A cyclone that hit the coastal areas of India’s north-east Orissa region on Oct. 12 and 13, carried wind gusts up to 149 mph, and produced a ten-foot storm surge. Known as Cyclone Phailin, the monstrous storm caused extensive physical damage, but it didn't result in the widespread injuries and deaths that previous storms have exacted. Indeed, the death toll was lower than 30—an incredible difference from the 10,000 killed by a similar, violent storm that struck the region in 1999.
The difference? Disaster trainings helped to avoid the worst-case scenario, according to David Gautier, Field Program Director for Handicap International India. Low-lying villages were well prepared, and hundreds of thousands of evacuations delivered residents to safer areas. "Cyclone Phailin has shown that humanitarian disasters are by no means inevitable," he notes. "We were concerned that we would yet again be dealing with catastrophic consequences, in terms of harm to the populations, but the mass evacuation of the area by the regional authorities—more than 850,000 people—was perfectly executed.
"Since before the storm, we have been working with all the natural disaster risk reduction actors, as well as with the evaluation and relief teams. The overriding feeling is one of hope. We are seeing the results of years of collaborative work, and although the damage caused by the cyclone will have to be repaired, we are relieved to think about all the lives this prevention work has saved."
In this densely-populated, agricultural region of India, many families live off very scarce resources. Storms regularly sweep away their very basic homes. In the past, populations were usually not sufficiently prepared to protect themselves when storms approached. This time, with more information, planning and training, people changed outcomes.
Handicap International teams work to ensure that people living in high-risk areas know what to do when storms or earthquakes arrive. Such risk reduction projects currently target the most-exposed regions in India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
"Our aim is to ensure that nobody is left out: that the weakest members of the population, whether they are people with disabilities, people who are isolated, the elderly or pregnant women, are able to evacuate their villages along with everybody else," says Orissa-based Annie Patri, who has been working on this project for two years. “The populations are involved and motivated, aware of the potential risks and the behaviors they need to adopt to reduce, as far as possible, the damage caused by the natural disasters, which will continue to affect the region.
"To achieve this, we are working with the authorities to carry out evacuation drills, and most important, we are involving the inhabitants... so that everybody has a specific role to play and is ready to carry it out. We can now see the positive impact this work is having and that is immensely satisfying. We need to ensure that every year the losses are kept to a minimum and that communities come through these disasters stronger and better prepared than ever before to cope with the next one."
 Since 2005, Handicap International has run natural disaster risk reduction projects in South Asia. The current project receives funding from DIPECHO (Disaster Preparedness Program from the European Commission’s Humanitarian Office).