Evading the wrath of Phailin

Why has India's strongest cyclone in 14 years produced so few fatalities?

Last Modified: 13 Oct 2013 10:07
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On October 29, 1999 a Super Cyclone hit India’s Bay of Bengal coastline with such force that almost 10,000 people were killed.

14 years on, a storm of almost identical strength and following a very similar path, appears to have inflicted just a handful of direct fatalities.

Although most welcome, this begs the question, ‘Why is the death toll so much lower this time around?‘

There is no doubt that the evacuation process, with more than 500,000 people moved into cyclone shelters, was a huge success. It was described by the National Disaster Management Authority as the country’s largest ever evacuation.

Compare this with 1999, when just 44,500 people were housed in 23 evacuation shelters.

This massive logistical operation was helped, in part, by the vast improvement in communications that has taken place since 1999 – not least the almost universal access to mobile telephones and the growth of social media. Both helped to get the evacuation message out to a much wider audience and at great speed.

Technology has also played a major part in the improvement of the meteorology of these storms.  Weather computers are better able to model the complex developments of these systems.

Meteorologists became aware of Phailin’s rapid development several days previously, and were quick to react to its rapid growth during Thursday.

Warnings of a storm of exceptional strength and size were issued in enough time to ensure the evacuation process was thorough and carefully coordinated.

The expected area of landfall changed very little in the days leading up to Phailin’s landfall and the border area between Andhra Pradesh and Odisha was always considered to be the area most at risk.

There were some differences in the forecast wind strength. The US Joint Typhoon Warning Centre, based in Hawaii, was predicting sustained winds of 260 kph, 40 kph higher than those  by the Indian Met Department.

Although the different predictions represent the difference between a Category 4 and the severest Category 5 system, on the Saffir-Simpson scale, both forecasts predicted ‘catastrophic damage will occur’.

As to which forecast was correct, we may never know the answer. Wind data within such storms can rarely be measured directly. Estimated winds rely on interpretations from satellite data and there are considerable margins for error in any calculations.

Unfortunately, unlike countries such as the US and the UK, the Indian Met Department does not have access to a specialized aircraft which could be used to take direct readings of temperature and wind from cyclones.

Perhaps such a development would then make a significant improvement to the forecasts in the next 14 years and the death toll from such powerful storms can be reduced to almost zero.


Al Jazeera
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