killing more than 10,000 people.
This time, improved forecasting models, public awareness campaigns and well-drilled evacuation plans – backed by an army of responders and volunteers – have spared Odisha’s inhabitants from the worst of Fani’s fury.
At least 16 people were killed and at least 160 were injured in the cyclone, local media reported.
The state’s Special Relief Commissioner Bisnupada Sethi told Al Jazeera that a large number of trees were uprooted and nearly 3 million people across the state were without electricity.
Official sources told Al Jazeera that a large number of animals also died in the monster cyclone and veterinary teams have been deployed to dispose of the dead bodies.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to visit Odisha on Monday.
As soon as it became clear that Fani was on course to hit Odisha, emergency teams began the mammoth task of evacuating those living in low-lying regions, moving 1.2 million residents away from danger areas and into temporary shelters.
Alerts asking residents to stay indoors and follow instructions were issued repeatedly on TV and radio, and broadcast through loudspeakers in public places.
The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) praised the government’s “effective” evacuation, saying it had “saved many lives”.
Fani crossed over India’s West Bengal state and moved northeast towards Bangladesh on Saturday, weakening from a severe cyclonic storm to a cyclonic storm.
New weather models
The state government in Odisha along with national disaster response teams and volunteers have worked in tandem to carry out evacuations and set up safe shelters.
Workers have been equipped with satellite phones and inflatable boats along with food and medicines to distribute in the storm’s aftermath.
Some 7,000 kitchens catering to 9,000 shelters have been set up, helped by an army of 45,000 volunteers.
Emergency workers are now focusing on restoring damaged infrastructure, including power and telecom lines, and clearing roads.
Mahesh Palawat, vice president of meteorology at private forecaster Skymet, said the early warnings were vital in allowing authorities to plan in advance.
“From April 25 onwards, we [the Indian Meteorological Department and Skymet] had been monitoring the track and intensity of the cyclone continuously, what time it would make landfall and the probable points of landfall,” Palawat told AFP news agency.
Numerical models, adopted by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) in 2014 to supplement the more traditional statistical modelling, allowed forecasters to track Fani’s progress and wind profiles in the upper atmosphere.
Denis McClean, a spokesperson for UNISDR, said “the almost pinpoint accuracy” of the early warnings from the IMD had enabled the authorities to “conduct a well-targeted evacuation plan”.
Social media users also lauded the Indian authorities for averting a mass humanitarian disaster, despite the fact that a densely populated region was in the eye of the storm.
“Credit goes to #India authorities for their aggressive pre-impact response, including massive evacuations,” wrote Josh Morgerman, a United States-based cyclone expert.
Subrat Kumar Pati contributed to this report from Bhubaneswar, Odisha