Climate Change: The Wrath of Cyclone Fani

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

On Friday, cyclone Fani, the most severe storm to hit eastern India in more than two decades, made landfall near Puri, the historic pilgrimage center in the state of Odisha.

This is only the latest of the formidable storms that have formed over the Bay of Bengal. In 1999, a similar storm killed more than 10,000 people in Odisha alone. In 1970, 500,000 died after cyclone Bhola struck the Indian state of West Bengal – where Kolkata (Calcutta) is located – and Bangladesh.

After making landfall, Fani continued into West Bengal before continuing onto Bangladesh and India’s northeastern states.

Loss of Life Minimized

India and Bangladesh both now have in place extensive early warning, evacuation, and shelter systems. Both performed as designed. And that it all to the good, as such storms are only expected to become more frequent, and intense, as climate change progresses.

The UN lauded India for its disaster preparations:

Highlighting the zero-casualty cyclone preparedness policy of the Indian Government, Denis McClean, a spokesperson for the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), said that “the almost pinpoint accuracy of the early warnings from the Indian Meteorological Department had enabled the authorities to conduct a well-targeted evacuation plan, which had involved moving more than one million people into storm shelters”.

The official Indian death toll stands at 34, according to the Hindu, Cyclone Fani: Jagannath temple in Puri damaged, death toll now at 34.

Bangladesh also prepared for the storm. There, too, extensive preparations and evacuation of 1.6 million people also saved lives, with 17 reported dead in Bangladesh, according to the Dhaka Tribune in Cyclone Fani’s impact felt in Dhaka (For further details about the history of the efforts Bangladesh undertook after the 1970 cyclone to protect its people, see this World Health Organization paper, Reduced death rates from cyclones in Bangladesh: what more needs to be done?)

The Bay of Bengal cyclone season tends to run from April through December – with the most serious storms arriving in May – prior to the monsoon – or November – thereafter. I’m no weather scientist, so I have no idea what such a serious early storm bodes for the 2019 cyclone season. But I note that the catastrophic Bhola cyclone was the fifth storm during 1970.

With winds reaching 205 km per hour, Fani, the first cyclone of 2019, was the most serious summer storm to hit the region in 43 years, according to the Hindustan Times  (In India, April, May, and parts of June are considered the summer months.)

Infrastructure and Property Damage

Short-term evacuations were able to save lives. Alas, they cannot protect against other storm damage. In India alone, at least 10 million people were affected by the storm.

Trees are down in areas  through which the storm passed.

Water supplies have been  disrupted in Odisha  – leading to public service announcements telling people they should only drink boiled or chlorinated water. It will be days before power is expected to be restored throughout Bhubaneswar, the Odisha state capital, and at least a fortnight for Puri. Mobile ‘phone networks – which at the best of times can be spotty in rural India  – remain disrupted.

The Modi government quickly offered up a relief plan, pledging 1000 crore rupees (10 billion rupees, or about 144 million USD) , and authorities have mobilized to provide aid packages. Odisha has also offered up its own modest relief program.

The international press has moved on and declared the cyclone Fani response a success story. And in terms of saving lives, there is no question that it is.

But I point out that if one looks at Indian papers, one certainly sees much misery on the ground. According to today’s Hindustan Times, In Odisha to survey cyclone Fani impact, PM Modi praises Naveen Patnaik:

The Naveen Patnaik-led government continued to struggle in restoring power supply and mobile connectivity in the worst-affected Puri district and the state capital of Bhubaneswar as riots broke out in several places over demands of food, drinking water and polythene rolls.

In Brahmagiri block of Puri district, people attacked the block development officer (BDO) and looted polythene and other relief material on Saturday. And in Salipur in Cuttack district, BDO was attacked with an axe by people demanding relief provisions.

With petrol pumps closed due to devastation, people are forced to buy petrol at Rs 150 to Rs 200 a litre in the worst-affected Puri district.

Odisha power secretary Hemant Sharma said Cyclone Fani has damaged 5,030km of 33 KV lines, 38,613km of 11 KV lines, 11,077 distribution transformers and 79,485km of LT lines.

I’m not even going to try and assess the extent of the property damage – but to be fair, so soon after such a massive storm, it’s too early to do that.

Also, note that Odisha – home to 46 million people – is relatively sparsely populated by Indian standards, and has little industrial infrastructure to damage. West Bengal is different, with 90 million people and more industry, but the storm weakened after it made landfall near Puri, and traveled in such a away that the worst of it largely skirted Kolkata and other population centers.

Property damage could have been even more severe if the storm had taken a different trajectory – or, like the 1999 storm, hovered in place at maximum severity for a longer period of time.

Historical Heritage More or Less Intact

The state of Odisha is home to several important historic structures. Perhaps the best known of these is Puri’s 12th-century Shree Jagannath temple. English speakers may never have heard of the temple itself. It is the origin of the loan word juggernaut, derived from the huge chariots that carry statues of Jagannātha, Subhadrā, and Balabhadra. during the annual Ratha Yatra (chariot procession) conducted near the temple.

The temple has been damaged – but it seems not catastrophically so, although a final assessment must still be conducted by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI). According to The Hindu:

Parts of the 12th century Shree Jagannath temple in Puri were damaged as Cyclone Fani ripped through the holy town on Friday, officials said on Sunday.

“The main structure remains unaffected. We will request the ASI to inspect the shrine,” P.K. Mohapatra, the chief administrator of Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA), said.

The impact of the devastation was visible from the Lion’s Gate or as ‘Jay-Vijay Dwar’ — the main entrance of the temple. “The idol of Jay has been broken,” Mr. Mohapatra said, adding that the idol of Vijay was intact. The Kalpa Bata — a huge banyan tree revered as a wish fulfilment tree within the temple premises — has also broken.

The famous sun temple at Konârak- a UNESCO world heritage site – was undamaged.  Bhubaneswar is also known for its temples, and these , too, were spared  (see this Tripsavvy account,  6 Must-See Bhubaneswar Temples).

Longer-Term Damage: Ecosystems and Habitat

Other longer-term consequences will follow from this storm.  Scroll published a piece Friday discussing the problems farmers continue to face from cyclone Alia, which ten years ago struck the Sunderbans – the massive wetland that covers parts of West Bengal and Bangladesh (I include for interested readers a travel piece about the area I scribbled for The National, India and Bangladesh’s mysterious mangroves: The Sundarbans, which describes this ecosystem).

As Scroll reports in Ten years after Cyclone Aila hit Bay of Bengal, farmers in Sunderbans are still feeling the pain, the increased salinity in the soil following that cyclone has forced farmers to change what they grow. They are also using more chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Odisha is home to several significant wildlife sanctuaries, which protect birdlife, as well as dolphins. (These scant Irrawaddy dolphin populations were already under threat before the storm, including the colony at Chilika lake, India’s largest brackish water lagoon, according to this Down to Earth report, Dolphin numbers have shrunk in Odisha, reveals Census).

I saw much speculation in the run-up to the storm about the possible damage to sanctuaries (see this Hindustan Times account, Experts concerned over impact of cyclone on ecology, which discusses potential damage to cashew and casuarina plantations, and shrimp farming).  I’ve yet to see any assessments after the storm –  no doubt as it’s just too soon to tell what damage has been wrought.

The Bottom Line 

The preparations India and Bangladesh made to evacuate and shelter their citizens from cyclones no doubt saved many lives when cyclone Fani struck on Friday. But both countries suffered considerable other damage.  This pattern will recur in future as climate change inflicts more and more of these severe storms on these two  countries.

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  1. liqamber

    Thank you so much for your caring and objective coverage of India. The mainstream Indian news media are so immersed in politics and the 24-hour shock-news cycle that it is very hard to find in-depth, balanced, nuanced coverage.
    Kudos to you!

  2. Synoia

    Sunderbans: the increased salinity in the soil following that cyclone

    Oh, a proto desert. That’s really bad news. Generally rain, intense rain, reduces salinity. Irrigation increases salinity.

    Rainwater unlike groundwater, is not saline. How is the cyclone of10 years ago increasing salinity?

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      That’s what the farmers hoped might happen – that salinity might decrease. Please click on the link for further details: the issue is well and succinctly explained there.

  3. thoughtful person

    I appreciate your coverage of India as well, 1/6 of the world’s population, yet rarely covered in mainstream media.

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