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STARK CONTRAST IN HOUSTON AND MUMBAI

RESPONDING TO DISASTER A BIG CHALLENGE

 By Kalyani Shankar from Texas

 

With a reported 50 inches of rainfall and flash-flooding last week, Hurricane Harvey in Texas has gripped world’s attention. The fury is said to have returned after 500 years. The storm has displaced more than 1 million people, with 50 feared dead from flooding that paralyzed the state.  But halfway around the world, another flood has wreaked havoc in India at the same time. What a contrast between the way India and the US react to the natural calamities?

I had a glimpse of the promptness with which the administration moved in to deal with the situation during my current visit to Texas. The official response to Harvey appears to be very competent. For instance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was on the ground two days before Harvey reached land. Texas governor Greg Abbott deployed the entire Texas National Guard. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner quickly activated police and firefighters, and provided clear instructions to residents.

The administration promptly pressed in helicopters that rescued stranded people. About 30,000 National Guard and active duty troops were on standby to assist Texas authorities. Immediately before the Harvey hit the state, the governor of Texas requested aid for long-term recovery projects. The citizen-soldiers of the Texas National Guard also have been called upon to assist.

Two days after the havoc the city Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told CNN: “We need immediately, right now, just for debris removal alone, anywhere between $75 million to $100 million.” As capable as the local, state and federal disaster response has been, more impressive was the great effort made by thousands of Texans, volunteering to help their fellow citizens. Old timers point out that this was much better than the response to the Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005.

There is a huge Indian population in Texas of about 3,50,000, of which Houston alone housed 1,50,000. Though the office was shut the Indian consulate worked day and night to reach out to the affected. Despite all roads being inundated with water and closed for traffic, Consul General Anupam Ray personally went to the university complex where more than 250 Indian students were stranded. Ray was all praise and told me, “The same rescued Indian students were out within a day volunteering at city shelters,” and that the Indian American community also came in to help in a large way.

The US administration is currently getting ready to face the aftermath. There is likely to be a long-term threat to public health like water contamination, pollution, power outages, and economic disruption. Some of the hardest hit communities are the low-income groups. Texas is also home to the second largest Latino population of the US (9.8 million). Most undocumented immigrants fear deportation.

For President Trump, this was the first major disaster and a significant test for his leadership response. Visiting Texas twice in the last week, he made no secret of his desire to be seen as leading a successful disaster response effort. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has sought more than $125 billion for relief work. The Trump administration has sought $7.85 billion appropriation for response and initial recovery efforts.

Compared to that the response to the last week’s Mumbai rain fury showed that very little has changed since the 2005 deluge when the city was marooned. The city administration was not equipped to meet the natural disaster despite the warning from the Met department predicting heavy rains. There was no advance planning to deal with the situation. There were no efforts to provide additional transportation or warning to the public.   

Friends from Mumbai claimed that the demand for essential commodities like bread, milk and eggs were not met. The point is that the administration has no plans in place to meet this kind of situation. Mumbai remains highly vulnerable to the heavy rains despite well-identified solutions to reduce the risks. The city’s drainage system is over 100 years old and incapable of handling annual monsoon rains.

Following the 2005 deluge that killed over 400 people and caused huge damage to infrastructure and buildings, a committee recommended overhauling the drainage system, but not much has been done. The politician-builder nexus continues merrily.

According to the statistics, 68 per cent of India is prone to drought, 60 per cent to earthquakes, 12 per cent to floods and 8 per cent to cyclones, making it one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world.  There is every need to bolster our defenses against the natural calamities. 

Preparedness is the key to the success of Disaster Management Plan. There is a need to enhance the role of Civil Defense and formulate an effective National Plan for Disaster Management. The Disaster Management Authority needs to make efforts to educate and effectively institutionalize the disaster management plan and process.

The integration and coordination of various crucial departments like Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), Geological Survey of India (GSI) etc is a must. Instead of having disaster management task force as a part of the Police Department or Home Guards we need to have a separate command centre should be set up. Even a ministry for disaster management could be thought of.

A United Nations report says that India spends about $ 10 billion every year on crisis management. Why should not part of it be spent on disaster management?

While the government can no way prevent natural calamities from occurring, it can certainly provide the resources and the leadership. (IPA Service)

 

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