Cyclone warning system will reduce losses

THE floods in Penang, reportedly the worst in 30 years, was the result of a rare weather phenomenon known as a cyclone. However, this cyclone was still small and in the developing stages of becoming a tropical storm, a full blown cyclone.

Unlike thunderstorms and monsoon storms, a tropical storm is a large rotating storm that creates a swirling rainfall pattern which can be seen on the Meteorological Department's rainfall detecting radar screen. In the Pacific Ocean, the weakest form of a tropical storm is called a tropical depression while the strongest is called a typhoon.

A typhoon is also known as a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean and a cyclone in the Indian Ocean.

The Penang cyclone was not the first cyclone to hit Peninsular Malaysia. Typhoon Vamei struck Johor in December 2001.

The Johor cyclone was extraordinary since it was created in the South China Sea just 12 hours before it made landfall in Desaru.

Fortunately, it weakened to become a tropical depression as it crossed the state towards the Straits of Malacca but many people were killed and properties damaged in the floods and landslides created in its path.

Fortunately, the Penang cyclone did not strengthen into a tropical depression and remained in that weak state until the next day.

Unfortunately, the cyclone remained almost stationary over the island for more than 12 hours and dumped more heavy rain on the island.

At the same time, it pounded the island with a sustained gale force wind which resulted in many trees being uprooted and many landslides.

Had the Penang cyclone continued moving on its original trek, the island would have only suffered a few hours of extraordinary heavy rain and that would not have resulted in the worst flood in 30 years.

The Typhoon Vamei incident taught us that a full-blown cyclone can and does strike this country with serious consequences even though it is small.

Hence, the National Security Council (NSC) must have a separate standard operating procedure (SOP) when it comes to dealing with a cyclone where it should be fully monitored as it approaches and enters the country.

The SOP must make it mandatory to issue a warning to the public of any approaching cyclone before it makes a landfall so that people living in its path in flood-prone areas and on the hillslopes can evacuate or take evasive action.

The cyclone warning is crucial since they are much more dangerous than the extraordinary heavy thunderstorms and monsoon rain due to the presence of a rotating gale force wind.

The cyclone that struck Penang could be seen making landfall on the east coast of southern Thailand on Friday morning (Cyclone 1). However, by Saturday morning, this system had moved into Kedah with a well-defined swirl in the rainfall pattern (Cyclone 2). By evening, the cyclone was over Penang Island and the rain had intensified (Cyclone 3) since the cyclone is over water.

Instead of moving across the straits, the cyclone lingered over the island for more than 12 hours before moving back inland over Perak and later Kelantan. The looping trek of the cyclone can be seen from another image posted on the American Joint Typhoon Warning Centre (JTWC) website on Monday (Cyclone 4).

Had a cyclone warning been issued on Friday morning or earlier, some of the reported deaths could have been avoided since care-givers of the elderly would have moved them to safer locations. Many important and valuable assets could also have been saved since there would have been ample time to move them to higher ground.

Calls to set up a cyclone warning system had been made repeatedly since 1998 but they seemed to have been ignored by the authorities. Had the Penang cyclone been as strong as the one that struck Johor, the devastation would have been worse and more people might have died.

The NSC should seriously consider setting up the cyclone warning system before a more powerful cyclone strikes the country with higher number of casualties and more property losses.

Kuala Lumpur