A Storm and a Stampede in India Highlight the Ups and Downs of Disaster Response

A powerful storm yields only a small death toll thanks to smart response from the Indian government. But a tragic and deadly stampede shows how far the country needs to go.

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Diwakar Prasad/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Tropical Cyclone Phailin was powerful, but the death toll was thankfully low

A horrific disaster occurred in India on Sunday, killing at least 89 people and injuring a hundred more. But it wasn’t the massive Cyclone Phailin, which struck India’s eastern coast over the weekend with winds that hit 124 mph. Thanks to pre-storm warnings and the evacuation of some 900,000 people, the death toll from Phailin was around 20 people by midday Sunday, as the storm was rapidly losing power. The real disaster was a bridge stampede in northern India that happened even as Phailin was churning through the country’s east coast. Spooked by panic that the bridge was about to collapse, thousands of pilgrims stampeded, leaving dozens dead.

There’s a lesson here about the porous border between a natural and a manmade disaster. Phailin was a monster, quite possibly the strongest storm ever recorded in the northern Indian Ocean. (Meteorologists couldn’t determine Phailin’s exact strength because there were no hurricane hunter aircraft in the vicinity.) It was hitting a heavily populated coast, in roughly the same area where another super cyclone struck in 1999, killing some 10,000 people. There was every reason to expect that Phailin would be a killer.

But as my colleague  in India writes, that didn’t happen, thanks to smart disaster preparation from India’s government:

What has made the difference is a combination of having thousands of trained personnel in disaster mitigation on the ground, hundreds of ready cyclone shelters within 2.5 kms of human habitations and the efficacy of the local administration, which went to the extent of arresting people who refused to move out of their homes. “Many people refused to move, had to be convinced, and at times the police had to forcefully move them to safe places,” Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde had said on Saturday.

As Bhowmick goes on to note, India could still improve—the 2014 World Development Report found that India was the least prepared for natural disaster risks after African countries. But the successful response to Phailin—at least in minimizing the death toll—underscores that a more modern India may be better prepared for natural disasters going forward. (The fact that mobile phone and TVs have become ubiquitous in India, even in poor rural villages, helped the government get the word out.) That’s a good thing—a 2011 World Bank report estimated that 200 million more Indians could face threats from natural disasters by mid-century.

The low death toll from Phailin is a reminder that the disaster in a natural disaster stems as much from the man-made response to weather (or the earthquake or the volcano or the disease) as it does from the weather itself. Hurricane Katrina was a terrifyingly strong Category 5 storm that hit New Orleans squarely, but it was the failure of government on all levels—and the failure of the levees themselves—that turned it into a human catastrophe.

So it is with the bridge stampede, as Ellen Barry wrote in the New York Times:

Mass deaths occur often at pilgrimages in India, when vast, dense crowds put heavy burdens on transportation and safety infrastructure. In August, an express train was unable to stop and plowed into pilgrims crossing a set of train tracks in the state of Bihar, killing more than 30 people. A similar number were trampled rushing to a train platform in February, marring the 55-day Kumbh Mela festival, whose crowds were estimated at 80 million.

These are purely man-made disasters, and as such, they are avoidable. If India can handle a natural disaster, it should be able to stop the man-made ones too.