Indian residents ride a bike along a road after Cyclone Fani slammed into Puri in the eastern Indian state of Odisha on May 3, with winds gusting at speeds of up to 125 mph. (Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)

Can democracy and technology help poor countries adapt to extreme weather events? If we look at how one extremely poor state in India managed to save so many citizens from this spring’s devastating cyclone, we might conclude that the answer is yes.

Cyclone Fani was extremely dangerous

Cyclone Fani hit the state of Odisha on India’s eastern coast on May 3. Since Fani had an average wind speed of 120 mph, the India Meteorological Department classified it as an “extremely severe cyclone.” Such cyclones are infrequent: There have only been 39 in the last 50 years. Nearly 60 percent of those are recorded in October through December, after India’s monsoon season, which generally runs from June to September. Since Fani hit before the monsoons, many wonder whether climate change is what made it so devastating — making the surrounding waters warmer than usual and thus offering more energy to the gathering storm — much as many in the United States are asking whether climate change is behind the more frequent and more intense Atlantic Coast hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes and other extreme weather.

Cyclones’ severe winds, storm surges and torrential downpours can threaten lives and devastate property. Protecting human life requires mass evacuation to temporary shelters in safer areas. That’s challenging in Odisha for two reasons. First, 13 of the 30 districts (counties) are in coastal areas. Second, Odisha is a poor state. About one-third of its households are below India’s poverty line; it ranks 25 among the 33 Indian states in per capita income.

If governments function well or poorly based on wealth, and we know many governments are underprepared to address climate change, Odisha’s government should have failed its citizens during the storm. The opposite happened. Odisha evacuated about 1.4 million people to more than 900 cyclone shelters, in a timely way. Only about 40 people died — a fraction of those at risk. Its efforts have drawn international praise.

How did Odisha pull this off?

Democracy matters

For governments to organize disaster relief effectively, they need two things: Timely information about an upcoming disaster, and incentives to respond to this information. This is where democracies with a focus on government accountability can have an edge.

Governments can respond to natural disasters in two ways. They can emphasize disaster relief or try to prevent disasters in the first place. Political scientists find that governments, particularly in democracies, tend to favor projects that create visible benefits. Disaster preparedness infrastructure such as cyclone shelters and shoring up embankments does exactly that. Politicians point to such physical structures as evidence of how governments are actively working to help citizens.

In 1999, the Odisha government mismanaged its response to Super cyclone 05B. More than 10,000 people perished. Because India is a well-functioning democracy, this visible government failure became a political issue — much as the Bush administration faced intense criticism for the mismanaged federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

Since 1999, Odisha’s governments, with help from India’s federal government and the World Bank, built an impressive disaster response machinery, including a State Disaster Management Authority. Government agencies developed a system for disseminating timely information, critical for timely evacuations. They have created a large number of cyclone shelters, expanding the number from 21 in 1999 to 900 shelters in 2019 to ensure that everyone who could be threatened was within 1.5 miles of a shelter. And about 15,000 school buildings have been constructed or retrofitted to serve as temporary shelters.

Modern technology can help disaster preparedness

In regions threatened with a cyclone, flood or fire, governments need to decide when and where to order an evacuation. This is a tough decision because evacuations are expensive and unpopular. The evacuees have to leave behind their fixed assets and other forms of capital, such as farm animals. Poor people are disproportionately hurt, because they often lose their sources of income, which are often located in the local economy.

Further, the government may not have the facilities to shelter a large number of evacuees. That’s why governments wait until the last moment to order an evacuation. Technology helps tremendously — because it can allow even poorer countries to efficiently organize the evacuation process.

Satellite technology is critical, providing up-to-date information about the place and time of a cyclone’s landfall. India’s robust satellite program mattered here. Cyclone Fani started developing around April 25 near the equator. Initially, the meteorological department forecast that it would make landfall further south, in the state of Tamil Nadu. Meteorological satellites alerted the meteorological department when the cyclone altered its course and moved northward.

With that, the meteorological department correctly predicted that Cyclone Fani would make landfall in Odisha on May 3. The Odisha government ordered a targeted evacuation of the landfall areas, broadcasting the evacuation order over traditional media such as radio and television — and over cellphones, sending 2.6 million texts.

Democracies can be self-correcting

Democracies make mistakes, but they have incentives to learn from them. Odisha’s government was so heavily criticized for failing its citizens during the 1999 Super cyclone 05B that politicians promised to — and did — reassess and rebuild its disaster response system. Aided by technology and a new administrative infrastructure, it responded well to Cyclone Fani.

Odisha’s experience has informed the disaster preparedness systems of other Indian states, as well. Following its lead, India created the National Disaster Management Authority in 2005. Now most Indian states have such bodies. Odisha’s response to Cyclone Fani shows how even in poor countries, democracy and technology together can lead governments to efficiently respond to natural disasters.

Nives Dolšak (@NivesDolsak) is professor and associate director of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Aseem Prakash is the Walker Family Professor for the College of Arts and Sciences, and the founding director of the Center for Environmental Politics at University of Washington, Seattle.