In October 1999, a massive cyclone slammed into the eastern coast of India, killing at least 10,000 people. A few weeks ago, a very similar cyclone, Phailin, struck the same region. The news coverage ahead of Phailin painted a frightening picture of a storm the size of Hurricane Katrina poised to wreak havoc on India and potentially repeat the grim toll of the 1999 storm. Yet when all was said and done, Phailin resulted in around 50 fatalities -- just a fraction of what was feared. This reduction in fatality levels from the tens of thousands down to the tens is no accident -- it is a powerful example of how good disaster risk reduction efforts can save lives on a massive scale.
Media reports since this storm have noted the intense effort by the Indian government to mitigate the threat Phailin posed -- from giving storm warnings days in advance to evacuating close to one million citizens out of harm's way. But the untold story behind those headlines is how a U.S. government partnership helped India to develop that capacity.
Over the past 15 years, USAID's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, which I lead, has been working with the Indian government to help strengthen its ability to prepare for and respond to disasters. USAID has helped train thousands of Indian emergency personnel, civil servants, and officials. The Agency invited Indian colleagues to tour its Operations Center in Washington, D.C., and learn about the Incident Command System (ICS), the U.S. government's own framework for disaster response management. With USAID's assistance, the government of India adapted the ICS for its own emergency response system. USAID has also supported collaboration between Indian and American meteorologists, which has strengthened the forecasting and early warning that proved so critical earlier this month.
USAID also supports a project to increase first responder capacity in India called the Program for the Enhancement of Emergency Response (PEER). PEER offers trainings in areas such as medical first response, urban search and rescue, and hospital preparedness; it was so well-received that India's National Disaster Response Force has adopted the training curriculum for its own battalions. Many of those same battalions helped lead the response to Phailin.
While much now remains to be done to help bring relief and recovery to those affected by the storm, Cyclone Phailin has shown India's ability to address a major disaster using its own disaster management institutions. The Indian government deserves enormous credit for its investment in these systems, and the U.S. can take pride in knowing that our investment in this partnership with India has now paid off in a big way.