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India's cyclone death toll lower than expected

Evacuations and shelters are a success, officials say, as the natural disaster claims 23 lives, far fewer than a stampede near a temple in central India.

October 13, 2013|By Mark Magnier
  • A coconut seller sits in despair near his destroyed shop in Gopalpur, India, after Cyclone Phailin tore through the area.
A coconut seller sits in despair near his destroyed shop in Gopalpur, India,… (Manan Vatsyayana, AFP/Getty…)

NEW DELHI — India breathed a sigh of relief Sunday as assessment teams fanned out across the eastern part of the country in the wake of the biggest storm in 14 years and found extensive property damage but relatively little loss of life.

The state news service, Press Trust of India, reported that 23 people died as a result of Cyclone Phailin, most from falling trees or flying debris.

Many had predicted a far higher death toll from the storm in this country of 1.2 billion people, where crisis management, regulation, planning and execution are often inadequate and thousands lose their lives each year to natural disasters, building collapses, train accidents and poor crowd control.

Underscoring the point, at least 109 people died Sunday in a stampede on a bridge near a Hindu temple in central India. Many of the scores injured were in critical condition and might not survive, said Dilip Kumar Arya, Chambal Range deputy inspector general of police.

That disaster was apparently avoidable: Arya said the stampede was triggered by young men yelling that the bridge was collapsing, which was not true. The storm was also avoidable — but only by getting out of harm's way.

Cyclone Phailin (a Thai word meaning sapphire) did its worst damage in India's eastern state of Odisha. More than 850,000 people there and in neighboring Andhra Pradesh state reportedly spent the night in shelters, some built after a 1999 storm that was roughly the same intensity and struck the same place, but killed 10,000 people.

Others fled to schools, temples and mosques.

Disaster management officials called it one of the largest evacuations in India's history.

The storm was expected to dissipate within 36 hours after making landfall Saturday night, bringing winds in excess of 125 mph, destroying thousands of mud houses, snapping off treetops and downing electricity poles.

Large areas of Odisha, including the state capital, Bhubaneswar, were without electricity for a second day Sunday. In some communities, power was cut preemptively to prevent people from getting electrocuted along flooded roads.

"We were really scared in the night, but we're much relieved now," said Sahashranshu Mohapatra, a local television researcher who spent the night at his relative's house in Bhubaneswar. "The ATMs, electricity … nothing is working yet."

The key difference between this weekend's cyclone and its counterpart 14 years ago, analysts said, was planning, accurate weather forecasting and warnings, which allowed huge numbers of people to evacuate from vulnerable low-lying and coastal areas to storm shelters.

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said Sunday that recovery was now the state's biggest challenge. "We have been successful in minimizing the loss of lives," Patnaik said during a news conference, crediting experience from the 1999 storm. He urged people not to panic. "Now rehabilitation is a very big challenge for us as property worth [millions of dollars] has been destroyed. I will see to it that the people are actively rehabilitated."

As residents headed back to battered communities to find out whether their houses had survived, authorities pledged to continue operating relief camps and providing food as long as needed.

Television footage showed large traffic jams as people emerged into the light of a rainy Sunday to begin putting their lives back together. Nearby, relief crews moved gates and signboards torn from buildings by the wind and wielded chain saws to cut apart felled trees strewn across roads.

State authorities estimated that the cyclone destroyed about $38 million worth of crops.

Phailin was one of three major storms to hit Asia and the Pacific on Sunday as the smaller Typhoon Nari approached Vietnam and Typhoon Wipha gathered strength over the ocean.

Tanvi Sharma in The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.

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