Two weeks after disaster, officials pass the buck on calamity warning and rescue operations

Two weeks after disaster struck Uttarakhand, a blame game has started between concerned government departments in the State. Officials are accusing each other of not conveying information early enough — which may have contributed to some of the chaos in relief and rescue operations as well as the poor disaster-preparedness of the administration.

For instance, the Dehradun Meteorological Centre claims that it had warned the State government of the calamity on time. Anand Sharma, Director, Meteorological Centre, Dehradun, told The Hindu that the Centre had started issuing warnings on June 14 through agro-advisory bulletins, indicating heavy rain in all the agro meteorological zones.

Mr. Sharma said he alerted Piyoosh Rautela, Executive Director, Uttarakhand Disaster Mitigation Centre (DMMC), over mobile phone on June 14 about heavy rains in the coming days. Mr. Sharma said that on June 15 he informed the State government of heavy to very heavy rainfall during the next 48 to 72 hours.

However, DMMC officials claim that all they received was a “general forecast,” which was not specific enough for them to take action. “It needs to be realised that action on ground cannot be initiated unless the warning or forecast is specific in time and space,” a DMMC report states.

The tragedy hit Rudraprayag on June 16 and 17.

On June 14, the weather forecast for Uttarakhand read: “Rain or thundershowers would occur at many places in Uttarakhand. Heavy to very heavy rainfall possible at isolated places.”

The forecast on June 15, which was for the next 24 hours, read: “Possibility of heavy to very heavy rainfall on June 17; possibility of rain on June 18 and 19. Char Dham pilgrims are advised to postpone yatra by four days.”

Mr. Rautela said, “The Dehradun Meteorological Centre advised the pilgrims to postpone the yatra. If the forecast was accurate, the department should have strictly demanded to stop the yatra.”

On the Dehradun Meteorological Centre’s June 16 alert that talked about “heavy to very heavy rainfall possible at isolated places,” Mr. Rautela said the forecast was for “isolated places” and it was difficult to decipher which places were being referred to in the weather forecasts.

Mr. Rautela said, “The warnings were issued for the entire State, had they said the rainfall would ravage the Kedarnath Valley, we would have definitely taken action on time.”

Meanwhile, department emails accessed by The Hindu show that, on June 21, the DMMC contacted the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing (IIRS) to get data on the disaster-ravaged areas in the State but the IIRS said post-disaster images were not available. The IIRS, which is the connecting link between the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the DMMC, said it was coordinating with the ISRO and shall provide the images soon.

There was no transfer of data from the IIRS after this email exchange.

However, on June 28, the ISRO e-mailed two graphs to the DMMC. The graphs depicted the inundated areas in parts of Uttarakhand, and the damaged infrastructure in and around Kedarnath area.

After receiving the graphs, Mr. Rautela emailed the ISRO: “The State government would have really appreciated the cooperation from the ISRO had it been provided the post-June 17 data in time. At this point of time, this data, especially the inundation and damage maps, are really of no use.”

“We asked the ISRO for detailed imagery of the disaster-hit areas. But, the process to acquire the detailed imagery from the ISRO would take many days and the rescue operations had to wind up fast. So the graphs were of no use since we had our teams on the spots to provide us real pictures,” Mr. Rautela added. He said the ISRO should have shared the detailed imagery sooner.