The lessons have been learned!

It was the most auspicious day for us Bengalis all over the world. It was Maha Ashtami (the 3rd day of the Durga Pujas) and it was supposed to be the day when you could forget all your worries and enjoy the home coming of Ma Durga with your loved ones. As I switched on the TV before an elaborate lunch, I could not help but scream ‘oh no, not again’. A monster storm was about to hit coastal Odisha and neighbouring parts of Andhra Pradesh. It was predicted that wind speeds would be more than 200 kph and the damages could be severe. For us who live in the eastern parts of the country, the terrifying memories of super cyclone that had hit Odisha (known as Orissa then) in 1999 came back. The super cyclone with wind speeds of 300 kph had caused widespread destruction and had left more than a million people homeless. With the Uttarakhand flash flood still fresh in our memories, one could simply hope and pray for the best.

I followed the developments throughout the evening, the night and the following morning. And by the time, the storm (Cyclone Phailin) had tapered off; it was a relief to know that the loss to human lives was minimal. While any loss of life is sad, under the circumstances it had to be said that the efforts of the Governments of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, the Met Department, the National Disaster Management Authority, the civil servants in the two states, the media and mobile phone service providers deserved a huge ‘Kudos’. It was clear that we, for a change, were prepared and had learned from our lessons.

Here are some facts:

  • In 1999, Odisha had 23 cyclone shelters. Last week, 1060 Government buildings were designated as cyclone shelters in Ganjam district alone. In Andhra Pradesh where the severity of the storm was expected to be less compared to Odisha, close to 50 shelters were set up
  • Advancement in technology had allowed the Met department to forecast the weather patterns perfectly. During the first few hours preceding the landfall, there were lots of tweets which questioned / cautioned the Met department for overestimating / underestimating the severity of the storm but in the end, the department was proved right
  • Mobile phones were used effectively to spread the word to the remote villages and evacuate people in time. Interestingly, back in 1999 the total number of mobile phone users in the country was less than 2 million while 60% of Odisha’s population, around 25 million people carry one today. Bulk SMS, improved last mile connectivity were key enablers in reaching out to people who would have been stranded otherwise
  • Both states have set up disaster management departments who have been working with people leaving in vulnerable areas to raise their awareness on what needs to be done when an alert is raised
  • More than a million people became homeless after the 1999 cyclone. 14 years on, more than 10 lakh people were evacuated in Odisha while in Andhra Pradesh the number was more than a lakh

The evacuation exercise happens to be one of the largest in the history of our country and is bound to bring a smile to those who were following the events as they unfolded. It was a wonderful example of what our best and brightest civil servants could do when they are ably supported and are empowered to take decisions. Take a bow!

As a Knowledge Management professional, I was thrilled to bits to listen to the magic phrase ‘lessons learned’ again and again. It was clear that it was not being used sparingly in front of the TV camera to impress the audience but people who said it mean it.

In the US, emergency management programs and teams routinely use the After Action Review, a standard knowledge management technique, the prime aim of which is to document key lessons learned. While I am not sure whether the technique is used by the state / national level disaster management units, it is obvious that some of the key principles of the technique have been embedded into their operations. The lessons have truly been learned!

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