Blown out

Blown out the damage was staggering and the destruction, complete. One of worst cyclones in Pakistan’s history left a trail of death and devastation in the districts of Thatta and Badin in the southern province of Sindh on May 20, 1999. Tidal waves as high as six metres hit many villages in the two districts while the villagers were asleep. The cyclone “2A”, or Hurricane Thuth, travelling at a speed of 273 km per hour, and the accompanying deluge battered the two districts for around 36 hours, destroying around 50,000 houses. Conservative estimates put the number feared dead at around 500, while around 6,000 are reported missing. Government officials, however, say the death toll is below 200.

Across the international boundary, though the cyclone brushed past the Indian state of Gujarat, it claimed more than 300 lives, most of whom were at sea when the cyclone struck.The death count on land was comparatively less, due to timely warnings by the meteorological department, says S R Kalsi, the deputy director general of cyclone warning at the Indian Meteorological Department, New Delhi.
The beginningThe killer cyclone took shape in the Arabian Sea with wind speeds of 160-200 km per hour. It changed its course, narrowly missing Gujarat, and vent its fury on the Pakistani coastal towns of Keti Bandar and Shah Bandar. Karachi was spared as the cyclone took an unexpected turn and headed east. “The high-speed winds moving northwards from the sea struck Gujarat earlier than expected but it was Pakistan that was hit harder,” says Kalsi.

“The waves were horrifying and devoured three of my children like a dragon. I tried to save them but I was helpless,” says 30-year-old Mehmant Soomar, of Raj Mallah in Thatta district, trying to come to terms with what had happened. After two nightmarish days, he and his wife were the only survivors from his family and, along with a thousand others, have taken refuge at a relief camp.

The districts of Thatta and Badin were totally inundated. At least 30 per cent of the houses, shops, poultry farms and other structures were completely destroyed and thousands of heads of cattle killed, said the army spokesperson. The people have been reduced to paupers overnight by the cyclone, says a district official.

“More than 164 bodies were recovered from Raj Malik village in the Thatta district alone, some were lying submerged in the mud while others were found in trees,” says Mumtaz Uqali, deputy commissioner of Thatta. Around 450 fisherfolk, who ventured into the sea on that fateful night, are still missing.

The hurricane showed no mercy to “the children of the sea,” as the Sindh fisherfolk refer to themselves. “Hundreds of small to medium boats have been lost,” says Arab Malah, president of the Provincial Fishermen’s Society. “It is too early to assess the damage,” says Naik Mohammad Jokhi, the additional deputy commissioner of Thatta. Communication links with the rest of the country have been cut off.

Over 10,000 Navy and Army personnel have been deployed for relief and rescue measures in the two worst-hit districts. Officials say that relief efforts have covered 80 per cent of the affected areas, though 4,000 villages in the coastal areas are yet to be reached. Around 90 per cent of farmland of these two districts have been totally destroyed, says Maj Gen Khalid Munir who is the general officer commanding of the Hyderabad division. According to Javed Ashraf Hussain, relief commissioner, around 285,000 hectares (ha) of cropped land in Thatta and 115,000 ha in Badin have been affected. Around 23 relief camps have been set up and are accommodating 150,000 villagers. The district administration has dispatched medical teams to the affected areas to prevent epidemics.

According to naval personnel, many people are still marooned in over 100 pockets along the coastline. The priority for the rescuers was to locate the missing and assess the damage, said an army spokesperson. Relief supplies were only possible through air drops, he said.

Moderate rains with gusty winds of up to 50 km per hour were reported from Hyderabad, Dadu, Larkana and southern Punjab. Flash rains and strong winds continued in Punjab and Kashmir for two days after the cyclone. Lahore and Islamabad also experienced rain and high winds. The area has been declared calamity-hit by the Sindh government.
No warnings In Pakistan, where the cyclone was more intense, the villagers denied any knowledge of warnings by the administration. Opposition parties say that the death toll and the damages could have been limited if proper precautionary measures were taken.

However, Moinuddin Haider, governor of Sindh, says that the people were warned but they had refused to evacuate their villages. The deputy commissioners of Thatta and Badin also declared that the residents were alerted to the impending cyclone. However, some army rescuers have criticised the civil administration for not providing adequate relief or quick rescue.

The government has established an emergency relief cell to coordinate arrangements in the affected areas. Relief material that included blankets, medicines, cooking pans, stoves and tents have been provided to all the affected. “The government is doing all it can... but we were not prepared for a calamity of this magnitude,” said Haider.

After visiting the affected areas, Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif announced an amount of 50 million Pakistani rupees for relief work. The administrations of the affected areas had demanded 300 million Pakistani rupees. Political parties have criticised the government for announcing such a pitiful amount. Some have demanded that the government should cancel the anniversary celebrations of the country’s nuclear tests conducted on May 28 last year and, instead, divert the money to relief operations in the coastal areas.
Across the border The scene is no better in India even though the storm merely brushed Kutch district of Gujarat. Besides causing massive damage in the coastal areas of Kutch, it left more than 300 people dead. Many of the victims were fisherfolk who had ventured into Saurastra before the cyclone struck. The Coast Guard and the Navy are still searching for more victims. An estimated 30,000 heads of cattle are reported to have been killed.

Suresh Mehta, the state industry minister, claims that there were no human casualties on land due to prompt action taken by the government in evacuating people. Around 50,000 people are said to have been evacuated from all over Gujarat and 20,000 from Kutch.

“This cyclone was more intense than the Kandla cyclone which killed more than 2,000 people in 1998. However, on this occasion the Gujarat government was prepared and managed to avert any severe damage,” says Kalsi. “Though the brunt of the cyclone was borne by Kutch, it did not strike the mainland with expected severity.” The authorities had alerted villagers living in low-lying areas along the coast and instructed them to leave for safer places.

Gujarat has recorded only eight cyclones in the last 25 years, and this was one of the severest. "Though the Kandla cyclone was milder, it claimed more lives because of poor communications," says Kalsi.

The troubled Third World
The year 1998-99 has witnessed a fair amount of natural disasters. Cyclones, twisters, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and landslides. But the question most people are asking is why do the Third World countries have more human casualties than the developed world? Though developed countries suffer higher economic loss at the time of a natural disaster, it is often the poorer countries around the world that have more human casualties. According to Red Cross" World Disasters Report 1998, one reason could be inadequate human attention to disaster prevention, mitigation and preparedness. Other possible reasons mentioned are poor infrastructure, services and construction of buildings, and lack of early warning systems.

Kalsi also says that geographical location has a role to play in the magnitude of destruction in many countries. He says many south Asian countries have flat terrain where the storm finds no obstacles which leaves the people to bear its full fury. For instance, the geographic location of Bangladesh is such that almost every year it faces the problem of floods. Another problem in developing countries is population which most often exceeds the number that can be sustained by its economy. However, Kalsi says the remote sensing in these areas are not to blame because "most of the developing countries have good remote sensing systems, and proper warnings are also given. But he feels "the problem is that most remote villages in poor countries often miss the warning".

Another reason for the high death rate among developing countries is the mismanagement on the part of the officials dealing with relief operations, says Baleshwar Thakur, professor and head of department in Delhi University.

Unlike developed countries, India lacks the facilities to counter disasters. "India and Pakistan have good remote sensing satellites, but communication is the main problem. "There is no proper interaction with the rural people who are most often the victims," says R Jayakumar, programme assistant at unesco in New Delhi. Besides proper rescue facilities, deve-loped countries are able to interact and comm-unicate better with the public, so that people can be evacuated well in time.

Annual average number of people killed by
disasters in developed and developing countries between 1987 to 1997

USA 676  Bangladesh 44,477
Japan    725 China 5,524
Germany  62 India 7,603
UK 132 Pakistan 1,276
France 120 Nigeria 1,581
Canada    34 Afghanistan 1,261
Source: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies 1998, World Disasters Report 1998, Oxford University Press, New York

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