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The Staggering Cyclone Nargis Catastrophe

A Disastrous Convergence of Variables

Cyclone Nargis as it approaches the coast of Bangladesh SOURCE: AP/NASA Death tolls continue to rise, a product of poverty, poor infrastructure, and a negligent government. Better forecasting for the North Indian region would be a start for protecting citizens from future cyclones. Democracy in Burma probably wouldn't hurt, either. Above, Cyclone Nargis as it approaches the coast of Bangladesh.

Most Americans haven’t paid any serious attention to hurricanes since 2005, the year that brought us Category 5 mega-monsters Katrina, Rita, and Wilma—storms that kept one-upping each other in intensity and together caused unprecedented damage to the United States. But for nations bordering the Arabian Sea or Bay of Bengal—technically referred to as the North Indian cyclone basin—such storms have been scarily active over the past year, and the toll in death and damage has been still more stunning.

First, in June of 2007, came Cyclone Gonu, the first recorded Category 5 ever in the Arabian Sea, and the cause of the worst natural disaster in the history of the nation of Oman (the storm racked up some $4 billion in damage to the desert country). Then, last November, we saw Cyclone Sidr, a strong Category 4/weak Category 5 storm that killed at least 3,500 Bangladeshis with a powerful storm surge that reached 16 feet high in some places, and swept inland over the low-lying country.

There’s no telling yet how bad Nargis will turn out to be.

But in human terms, none of these storms can touch Cyclone Nargis, which rapidly exploded in intensity last week before smacking into southern Myanmar (formerly Burma) as a still-strengthening Category 4 with a tightly packed, cloud-filled eye. As I write this the death toll has reached 22,000 by some accounts, and is expected to climb higher. In terms of its murderousness, Nargis has already surpassed 1998′s Hurricane Mitch, which killed some 11,000 in Nicaragua and Honduras and left almost as many missing. Let us hope that it gets nowhere near the 1991 Bangladesh Cyclone, which killed 138,000, or the 1970 Bhola Cyclone, which also struck present-day Bangladesh and killed between 300,000 and 500,000 people—the deadliest hurricane on record.

Unfortunately, Nargis sounds a lot like that last storm. Much of the death toll occurred in Myanmar’s low-lying but also very populous Irrawaddy Delta region, which experienced a storm surge that probably exceeded 13 feet in many places. When you combine a poor population living in a low lying area in very flimsy structures with a rapidly exploding storm that took an ill-prepared region by surprise with its force—and there are already charges from Laura Bush that the military junta running Myanmar failed to warn its people—it’s a perfect recipe for disaster.

There’s no telling yet how bad Nargis will turn out to be: It appears that entire villages were swept away and the death toll will probably rise significantly over the coming days. But already, there are some points to bear in mind from the Nargis tragedy:

It’s Not About Global Warming, But Poverty and Infrastructure.

Hurricanes have been dramatically active in the North Indian region in the past year, just as they were in the Atlantic region in 2004 and 2005. There is quite a body of scientific research now developing on whether global warming may be leading to stronger storms, more of them (or fewer), and so forth. However, this remains a very murky area, and global warming can hardly explain a fact like this: Although the Yucatan and Central America got smacked by back-to-back Category 5 storms last year—Hurricanes Dean and Felix were both far more powerful, meteorologically, than Cyclones Sidr and Nargis—the combined death toll was only 162. That’s because nations like Mexico, Nicaragua, and Honduras warned their populations and, in some cases, evacuated people in vulnerable areas. It’s already painfully obvious that Myanmar’s military junta did nothing of the kind.

The American Media Present a Very Selective Picture of Cyclone Disasters in the Developing World.

You are hearing a lot about Cyclone Nargis right now because the death and destruction is so sudden and so staggering. And you will likely hear more, because a political subplot is now emerging which finds First Lady Laura Bush rightly denouncing Myanmar’s military junta—a regime guilty of gross human rights violation, to say nothing of massive ignorance—in the wake of the tragedy. However, in 2007, when the island nation of Madagascar was literally brought to its knees by repeated cyclone strikes—none of which, on its own, was nearly as bad as Nargis, but which collectively created a massive humanitarian crisis—we heard much less about it. When it comes to natural disasters, the press focuses on drama, and does not strictly calibrate its coverage volume to the scale of the tragedy or the need for aid.

Hurricane/Cyclone Forecasting in the North Indian Region is Lackluster at Best.

Here in the United States, we have the best hurricane forecasters in the world—and they protect the entire North Atlantic region from storms (and the Northeastern Pacific as well). Our government flies aircraft into approaching storms to determine their strengths. It releases state-of-the-art updates every six hours. It runs suites of computer models to compute possible storm tracks and intensities. But for the Indian Ocean region, there is nothing that remotely compares. The Indian Meteorological Department‘s products hardly match the sophistication of what we have in the U.S., and I don’t know if Myanmar even has a hurricane forecasting center of its own. Into such a situation comes Nargis, the toughest kind of storm to forecast and also the most dangerous—a rapid intensifier near land. Even the U.S. National Hurricane Center would have had trouble with Nargis, but given that this storm occurred in the Bay of Bengal, serious disaster was probably unpreventable. That doesn’t exonerate Myanmar’s military junta; but it does suggest that the nations of the region, or the international community, ought to invest in far better cyclone forecasting capacities for these incredibly vulnerable areas.

Hurricanes Can Bring Down Governments.

In his book Divine Wind, MIT’s Kerry Emanuel emphasizes how at key moments, tropical cyclones have actually changed world history. That’s precisely what happened with the 1970 Bhola Cyclone: It was the deadliest storm known to us, with some 300,000 to 500,000 dead in what was then East Pakistan. At the time Pakistan was one nation; but a strong separatist movement existed in the east. Enter the cyclone, and in the ensuing tragedy, even as the international community mobilized and the news media swept in, the central government in West Pakistan was widely perceived as inept, uncaring, uninvolved. Anger rose, and before long the nation we now call Bangladesh declared its independence—although it took a civil war to ensure it.

Even without a sophisticated analysis of the political situation in Myanmar, one can see many parallels in the Nargis catastrophe. We clearly have another regime that was out of touch, that did little or nothing to protect its people—the worst kind of despotism and irresponsibility. And now, in the glare of international scrutiny, there will be mounting outrage, and rightly so. If Cyclone Nargis can help strengthen the movement for Burmese democracy, at least there will be some silver lining in this tragedy.

Chris Mooney is a contributing editor to Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs at The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.

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