Thursday, 15 April 2010

Thunderstorm, Tornado, Cyclone: What’s In a Name?

The Indian Meteorological Department is not exactly known for its reliability in providing accurate weather forecasts and it is no surprise that the department did not foresee the violent storm that hit Bihar, West Bengal and Assam late Tuesday night, claiming more than 120 lives.

Two days later, India’s weather officials are still unsure about what struck.

In April last year, the weather bureau had forecast a cheerful estimate of average rainfall at 96%. Instead, the country saw its worst drought in 40 years.

Tuesday, yet again, saw a miss in the meteorological department’s predictions. According to S. N. Roy, deputy director general of the Regional Meteorological Department in Kolkata, the forecast for April 12 and 13 was heavy rain and thundershowers.

As it turns out, the ‘thundershowers’ created more havoc than expected. In North Dinajpur district of West Bengal alone, more than 40 persons died and more than 50,000 houses were blown away.

In a press note yesterday, the weather department said what occurred was a “severe thunderstorm” which was “associated with a tornado”, even as press reports termed it a “cyclone”.

After on site investigations into the devastation, Kolkata’s regional weather branch termed it “twisting in nature” and a “tornado type” of storm, even though Mr. Roy said he could not confirm it.

B.P. Yadav, the Indian Meteorological Department’s spokesperson said, “It was a thunderstorm accompanied with squall (sudden and gusty wind), with possibility of an embedded tornado. There was no cyclone.”

Sadly, any talk of the plight of victims and the cause for inaccurate predictions were predictably washed away in this deluge of meteorological jargon.

West Bengal’s disaster management team was also not adequately or sufficiently fore warned about the impending storm. “We knew nothing. There was no definite information about a violent storm or a tornado,” Mortoza Hossain, minister-in-charge of the state’s disaster management cell said.

The extensive devastation in North Dinajpur meant that Mr. Hossain’s department had to rush a relief consignment of 50,000 tarpaulins, 200 metric tons of rice and more than 70,000 sets of clothes to the village, in addition to providing 1 million rupees as a contingency fund to the district magistrate.

Tuesday’s storm was the most violent one since last year’s Cyclone Aila, which claimed more that 140 people in eastern India and Bangladesh.

An edited version of this piece appeared in The Wall Street Journal's India Real Time blog.

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