A boy who lived through the 1999 Odisha cyclone is a billionaire now – and here's what he learnt from Fani

Ritesh Agarwal, founder and CEO, OYO
Cyclone Fani is one of the most powerful cyclones to hit Odisha in the last 15 years. To me, it brings back a lot of memories of the 1999 cyclone that caused widespread loss of life and devastation along the coast.

The wind velocity and extent of cyclonic activity was the same as the 1999 cyclone. But this time, state and central authorities employed the lessons they learnt from previous cyclones. They also set new benchmarks in preventive rescue and relief operations, which altered the aftermath from one of despair to enduring hope.

The impressive handling of cyclone Fani in my home state of Odisha, therefore, holds several lessons for businesses and corporate leaders.

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Strategy and Planning: The effort and coordination that went into drawing designated 5-page action plans including – multi-stakeholder discussions between local authorities, NDMA, Coast Guard, Indian Navy, Indian Air force, security, and paramilitary forces – indicate the depth of preparedness ahead of Day 0. IMD too issued an accurate warning at least 72 hours in advance. It gave authorities time to prepare for the worst.

Similarly, dealing with impending challenges as well as opportunities requires attention to detail and adequate planning.

Investing in Technology: Improved satellite imaging capabilities, Met Department's early warning systems and timely inputs helped improve the ability to cope with, and manage difficult situations. The local administration’s reliance on new-age monitoring and communication systems continued to help immensely in evacuation and relief efforts.

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Today, technology is the key differentiator and enabler across industries. It is therefore important for companies to adapt to changing times and invest in technology to unlock improved levels of efficiency and solve the needs of tomorrow.

Harnessing the potential of the youth: A record 1.2 million people were evacuated in 24 hours – 3.2 lakh from Ganjam, 1.3 lakh from Puri. Almost 7,000 kitchens catering to 9,000 shelters were made functional overnight. This mammoth exercise involved more than 45,000 volunteers. Enabling young people to participate and lead grassroot level interventions can help the nation reap rich dividends.

It is very important that companies harness the potential and innovation that millennials bring to the table and encourage them to find a bigger purpose, and pursue all-around excellence. At OYO, we call all our employees OYOpreneurs since we value their tenacity and entrepreneurial spirit that they embody.

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Collaboration over competition: The state government received timely information from other forecasting agencies like the Andhra Pradesh government’s Real Time Governance Society (RTGS), the United States Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center, amongst others.

We are stronger when we deal with challenges together. It is all the more important to ensure cross-functional collaboration when times are tough – a lesson for corporates and the industry at large.

Innovation and thinking on your feet: Ingenuity and innovation helps bridge the gap between strategy and execution. It was interesting to note from reports that at the height of cyclonic activity and rescue operations, a WhatsApp group was created which included – Odisha Chief Secretary, and the respective District Collectors of the vulnerable coastal areas, offering them regular updates which further helped with ensuring timely action.

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At OYO, many OYOpreneurs refer to me as their Chief Clarity Officer, and I am able to play this role as I am on several WhatsApp groups, including ones with the frontline staff, which helps me stay connected and help navigate through hurdles in a timely manner.

Multiple channels of communication: At OYO, we believe that over communication is always better than leaving things to assumption. In tough times, employing multiple channels and mediums to spread the word can help ensure widespread awareness about decisions taken, minimise rumor mongering and establish necessary touchpoints.

The authorities in Odisha spread the warning message through multiple mediums — employing television channels, early warning system towers which are structures along the coastline that can blow a siren over a radius of 1.5 kms, and millions of text messages among other modes of communication.

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Sweat in peace to bleed less in war: When we prepare for adversity during good times, we are better equipped to not just meet, but overcome challenges. Following the 1999 super cyclone, a critical step taken by authorities in Odisha was the construction of hundreds of cyclone shelters along the coast. These two-storey structures, constructed a few kms from the seashore and designed by researchers at IIT Kharagpur, proved their mettle.

Each of the estimated 879 multipurpose cyclone shelters housed hundreds of people. On June 19 every year, Odisha holds mock simulations and familiarisation exercises on flood and cyclone management to test the preparedness of ODRAF, NDRF and, fire personnel.

Prepping for the last mile: After the cyclone, relief packages and relief fund donations have picked up and require our assistance. The last mile, therefore, is all about maintaining the pace and direction of effort and consistently delivering on promises made for both organisations and relief operations.

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As we prepare for a better tomorrow, the objective should be to not just get ahead of the problem but find lasting solutions. In a post-cyclone scenario that may mean, constructing cyclone-resistant homes across coastlines.

For example, people living across 17,000 houses in Ganjam tehsil did not have to escape to cyclone shelters owing to the structures set up a couple of years ago with the help of WorldBank’s loan assistance programme for affordable housing.

For companies and corporate leaders, a post-adversity scenario may mean taking bold decisions, going back to the drawing board where necessary and moving forward on much-needed goals.

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See Also:
Cyclone Fani has brought back horrid memories of the super cyclone in 1999 that claimed nearly 10,000 lives
A special bus is helping thousands of Odisha Fani victims get clean water – thanks to a giant purifier on board
In Pics: How Cyclone Fani plunged 3.4 million homes into darkness
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