Nevertheless, disaster response teams launched a large-scale operation in Maharashtra and Gujarat states ahead of landfall to evacuate more than 100,000 people — including coronavirus patients — from the coast and move them to temporary shelters and other facilities.
Teams were dispatched to go door-to-door urging people living in low-lying areas to seek shelter and educating those who didn’t want to move.
Officials were concerned that storm surges would inundate the low-lying areas — where many people live in flimsy or makeshift housing — and that intense rainfall could lead to deadly flooding.
The response may have averted a bigger disaster as only one person is reported to have been killed in the storm, according to Anupam Srivastava, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) commandant in Maharashtra.
“Apart from tin roofs flying off and treefall there isn’t much damage in the state and we expect to clear the roads by tomorrow,” Srivastava said on Wednesday.
Images show disaster teams on the ground in Maharashtra and neighboring Gujarat clearing trees and other debris from roads after wind speeds of 130 kph (81 mph) hit the region.
A 40 km (24 mile) stretch from Raigad to Alibag towns received the brunt of the damage — where winds stripped buildings of tin roofs and a small number of trees fell on houses.
Cyclones increasing in intensity
Researchers found that the probability of storms reaching major hurricane status (category 3 or above on the Saffir-Simpson scale with winds in excess of 110 mph or higher), increased decade after decade.
Ahead of landfall, Cyclone Nisarga strengthened to the equivalent of just below a Category 1 Atlantic hurricane, or a severe cyclonic storm in the West Pacific.
Though the damage was extensive, large-scale evacuation efforts appeared to have saved many lives. An ambitious evacuation mounted by India and Bangladesh saw an estimated 3 million people moved to safety across the two countries, according to regional authorities.
To compare, during the last super cyclone to hit India in 1999 — which also impacted Odisha state — almost 10,000 people died.
Lives saved, but damage remains extensive
To avoid a repeat of the 1999 tragedy, India created a new disaster response infrastructure.
A year later, in 2006, India established a National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), a specialized corps of highly trained men and women focused on disasters such as cyclones and earthquakes. It’s now comprised of almost 25,000 personnel.
Ahead of cyclones like Fani, Amphan and Nisarga, those specially trained responders worked with volunteers, local officials and NGOs, moving door-to-door along coastal villages asking people to evacuate. Residents who insisted on staying were trained by NDRF staff in the necessary precautions to take.
The Indian Meteorological Department also publishes hourly updates, alerts and forecasts, including on Twitter.
But while advanced planning and recovery response has improved, the scale of damage and loss to livelihoods and infrastructure from extreme weather events remains devastating and hugely costly.
“What we have not improved is the resilience of infrastructure that stands the climate impacts,” Roy said.
“While we relocated a lot of people during Cyclone Fani and the number of casualties were very low, look at the amount of damage to infrastructure that the cyclone has done in the state of Orissa (Odisha) itself,” Roy continued.
“We lost huge amounts of our agriculture land, which is lain barren, useless. We lost a lot of our hospital buildings which stopped functioning during the pandemic because of the damage done from flooding after the cyclone struck. Roads, connectivity, transportation, everything was damaged,” Roy said.
After Cyclone Amphan in May, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said the storm was a bigger disaster than the coronavirus pandemic, which has now infected more than 200,000 people in India.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the central government would put forward a $132 million relief package to help those affected by Amphan.
But rebuilding after a devastating storm can take years, Roy said.
That’s a risk that’s only going to increase as the climate crisis continues to affect weather patterns, ocean temperatures and sea levels.
India’s preparedness measures have saved lives but there are calls for the country to now focus on protecting the livelihoods of its poorest and most vulnerable who live in these low-lying areas, which suffer the worst damage from cyclones and flooding. It’s a move that would save billions of dollars from averted damage.
Roy said India must look to shoring up its low-lying coastlines, building climate-resilient infrastructure such as pipes, roads, and buildings that can withstand intense storms and other climate disasters.
“Now the imperative for India is not only to have infrastructure that is resilient, functional and that can bounce back after a disaster, but also to have infrastructure withstand and be operational during a crisis,” Roy said.
CNN’s Esha Mitra and Rishabh Madhavendra Pratap in New Delhi contributed to reporting.