Monday began well. A cool breeze ruffled tree tops and gently rocked the shikaras on the Dal. In his office in Srinagar’s Tankipora area, Aamir Ali, who coordinates J&K’s Disaster Management Committee, went about his routine work. There had been no specific warning from the Meteorological Department for the day. But as the winds got stronger, he began to get worried. The cyclone, which lasted for about two days, left behind a trail of destruction across Kashmir, killing three people and wrecking property.
By Monday evening, Ali knew he had to act. His first thoughts went to the tourists, the hundreds of foreign and domestic visitors who would be staying on shikaras on the Dal. Ali realised the winds could cause panic so he alerted the police and the fire and emergency departments with a message to keep a watch on the lake.
“Since there was no warning from the MET office, I thought that as in the past, the winds would fizzle out in an hour or two. But I went ahead and contacted officials associated with the Disaster Management Committee and asked them to be around and keep a watch on the situation,” says Ali, who has had a hectic week, coordinating with various control rooms across the Valley.
Ali then rang up Mohammad Sadiq, president of the shikara association, and urged him to send out a public message, asking all people on the Dal to stay in their houseboats and hotels. “It has been our practice to inform Sadiq about speedy winds. Since he knows everybody on the Dal, the message reaches out fast. This time too, we followed the same practice.’’
At 5.30 p.m. on Monday, Ali got the first feed from the MET station informing him that the speedy winds would continue throughout the night and might weaken only by evening the following day. He admits he felt panicky as he started informing his seniors. “It was around 5.30 in the evening that I started informing all the deputy commissioners of Kashmir who head District Disaster Management Committees to set up control rooms in their areas. Besides, all the heads of departments were asked to prepare for any exigency,” he says.
After that, Ali updated his Facebook status. His post read: “Many areas in Valley experiencing warm wind blowing from westerly direction. Some people are making frantic calls. There is possibility of thunderstorm. However, no need to panic. The weather should improve from tomorrow afternoon.”
The winds kept growing stronger, speeding at 80 to 90 kilometre an hour by Monday night. People in Kashmir, a region that has seen several natural calamities in the past, are sensitive to vagaries of the weather. That makes Ali’s job tough and his Facebook page keenly watched. Be it rains, avalanches, heavy snowfall, closure of national highway, Ali makes sure they are all on his Facebook page.
“As it started getting dark, the winds grew stronger and people got worried. The wind blew away roof-tops and uprooted electric poles and trees. I started getting calls from all parts of the Valley. Most of the calls came from people in remote villages and they sounded very worried. But I asked them to be patient and call us in case of an emergency,’’ says Ali, as he recounted the sequence of events that first night.
That night, Ali and his staff decided to stay back in office. “I was getting frantic phone calls. People wanted to know if they should leave their homes or stay inside. Some people called to ask where they should go if winds got stronger,’’ he says. “I told them not to worry and to simply stay inside their houses.’’
Ali, an engineer by training, had earlier worked for UNDP’s disaster management project in Kashmir as project manager. After the 2005 earthquake that left more than 1,000 people dead, the state government asked him to coordinate activities of the Disaster Management Committee in Kashmir.
“Since the Valley falls in seismic zone 5, which makes it highly prone to earthquakes, people panic at the slightest tremor. This time too, when winds continued for more than 24 hours, rumours about a possible earthquake spread across the Valley and that created more panic. The scare was such that I had to air my message on a local radio station that wind storms and earthquakes are never related and that quakes can’t be predicted,’’ he says.
By Tuesday afternoon, Ali had already started collecting details about the losses caused by the storm and passed the information to his seniors. “The Air Force was asked to keep two choppers ready for rescue operations. But by then, the storm had started to weaken,’’ he says.
By 11 p.m. on Tuesday, people in the Valley breathed easy. The wind was back to being a breeze. It was only then that Ali left for home. But before leaving, he updated his Facebook status one last time and compiled the details of destruction: Three deaths, more than 10,000 structures completely or partially damaged. “I passed the information on to my seniors and all the media houses with a message that the weather was finally clear.”
The next day was a government holiday for Navroz, but Ali was back on duty, this time to survey the damage on the banks of the Dal. Sadiq, the president of the Shikara association, stood waiting for him. “It was Aamir sahib who alerted us about the wind storm. Whenever there is any hint of a natural calamity in Kashmir, he keeps us in loop. The storm was terrible, but at least there were no lives lost,’’ said Sadiq.