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Prasad's thankless job

Monday, February 04, 2008

AS the country picks up the pieces after Cyclone Gene, the weather office has come under heavy criticism over its accuracy and swiftness in issuing alerts and cyclones warnings. The man in the firing line, Director of Meteorology Rajendra Prasad, spoke to ANA

NIUMATAIWALU Fiji Times: Has Cyclone Gene truly and finally left the Fiji and should we be expecting more cyclones this season?

Rajendra Prasad: The cyclone is still west of Fiji and affecting Vanuatu now. The system still extends onto Fiji and this should bring wet and gloomy conditions through the weekend with significant improvement in weather (this week) as Gene curves south, moves further away and weakens into a depression.

With five tropical cyclones forming in the region so far and four within close proximity of Fiji plus the fact that we are only midway through the tropical cyclone season, certainly a few more cyclones and depressions will form in the South Pacific region, with Fiji's weather to be indirectly or directly affected. The people need to be fully prepared.

FT: Many members of the public have hit out at the weather office, saying it did not give enough warning prior to Cyclone Gene hitting the country. Do you think there was enough notice given to the public?

PRASAD: As I have been explaining, the tropical depression that approached the group from the northeast on Monday was predicted by all centres to remain in that form as it passed over Fiji. Hence a strong wind warning was issued on Sunday evening with the existence of the system (as a tropical depression) covered in bulletins from late Saturday with mention of possible flooding of low-lying areas.

Unfortunately, the system underwent rapid development on Monday morning and had to be classified as a tropical cyclone around midday. A gale warning was subsequently issued but I suppose the northern part of the group had already experienced marginal gale force winds by then. As I was in Suva at the time, I took it personally upon myself to inform DISMAC and radio outlets and had asked them to broadcast for people in the Central Division to go home and for schools to close immediately due to damaging potential of the cyclone and associated heavy rain.

Given that this was only a Category 1 cyclone, with potential to cause damage to weak and temporary structures, people had enough time to prepare, except those in the Northern Division. But then they should have prepared for strong winds and gusts that seem to do more damage.

Note that strong winds go up to 33 knots (10-minute average winds) and gales commence at 34 knots. The cyclone strength given was 35 knots. Of course gusts were much higher.

Issuing "late warnings" is misleading and can mean that the Nadi Weather Office had information or evidence of things happening or about to happen, but was late in conveying the message across to relevant authorities and the general public.

However, given the circumstances and the rapid development of the tropical depression into Cyclone Gene on Monday, January 28, I wish to make it clear that the weather office took very prompt action and did the best one could possibly do.

As correctly reported, a strong wind warning was issued for the whole Fiji group on Sunday evening as soon as it became evident that the tropical depression would affect the Fiji group. Forecast of heavy rainfall and flooding was given from Saturday.

At that time, there was no solid evidence that the system would develop into a tropical cyclone and all prediction centres indicated the system to move across the group in a weak form, but develop once well clear of Fiji. Unfortunately, the system proved otherwise and formed rapidly into a cyclone as it moved over the north-eastern part of the group, hence the naming and upgrading of warnings.

The procedures adopted for Fiji and the South Pacific region and contained in the World Meteorological Organisation's Tropical Cyclone Operational Plan for the region state that, where possible, tropical cyclone alerts will be issued 48 hours and warnings 24 hours before likely onset of gales. These thresholds apply to developed cyclones approaching a country. Clearly, it was not possible in the case of TC Gene.

FT: Do you think members of the public responded accordingly once the cyclone warning was sent out by the weather office?

PRASAD: I think some people did and they were those who have experienced cyclones before and prepared well for sudden changes in the weather. Most others did not and were those that couldn't care less and are generally complacent in life. It was clearly evident from the panic buying that people did not prepare ahead of the cyclone season despite awareness campaigns being conducted annually. The fact that two tropical cyclones brushed past the group and one caused severe damage in Cikobia lately should have generated enough concern and interest among people and prompted them to prepare ahead of the event.

FT: Many people have also questioned the manpower at the weather office and also whether the tracking devices used are up to date?

PRASAD: Of course we are experiencing an acute shortage of meteorologists which should be common knowledge now. But the fact that this is the fourth cyclone handled well by the Nadi Centre goes to show that we can still manage. Otherwise we would have transferred responsibility to someone else. Let me also say that we warned the people of Fiji well ahead of time during Daman and Funa and it was only the peculiarities of this system (Gene) that forced us to name it so suddenly.

FT: There have also been letters appearing in the newspapers on the need to have a radar system similar to that used by the United States. What's the difference between the system the Fiji Met office uses and the one used by the Americans?

PRASAD: The difference is not so much with the equipment (radar or satellite) and various data sources we use, as these are commonly available to all meteorological services and others like the US Joint Typhoon Warning Centre (JTWC) based in Honolulu. It is rather in the tropical cyclone classification and warning system.

The South Pacific and South Indian Ocean use 10-minute averaging period for winds while the US uses one-minute period. Some use two-minute and others use three-minute averaging period. The South Pacific one has been adopted from the system intended for maritime use and makes sense since this region consists of largely oceanic islands.

Obviously, winds averaged over longer time interval is lower than the short one. For example, when the JTWC estimates average winds of 35 knots, it converts to 30 knots in the system used in this region. This is why the JTWC calls a system a cyclone earlier than us.

However, one should note that in last three TCs (Daman, Elisa and Funa) forming in the region near Fiji, the Nadi Tropical Cyclone Warning Centre and Regional Specialised Meteorological Centre (RSMC)declared them well ahead of others. Advisories from centres like the JTWC came after we had named the cyclones.

In fact there should be no comparison as all of us work together in providing warning services for different interests. Nadi is the WMO designated RSMC for tropical cyclones for the tropical Southwest Pacific region and as such has the primary responsibility to name, track and provide warnings and advisories for countries in the region, whereas JTWC serves US Navy interests in the region.

The US Embassy in Suva is well informed of our respective roles and there is no competition or conflict of interest. If fact we very much appreciate JTWC's contribution toward the provision of effective warning services for the region.

FT: I understand that you are also losing forecasters to greener pastures. How many forecasters are currently employed in the Met office? What steps are in place to fill the vacant positions?

PRASAD: Sadly we lost three experienced meteorologists last year - two to the New Zealand Met Service and one to Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM). Right now we have three local meteorologists with a range of experience, one from Australian BOM and another from PNG. Four meteorologists have recently joined us and are undergoing training. So, we have numbers to provide routine services but need to build more experience and skills for tropical cyclone and specialised duties.

FT: What are some of the problems faced by the weather office?

PRASAD: No comments now as people seem to think I am giving excuses and blaming the government of the day. However, I wish to make it clear that government has been very considerate and forthcoming with financial assistance in the last few years.

FT: Have these problems been identified to your line minister and has there been any feedback?

PRASAD: The new Minister for Transport and Works was briefed only last week and has pledged his full support given the essential nature our services.

FT: When a cyclone passes how often do you get feed back if any from sectors like agriculture and sugar? What advice would your department give to these sectors and these farmers who have lost everything in the cyclone?

PRASAD: Actually, the Fiji Meteorological Service gets very little feedback on its services, except we have build closer working relations with the sugar sector recently.

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