Millennium Post

When cyclone shelters go helter-skelter

When cyclone shelters go helter-skelter
During cyclone Hudhud the state government did a remarkable job of evacuating an estimated 3.5 lakh people from vulnerable areas on the coast to about 350 ‘cyclone relief shelters’, which were actually government schools, colleges and Aanganwadi Centres. About 200 cyclone shelters that had been built over the past 35 years across the state, meanwhile, remained inaccessible and unusable due to the fact that they have been completely neglected since they were built and are in complete disrepair now.

While cyclone Phailin narrowly missed making landfall in AP last year, this year cyclone Hudhud made landfall in an urban area- the city of Visakhapatnam- which bore the brunt of the havoc as the eye of the storm lay flatly only on it and not the rural areas. While the meteorological departments have accurately predicted where and when cyclones will make landfall, will the state of AP- as indeed other states on coastal India- be prepared for the next cyclone with the most critical aspect of disaster management: shelter?

The state government’s website (http://disastermanagement.ap.gov.in/website/shelters.htm), which lists the 200 cyclone shelters, itself mentions that many of these are ‘occupied’, ‘dilapidated’ or running as elementary school or shops. A cyclone shelter, it goes with saying, ensures that communities can stay together safely to bide the storm and is especially useful to keep children, women and the elderly in a secure place, when chaos reigns. The solidarity of people staying in cyclone shelters ensures that there are others available to support those most in need and that available resources for rescue and relief can be shared in a manner serving the most urgent needs.

This is even more critical in the coastal villages, where a large population of people are fishermen who go to other states of India for seasonal labour jobs (in ports etc.) and also where a large number of men work as seamen in shipping companies and are therefore not at home to ensure the safety of their families during such crises.

A leading NGO’s rapid response team was on the ground within 12 hours of the cyclone and visited rural areas of Visakhapatnam, Vizianagaram and Srikakulam- the three most affected districts from cyclone Hudhud.

The team met many families where the male members were not present in the village due to being occupied in jobs in places outside the state. The team found that not one originally built cyclone shelter was in a position to carry out the job it was created for- which is not only a wastage of resources but puts at risk the entire village communities. While ‘relief camps’ have been established at ‘cyclone relief shelters’ established in government schools, these often entail a longer journey by foot and inevitably lack basic facilities such as functional toilets and water pumps. So these are ‘good’ for temporary shelter but since they have not been built specifically for cyclones, they cannot replace a cyclone shelter.

There was, in fact, only one example of a ‘good’ functional shelter- which was located near the beach in one of Srikakulam’s villages. It is a newly-constructed cyclone shelter that can house up to 500 people. Even though it has not been formally inaugurated, 2000 locals spent a night or two at this shelter during cyclone Hudhud.

The problem with this one seemed to be that it was too close to the sea and maybe its location was chosen based on availability of land, which should be given due consideration as this can never be an ideal location. Also, the provision of cupboards was seen as an important addition here, to ensure that people who had carried precious belongings could also keep them safely.

Among the ‘bad’ or non-functional cyclone shelters, there were many cyclone shelters where even the stairway leading to the rooms was broken and in most of them all the windows were either damaged or had perhaps been pilfered. The NGO’s team saw many of these in all the three districts, including in Mukkam village in Vizianagaram where a relief camp is functioning in a government school, which is located right next to the dilapidated cyclone shelter.  In Visakhapatnam’s Kapuluppada village and Vizianagram’s Chepalakancheru villages too, the team saw dilapidated cyclone shelters, around which homes of fishermen had been completely destroyed by cyclone Hudhud. Disaster management during a cyclone begins with creating a proper shelter, no rescue and relief plans can replace this basic requirement.

Many of the villagers who were reluctant to move to schools told the NGO that they would have surely moved to cyclone shelters if these were functional, as they felt that these would have truly been a secure alternative to taking the risk to stay put in their semi-pucca or simply thatched homes.
It must be hoped that the state government in AP and indeed other states of India will make a concerted effort to build- and maintain- ‘Good’ cyclone shelters so that Disaster Management can mean more that mere platitudes in our country.

The author works at Save the Children
Devendra Tak

Devendra Tak

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