Using Cloud and Mobile Technologies to Rebuild After India’s Cyclone Phailin

By Geeta Philip

Those unused to the devastating power of natural disasters may have difficulty visualizing what it means to lose everything in one fell swoop. We’ve seen the images on television, and been numbed by the sheer scale of the statistics – especially when there’s massive loss of life – but until you’ve been there, you can’t really know what it’s like.

The remains of a Chilka Lake fishing village home after Cyclone Phailin
The remains of a Chilka Lake fishing village home after Cyclone Phailin

Last October, in one of the world’s largest emergency actions, more than 360,000 people were evacuated from the path of Cyclone Phailin as it tore through Odisha State, which faces the Bay of Bengal on India’s eastern coast. Three months after the storm, life for many residents is beginning to stabilize. But in the small fishing villages around Chilka Lake, “normal” remains painfully out of reach.

Families still live in temporary roadside housing, as hungry birds search for grain amidst the flooded fields, fallen coconut and cashew trees. Attempting to rebuild their livelihoods, a few fishermen are able to net baby prawns in the shallows. It will be months before fishing boats are seaworthy again, but despite the devastation, there are no tears, no complaints and no despair. People just want to get back to work.

While the state’s highly effective emergency procedures minimized the loss of life, there was no way to prevent extensive damage to public infrastructure, housing and other assets in the disaster zone. The tragedy that unfolded in the aftermath of the cyclone resulted in loss of housing, household goods and livelihoods – especially for poorer sections of the region dependent on fishing and farming. Thousands of houses were flattened, boats and fishing nets were either washed away or destroyed, and sea water flooded paddy fields and destroyed crops.

The people of OdishaState face enormous challenges to get their lives and livelihoods back on track. The Odisha State Government has planned an extensive reconstruction program covering housing, infrastructure and other sectors, and experienced IBM experts – who, earlier in 2013, had helped residents of Uttarakhand State recover from India’s worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami – stepped in to help with IT support. Soon after the disaster, a small team of IBMers reached Odisha and engaged with the State Government to explore how they could help. IBM contributed to OdishaState’s recovery efforts by establishing a system to monitor the long-term reconstruction program needed in the aftermath of the cyclone. The IBMers created a reconstruction program tracker that includes reporting using IBM Cognos and an Android mobile application to capture images of
project progress at geographically dispersed sites and load them into the centralized monitoring system.

The team established the system on the IBM SoftLayer Cloud, obtained the required official approvals, and demonstrated it to end user government engineers and the World Bank team arranging funding for the program. After deployment at a government data center, the system will help area leaders track the progress of multiple projects operating across the affected areas.

Meanwhile, in Uttarakhand, IBM’s Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs (CCCA) team supported a government initiative called “Operation Connect” as part of a coordinated response that included contributions of technology, expertise and financial support. Operation Connect was created to reunite families and provide information on people who were missing or deceased. Through its Facebook page and Twitter handle, the program enabled outreach to missing and displaced persons in an effort to reconnect them with their families and communities.

The people of Chilka will never forget the devastation of Cyclone Phailin. Communities don’t just bounce back from having their economies and infrastructures destroyed. But the residents of India’s eastern coast are hardworking and resilient. All they need is a little assistance to get back on their feet, and it has been an honor for us to contribute our technology and expertise to help this proud community rebuild itself.

Geeta Philip manages the brand and communication portfolio for one of IBM’s leading accounts.

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