• May 2008: month of the natural disaster

    We live on a dangerous planet. In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, one of the deadliest tropical cyclones of all time, China's worst earthquake in 32 years has struck just 12 days later. Rarely in recorded history have twin natural disasters claiming 10,000 or more lives struck so close to each other in time. The last such occurrence I could find was in China in 1931. That summer, the world's deadliest natural disaster of all time--the Yellow River Flood of 1931--killed between one and four million people. On August 10 of the same summer, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake killed 10,000 people near Fuyun, China. Another notable twin disaster occurred on September 1, 1923 when the Great Kanto earthquake hit Japan. Winds from a passing typhoon fanned fires that sprang up after the quake, and the resulting fire storm engulfed Tokyo, killing over 100,000 people. Still, with a major volcanic eruption in Chile and an unusually severe tornado season pounding the U.S. with killer tornadoes, May 2008 will long be remembered as one of the worst months for natural disasters in world history.

    Cyclone Nargis update
    A tragedy of truly epic proportions continues to unfold in Myanmar in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. The United Nations now unofficially estimates that the death toll from the storm is at least 100,000, with up to 220,000 people missing. It is now 12 days since the cyclone struck, and aid efforts are only about 10-20% of what is needed to bring life-saving water, food, and medicine to the 1.5 million people affected by the storm. The death toll will now start to rise sharply, as the failure to provide adequate relief within ten days greatly increases the risk of disease and death in survivors of a cyclone. The indifference of Myanmar's leaders to the plight of its suffering people could make the death toll from Nargis the second highest in history, next to the 500,000 people killed in Bangladesh's Great Bhola Cyclone of 1970. Cyclone Nargis' unofficial death toll of 100,000 currently ranks the storm as the 10th deadliest in world history.

    Figure 1. Topography of Myanmar, with track of Cyclone Nargis superimposed. Image credit: NASA.

    Was the population warned?
    Many of you have expressed amazement that so many could die from a tropical cyclone in this day and age of satellites and modern communications. Why did it happen? I believe there are two main reasons: the historical lack of tropical cyclones that have hit Burma's Irrawaddy delta, and the unwillingness of Myanmar's leaders to provide adequate warnings for fear of jeopardizing their May 10 referendum to consolidate their power.

    According to irrawaddy.com:

    Appearances on Burma's state television by the country's director general of the Department of Meteorology and Hydrology, Tun Lwin, always attract a large following.

    Viewers like his style and informative approach to weather reporting. But now those same viewers are asking: "Why did he fail to warn us of the approach of Cyclone Nargis?"

    According to well-informed sources close to his department, Burma's leading meteorologist passed those warnings on to the government in Naypyidaw, together with information about the cyclone's strength, expected course, and timing.

    Tun Lwin reportedly suggested the warning should be carried by state media, but sources said he was told by his bosses in the capital: "Don't create public panic ahead of the referendum."

    Warnings of the approaching cyclone were finally published in the official press, but they were buried amid news of the approaching constitutional referendum.

    I've been sent an image of the warning for Cyclone Nargis as it appeared on May 2 in one of Myanmar's main newspapers, "The New Light of Myanmar". The warnings for Nargis on the day it made landfall as a major cyclone were buried on page 15 of the obituaries and miscellaneous section of the newspaper.

    Figuring into the junta's logic for ignoring the approaching cyclone was the history of tropical cyclone strikes on the country. Since reliable records began in 1970, there have been only six hurricane-strength tropical cyclones to hit Myanmar. See the paper, "Simulation of Storm Surges Along Myanmar Coast Using a Location Specific Numerical Model" (Jain et al., Natural Hazards 39, 1, September 2006) for more information. The storms are:

    1975 Pathein cyclone, Cat 1 (75 knots), hit just north of Irrawaddy Delta. An estimated 1.2 meter storm surge occurred. This storm did inundate the Irrawaddy delta, and 187 people died.

    1982 Gwa cyclone, Cat 4 (120 knots), hit Gwa, north of Irrawaddy delta. An estimated 4 meter storm surge occurred.

    1992 Sandoway cyclone, Cat 1 (65 knots), hit Sandoway, farther north than Gwa. An estimated 1.2 meter storm surge occurred.

    1994 Sittwe cyclone, Cat 4 (125 knots), hit Sandoway/Sittwe. An estimated 1.2 meter storm surge occurred.

    Mala of 2006 was a Cat 4, (115 knots) and also hit north of the Irrawaddy delta. No storm surge estimate available.

    Nargis of 2008.

    In the pre-1970 years, I could find only one mention of a hurricane-force storm hitting the country, a Cat 1 cyclone in 1936 that killed 36 people. A significant cyclone hitting the Irrawaddy delta causing thousands of deaths would very likely have been recorded, had this happened any time in the past 300 years. Such events were recorded in both India and Bangladesh during that period. Nargis appears to have been the only major tropical cyclone to hit the Irrawaddy River delta in recorded history, and may be a once-in-500-year event.

    Comments from Chris Burt
    I've been in regular communication about this disaster with Chris Burt, author of the excellent book Extreme Weather . He has been visiting Myanmar every year for 30 years, and has much insight on the situation there:

    Anecdotally, I can say in all the time I've spent in Burma I have never heard anyone talk about or worry about tropical storms, it simply is not in their consciousness. This is why people really didn't heed the warnings. People were warned at least 48 hours in advance--I got an email from a friend two days before the storm telling me about the warnings in Rangoon.

    More severe weather today
    The Storm Prediction Center has placed much of eastern Texas and surrounding states under their "Slight Risk" category for severe weather today. The Weather Underground Severe Weather page and Tornado page are good places to go to follow today's severe weather. A slight risk of severe weather is also expected Thursday over the deep south, from eastern Texas to Alabama. nargis_elevation.png nargis_elevation.png

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