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The blame game behind the death toll of cyclone Ockhi


Nidhi Jamwal writes: The India Meteorological Department claims its job was done by forecasting the cyclone, whereas the affected state government believes its rescue and relief actions are “a formidable achievement”. However, the deadly (mis)management of Ockhi raises some important questions, for which clear action-points are needed to avoid a similar situation in the future.

Nidhi Jamwal, DNA

The cyclonic storm Ockhi has left behind a trail of death and destruction in south India exposing our ill-preparedness to plan for and manage the natural disasters. The death toll, as of December 5, is 39 with over 167 fishers still missing at the sea. The Coast Guard, Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force are conducting search operations, but the affected coastal communities fear the death toll to rise.

In the wee hours of November 29, a depression (intense low pressure system with wind speed from 31 km/hr to 50 km/hr) was formed on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, which turned into a ‘deep depression’ (wind speed from 51 km/hr to 61 km/hr) within a couple of hours when it crossed over to the western coast of Sri Lanka.

As Ockhi neared the southern tip of India on early November 30, it turned into a ‘cyclonic storm’ (wind speed from 62 km/hr to 87 km/hr) that battered coastal Kanyakumari and adjoining districts of Tamil Nadu. Thereafter, it moved further as it transformed into a ‘severe cyclonic storm’ (wind speed from 88 km/hr to 116 km/hr) on December 1 and ‘very severe cyclonic storm’ (intense low pressure system with wind speed from 118 km/hr to 220 km/hr) on December 2.

The coastal areas of Kerala and the Lakshadweep bore the brunt of the severe cyclonic storm where villages and towns were inundated and fishers went missing. Goa’s beach tourism, too, took a hit due to Ockhi.

Confusion, apathy, defeated Cyclone Ockhi warnings and killed fishers
Max Martin, India Climate Dialogue
This excellent piece of reportage shows how the lack of a well-coordinated and effective early warning system for cyclones often catches fishers on the Kerala coast unawares, especially when the electronic media is apathetic about broadcasting it, as the scores of deaths during Cyclone Ockhi proved yet again

The cyclonic storm was expected to make a landfall near Surat in Gujarat, but by the time it neared the coast of Mumbai in Maharashtra on December 5, the Ockhi had mellowed down to a ‘deep depression’, which soon weakened into a ‘depression’ followed by ‘a well-marked low’ (wind speed less than 31 km/hr) and dissipated.

Being a tropical country, India is no stranger to cyclonic storms. In 1999, Odisha faced a ‘super cyclonic storm’, also known as category 5 cyclone, leading to an official death toll of 9,887 people (15,000, unofficially) and damages worth US$4.44 billion. In October 2014, a category 5 extremely severe cyclonic storm Hudhud hit Andhra Pradesh with a death toll of 124. Last December, Vardha, a very severe cyclonic storm, struck Andaman and Nicobar Islands and parts of South India causing 38 fatalities.

Last month, as the India Meteorological Department (IMD) noticed ‘depression’ along the Sri Lankan coast, it issued the first alert at 11.50 am on November 29 warning fishers against venturing into the sea. According to the meteorological department, this special bulletin was also sent to the state governments of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, thus giving them some time to prepare for the Ockhi (which struck only in the wee hours of November 30) and warn the fishers.

The IMD blames the Kerala state government for not acting in time and disseminating the alert information because of which lives were lost. The meteorological department claims that it sent six alerts to the Kerala government thus “the onus was on the Kerala government to take necessary precautionary measures”.

The officials of Kerala government, however, allege there was no specific cyclone warning but only ‘depression’ alert, which is issued some 2,000 times a year by the IMD and “are taken as a joke by the fishermen”.

Predictably, our response to the Ockhi cyclonic storm is blame game. The IMD claims its job was done by forecasting the cyclone, whereas the affected state government believes its rescue and relief actions are “a formidable achievement”.

However, the (mis)management of Ockhi raises some important questions for which clear action-points are needed to avoid a similar situation in the future.

Firstly, on paper, the job of the IMD ends with forecasting weather. But, such a forecast has no meaning if it does not translate into swift action to save human lives and minimise damages to the property.

Secondly, the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune (IITM) Climate Forecast System (CFS) model update issued on November 23 showed high probability of cyclone formation in southern Bay of Bengal between November 23 and November 29. Could this information have been used to forewarn the southern states and their fishers’ population?

Thirdly, disaster preparedness and disaster management must go beyond blame game. The IMD and the state governments need to work together to ensure the weather alerts reach the last fisher in the last village on the Indian coastline. The messages and info-graphics have to be clear and translated into the local languages.

Fourthly, we must not wait for any more disasters to adopt technology to inform the fishers in deep seas about an impending cyclone. It is only now that after losing lives the Kerala government has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS), with support of ISRO, to improve communication with fishers in the sea.

Lastly, just because the western coast of India does not face as many cyclonic storms as the eastern coast doesn’t mean states along the west coastline should not be prepared to handle cyclones.

The author is an independent journalist based in Mumbai

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The fury of Cyclone Ockhi is now spent, leaving behind an alarming trail of death by the score and massive destruction in its wake. Hundreds of fishermen are still reported missing at sea. The damage to livelihoods of millions of farmers and fishers in coastal Tamil Nadu and Kerala is yet to be calculated, but will surely run into millions. The first cyclone of the season, which raged in a wide swathe from Kanyakumari to Mumbai, has reignited discussions on how much of the devastation due to a natural calamity is influenced by human-induced climate change. It is widely recognised that global warming is leaving millions of people vulnerable to more frequent natural disasters. Can we then say that Cyclone Ockhi happened due to climate change? The answer is not easy.

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