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Cyclone Nargis death toll in the tens of thousands

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 12:42 PM GMT on May 06, 2008

A disaster of staggering magnitude continues to unfold in Myanmar, where the death toll from Tropical Cyclone Nargis exceeds 22,000. In one city alone--Bogalay, about 50 miles southwest of the capital of Yangon--10,000 people are thought to have died. Bogalay is a decrepit city of 100,000 that lies at the head of a estuary that leads to the sea. No doubt this narrow waterway served to funnel a storm surge over ten feet high into the city. News reports have not yet been received from the coast southeast of Yangon, which also received a significant storm surge, and the toll from Nargis is certain to go much higher.

Nargis hit the coast of Myanmar Friday night as powerful Category 3 cyclone with winds of 130 mph. The cyclone took the worst possible track, passing directly over the densely populated and low lying Irrawaddy River delta. A deadly storm surge--probably around 12 feet high--inundated the delta region, accounting for most of the deaths. The storm's fierce winds killed many more. The only fortunate thing about Nargis was its small size. Hurricane-force winds covered an area about 90 miles in diameter (Figure 1). In contrast, the wind field of Katrina at landfall spanned an area about 205 miles in diameter. Winds from both storms at landfall were about the same (strong Category 3), but Katrina's winds covered an area four times larger than Nargis.

Figure 1. The wind field (black contours, in knots) of Nargis shortly after landfall, when it was a Category 3 storm with top winds of 105 knots (120 mph). Hurricane force winds (red wind barbs) spanned an area about 90 miles in diameter. Image credit: CSU/CIRA/RAMMB.

Loss of the rice harvest
Nargis' arrival came at the worst time possible, during the winter bora rice crop harvest. This crop, planted in January, and very heavily focused in the Irrawaddy River delta, was significantly affected by Nargis. Rice prices have nearly tripled in the past year, and now Myanmar must wait until the summer rice crop is harvested in September and October before adequate supplies of rice will be at hand. The impact will spread beyond Myanmar, since they export rice to Banladesh and Sri Lanka, according to Reuters.

Comments from Chris Burt
I've been in regular communication about this disaster with Chris Burt, author of the excellent book Extreme Weather. He has been visiting Myanmar every year for 30 years, and has much insight on the situation there:

Note this: No word yet about casualties from the Mon or Karen States; those areas not in the Delta region but to the SE of Rangoon where a major storm surge and flooding from rains may have occurred.

The government considers these areas 'minority states' and these states have traditionally been looked down upon by ethnic Burmese, They are heavily populated. I will bet they will be the last areas to receive aid, and the last regions from which we hear news so far as storm damage is concerned.

I might add this is indicative of just how bad the situation in Burma is. People who are not aware of the isolation of Myanmar, one of the largest most populated countries in the world, will not be able to grasp the gravity of this disaster. It is a country under the thumb of complete ignorants: the leaders of this county have NEVER traveled outside of Burma before. They have no education whatsoever. They live in a dream world of astrology and have maintained their control by funneling all the nation's vast resources to crony patronage and the military. China is their only steadfast friend in the international arena. Even Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and India who do business with this regime do so at hands length.

If you can understand what I am saying here you will understand just how bad the situation is.

Jeff Masters

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.