Cyclone Phailin made a big splash on the news. Yes he. she? caused a fair bit of damage to Gopalpur and Bherumpur in Odisha but it didn’t really have the effect on Vizag that we were all bracing ourselves for. We had about 5 minutes of rain and a little wind but nothing compared to what the news channels were reporting from Vizag.
The evacuation effort was spectacular – the largest this country has seen. It was great to know that there are systems and plans in place to predict natural disasters and prevent them. Sadly all the preventative measures that conservationists have been crying out for for years in Uttrakand were not heeded leading to the flooding related destruction. The numbers from Pahilin relief efforts are quite staggering: 134,000 people (1.34 lakh) evacuated in Andhra Pradesh from around 290 villages in 3 districts; 100,000 food packets and 400,000 water packets distributed; 125 relief camps in AP.
I was getting calls all of Saturday night from worried relatives and colleagues – were we alright. I had no idea what they were so concerned about until I turned on the Indian news channels and realised how much they had hyped up the cyclone coverage. The point of the evacuation effort is that people don’t have to stand outside in the rain and experience the strength of 200km/hr winds. If you stick your reporters outside in the rain, under a glass window (which crashes above her head) to show us just how strong those winds are, and have things flying and whacking them in the face then yes, you are going to create panic. The truth is that only 5 people died because of the cyclone (the total two days later is 17), although plenty of livestock, farms and kutcha houses (houses built with natural materials) were destroyed. This compared with 10,000 lives lost in a similar strength of cyclone 14 years ago. Evacuation efforts and the scientists that man the co-ordinated automated weather systems are to be lauded for their efforts that saved many lives.
There may have been a few things we could have done better. Today’s paper had reports of people taking shelter in warehouses/godowns that unfortunately got flooded. One thing I noticed on the TV news was how children and adults while being evacuated had to stand out in the rain for some time before being herded in to safe buildings. None of them had rain coats – they were wet and shivering. I can just imagine in China the first thing they would have done is order 7 million raincoats from factories across the country and everyone would have been issued one those see-through plastic raincoats. Apart from that, as a member of the public, I am yet to hear of any co-ordination malfunctions.
But the TV news were in their element. This was such an action packed newsworthy story. GROUND ZERO they called it. There were predictions galore and countdowns (3..2..1) of when the eye storm was about to pass over a town. Well, nature doesn’t play well with countdowns, this isn’t a rocket launch!. So news crews were often left high and dry or perhaps low and wet when the cyclone failed to perform for the cameras. Communication networks sometimes played truant. At one point a screen with 4 reporters from 4 locations was being asked whether they had experienced a lull of activity when the eye of the storm passed over an area (as meterologists say happens). And sure enough there was a lull in the communications. The poor anchor kept patching in to each of his reporters, repeating the word ‘lull’ only to be faced with a complete ‘lull’ in their responses. I was in splits.
But there were also some interesting questions. Maya Sharma reporting for NDTV from Vizag asked a Miss Koshy (can’t remember her location) reporting from a relief camp whether there was adequate provision of sanitation and hygiene facilities. Well, Ms Sharma, when 50% of Indian households do not have toilets and defecate in the open, I hardly think port-a-loos are going to be installed at relief camps. Ms Koshy looked pretty stumped as to how to respond intelligently about the the bathroom habits of the hundreds of people in a relief camp. Another measure not accounted for by the evacuation efforts. We just assume that people will ‘go’ outside. This and pictures from the aftermath of the cyclone reveal more about the state of our village houses and roads than about the cyclone. Mud roads and poor construction has exacerbated the flooding and number of building collapses.
What irked me was the countdowns, the hysteria and that speeded up footage of the waves crashing on to a beach. Yes, the sea was choppy but it’s going to look a lot more violent at double speed. Waves crash all the time against the rocks and since there was no other weather activity in Vizag, that’s all they could keep showing. The reporters from Vizag kept showing the waves on the beach. I could film this on any day and it would look the same. But no such disclaimer came from the reporters. This happens every day, even without a cyclone. Why does everything have to be an opportunity for drama? Where I live is not protected from the elements – i can see the sea from my bedroom window and I saw no such violence from the sea that the reporters were claiming. Too many times TV news has exaggerated events that I have personally experienced which always makes me think twice about the validity of their claims in all their coverage. Is there ever a day on NDTV or Times Now without the words BREAKING NEWS flashing across the screen?
The news showing trees uprooted did prompt me to move the car from under the dodgy neem tree to a safer place – common sense or I was I too sucked in by the drama despite there being NO WEATHER ACTIVITY outside? Needless to say, I couldn’t bare to switch over to Times Now for fear of what brand of hysteria they were breeding. I’m not saying that the winds and rain were not destructive. They were, but some of the reporters were a bit too excitable, their rabid panting completely unnecessary. Take for example AL Jazeera’s reporters from war torn areas: their calm and precise, well chosen language with powerful images telling the story and not hysterical reporting.
Readers of this blog will know that I am very critical of the media – they are our fourth estate, the watchdogs of private and political institutions, so I hold them to high standards. Sadly the Indian TV news media falls short of this standard almost every day. Are the bloggers and internet writers then the fifth estate?
Phailin failed Vizag so life continues as normal here. Perhaps a few dusshera pandals need to be reconstructed but now that Phailin has passed, what of the strike you ask…BREAKING NEWS. COMING UP NEXT!!!!!