Monday, May 5, 2008

Cyclone Nargis - An Asian Version of Katrina

A couple of years back, when several Indian Ocean countries were devastated by a tsunami and hundreds of thousands died, Americans responded with an outpouring of donations and NGO assistance. News is starting to trickle out of Myanmar/Burma of another disaster in the region - an estimated 10,000 people have died, and many are missing from a tropical cyclone that made a more or less direct hit on the capitol city of Rangoon over the weekend.

Here's some info from Dr. Jeff Masters at Wundergound (the best $10 you'll ever spend on an online weather site):

A disaster of horrific proportions has befallen Myanmar, where the death toll is now over 4,000, with thousands more missing, in the wake of Cyclone Nargis. Nargis--a popular woman's name in India--is the deadliest and most destructive tropical cyclone ever to hit Myanmar (Burma). The storm hit the coast of Myanmar Friday night as borderline Category 3/Category 4 cyclone, with winds of 130-135 mph. After passing over the low-lying and densely populated Irrawaddy River delta region, Nargis made a direct hit on the capital city of Rangoon (Yangon), as a Category 1 storm with top winds of 80 mph. Winds at the Yangon airport hit 69 mph, gusting to 138 mph, at 5:30am local time on Saturday. The anemometer failed at that point, and the winds likely rose higher.

Myanmar Cyclone Nargis

(Figure 1. Population density of Myanmar, with Nargis' track superimposed. Nargis passed over some of the most densely populated regions of the country. Image credit: Columbia University's CIESEN.)

However, it was the storm surge, not the winds, that was the big killer in Nargis. The storm tracked over the low-lying Irrawaddy River delta region, which is highly vulnerable to storm surge deaths due to its low elevation, dense population, and limited hurricane awareness of the people. I could find no records of a major tropical cyclone ever making a direct hit on the Irrawaddy River delta. The ocean bottom off the coast of Myanmar is quite shallow (Figure 2). A large area of Continental Shelf waters with depth 200 meters or less extends far out to sea. This is a situation similar to the Gulf of Mexico, and is ideal for allowing large surge surge to pile up over the shallow waters. The counter-clockwise circulation of winds around Nargis likely built up a storm surge of at least 4 meters (13 feet), that then smashed ashore into the Irrawaddy Delta region, drowning thousands of people...

It almost sounds like an Asian version of Hurricane Katrina, without the levees. Here's a photo gallery of the disaster.

Not surprisingly, it's being reported that a humanitarian crisis is quickly developing. In a third world country which has received much criticism from the U.S. government, it's unlikely that a tremendous amount of aid will be forthcoming from the Bush administration.

This kind of a situation, though, is where the U.S. government can not only shine, but truly make an impact in recovery operations. By doing so, the good will generated can make a difference in social change within the country.

Beyond whatever response the U.S. government provides, there are several NGOs that will most certainly be accepting donations in support of the victims of Cyclone Nargis. If you'd like to assist, try starting with this list of NGOs that responded to the 2004 tsunami disaster. We'll have a more complete list later today.

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