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Managing disasters

Pardeep Lal
Thursday, December 27, 2012

TROPICAL cyclones bring pain and suffering to people. Those who experience it will know how traumatising it can be. The impact can cause psychological trauma especially to children.

It causes loss of life, structural damage to buildings, losses in various sectors such as agriculture, forestry , tourism etc. The impact felt on the economy is indeed costly to small island economies. While it is not possible to prevent cyclones, the impacts can be managed through systematic planning and appropriate development. Samoa had five deaths from this cyclone (with 11 missing as of Friday 21 December).

In Fiji's contemporary history, for the first time, there was zero death from a cyclone when Tropical Cyclone Evan struck. This is a sign of good planning on the part of individuals, families, village communities and the government. The strict measures placed swiftly by the government to prevent unnecessary movement, the early announcement and set up of evacuation centres and the low rainfall resulting in minimal flooding this time are contributing factors for no deaths. The focus must be to continue to educate people about natural disasters such as tropical cyclones, storm surge, floods, and tsunamis and to implement stringent measures swiftly before these disasters strike. Samoa obviously had short time to prepare compared to Fiji.

Cyclone Evan hit Samoa on Friday December 14 and three days later, hit Fiji gaining momentum from a Category 3 to a Category 5 cyclone by the time it struck western Fiji.

December 12 — Tropical Cyclone Evan is formed. Samoa prepares for T/C Evan.

December 13 — Located 40 km SE of Apia. Hurricane force winds of 180km/h. Island of Upolu badly affected. Category 3 .

December 14 — Evan leaves behind a path of destruction in Samoa. Over 3000 people in evacuation centres.

Sunday December 16 — 75 km NW of Cikobia and 145 km NNE of Labasa. Cikobia feeling the effects of the cyclone. T/C Evan strengthening and gaining speed. Wind speed of 165km/h with gusts of 230km/h, (hurricane force winds). Category 4 cyclone on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Hundreds of evacuation centres opened up for people.

Monday December 17 — Fiji Meteorology Service predicted it could change path and travel between Yasawa and western Viti Levu.

At 8.30 am: 50 km NNE of Yasawa-i-rara and 140 km west of Labasa. Moving at 22km/h.

Cyclone Evan makes landfall, hits Bua, Yadua, Yasawa and western Viti Levu.

Warning for various places in Fiji by early Monday morning.

(i) For Yasawa and Mamanuca groups and western parts of Viti Levu and nearby smaller islands: Very destructive hurricane force winds with average speeds to 185km/h and momentary gusts to 270km/h.

(ii) Bua and interior of Viti Levu: destructive storm force winds at 115 km/h.

(iii) For Cikobia, Taveuni, the rest of Vanua Levu and nearby smaller islands, northern Lau and Lomaiviti Group, rest of Viti Levu, Kadavu, Beqa, Vatulele and nearby smaller islands: Damaging gale force winds with average speeds up to 80km/h and momentary gusts to 110km/h.

Tuesday December 18 — T/C Weakens and moves further SSE. Downgraded to Category 3.

Saturday December 22 — The tail end of Evan expected to whip Northland, NZ.

Why did T/C EVAN become so strong?

According to the Joint Typhoon Warning Centre (JTWC) in Hawaii which issued forecasts for TC/ Evan using NASA and other satellite data to provide warning and updates. Using satellites to provide warnings and detect atmospheric disturbances is far more accurate than using radar to detect cyclones and predict the probable path. Cyclone Evan gained considerable speed after leaving Samoa because of the absence of any notable land mass. NASA satellites using atmospheric infrared sounder (AIRS) captured infrared image of the cloud top temperatures as cold as -61C indicating very strong thunderstorms wrapped around Evan's centre. The colder the temperatures, the higher and stronger the thunderstorms are that make up a tropical cyclone.

Forecasters at the JTWC noted that there was a strong area of anti-cyclone (high pressure area) in the upper levels of the atmosphere. This provided good outflow to the system which was enhanced by a sub- tropical jet-stream to the south of TC/ Evan. This meant that the vertical wind shear over Evan was low. This allowed Evan to become strong.

Reporting cyclones

People need to be well informed and more so accurately informed in very simple language so that they know what is going to happen, what is happening and what will happen after a cyclone. Many times, people find technical terminologies tough to understand. Information providers (radio and TV) are equally handicapped in accurately translating or simplifying warnings and reports. This is not entirely their fault as they simply read out what is given to them. Besides they are not qualified or trained in the field of disasters. A large number of people do not understand terminologies such as gale force, storm force and hurricane force winds. Likewise, many do not have any clue on wind speeds in knots, wind directions and location of tropical cyclones. This could have caused more damage to houses as people did not understand the force of winds.

On Monday December 17, a local TV station reported that the residents of Nausori were bracing for one of the worst cyclones when in fact Nausori was only getting gale winds. Southern Viti Levu as per the weather report (17/12/12) clearly indicated gale warning. Creating panic among the public may cause further distress and trauma.

It would be better for the general public if the reports especially during severe disasters (cyclones, floods and tsunami) be interpreted into simple language so people understand what is going to happen, what is happening and what will happen around them. In case of cyclones, the co-ordinates indicting the location must be clearly given out at every hour. This may help those who know how to plot cyclones using a tracking map.

It is seen that cyclone reports are usually short over the radios. The reports during crucial times must be well explained and sufficient details given as further developments take place.

Communication networks and disasters

Communication is extremely important during disasters. It keeps everyone alert and helps in better preparation and co-ordination. During almost every cyclone in Fiji, the radios, televisions and telephone network including mobile network are affected.

During Cyclone Evan, radio transmission died in the North likewise mobile network. The West was also affected and people could not communicate at such crucial time. Given the advance technologies available, telecommunication service providers need to provide far better service during disasters. Telecommunication network problems could be very costly in the event of tsunamis which give very minimal warning time.

Precautions and rehabilitation

While passing along Queens and Kings roads a day after the cyclone, I did not see many houses tied down. Tying down houses is helpful but people will only tie their houses if they understand the kind of wind speed that will pass their area and the likely damage it will cause. People need time to take precautions and accurate information is helpful. Notably, the tourism sector took heed of this cyclone warning well. This sector is very resilient and it is inspiring to see many resorts back in operation and tourists enjoying Fiji again. Small economies can be strengthened by specialising in areas of comparative advantage such as tourism and agricultural production.

Each disaster is different. Every tropical cyclone is different. This is the first cyclone for this season to have emerged from the northeast gradient. Much of Vanua Levu was lucky this time with low flooding, damage to agriculture and infrastructure such as roads, bridges etc may not be extensive.

The real impact is on the housing sector.

Government's housing rehabilitation program in place after this cyclone is one of the best. It will provide many people with relief and this will prevent them from sinking further into poverty. This is an example of government supporting the vulnerable group by sharing disaster burden across society which is highly commendable.

In the past, the poor who lost houses ended up rebuilding their houses with their own little saving or from loans which they could not easily pay off. This housing policy will be very important for Fiji towards reducing poverty and thus helping improve its standing on the MGD 1.

Fiji has just entered the cyclone season and people must continue to take precautions and continue to heed warnings. They must, on the other hand be well informed in simple language to help reduce the impact. If direct losses can be minimised then indirect and secondary effects may also be reduced.

* Pardeep C Lal is a lecturer at the Fiji National University. The views are expressed are his and not of this newspaper.

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