Storm clouds gather after deadly winds

  • Families of missing fishermen live in hope for return of loved ones, hit out at lack of official warnings
  • Disaster Management Centre, Met Department and NARA embroiled in usual blame game over the failure of early warning systems
By Nadia Fazlulhaq

The biggest natural disaster to hit the country after the 2004 tsunami resulted once again in the failure of government agencies to warn residents of a storm that hit many parts of the country.

In the aftermath of the raging storm that killed 29 islandwide, families of missing fishermen stand along the beaches of a village in the southern coast staring into the vast ocean hoping that their loved ones would still return.

Kapparathota: A woman breaks down after the body of a relative was found

Ajantha (32) from Kapparathota , a fishing village off Weligama from where a majority of the fishermen had died or were reported missing, awaits the return of both his brother and brother-in-law who were at sea on November 25, when strong winds along with heavy showers lashed many parts of the country.

The sound of wailing come from within the little huts greets as a village mourns the death of 10 fishermen and eight missing fishermen.

“This is the first mass burial after the 2004 tsunami. Most of them who died are breadwinners. Many children who have lost their fathers. Some of the lucky fishermen who returned had sustained injuries and their boats had been damaged in the storm. I’m worried about my sister, the mother of three small children the youngest just an infant. If both are dead I will be the one who will have to be the breadwinner,”Ajantha said.

While 20 fishermen returned from the ordeal at sea bodies are still being washed onto the shores with some even found stuck between rocks.

According to the latest numbers of the Disaster Management Centre, 29 died islandwide due to the bad weather conditions with 39 being injured and 16 reported missing, of whom 13 were fishermen.

Angry villagers said although usually they are alerted of impending bad weather, especially storms since some of the boats cannot survive in stormy conditions, with fishermen at sea also being alerted through radio system, this time there was no such warning.

Meanwhile, authorities continue the blame game on the failure to broadcast the stormy condition to those at sea. Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera who on Tuesday told a news conference that stern action would be taken against officials responsible for failing to issue warnings, on Friday, told the Sunday Times that a report had been submitted to President Rajapaksa.
“The report will be studied by a team appointed by the President. The Ministry has not yet found anyone or any organization culpable,” he said.

At the same news conference, Meteorology Department Director G.B.Samarasinghe admitted that they had failed to relay the warnings about the change in the weather patterns.

“The change in the weather was unexpected and it was not possible to forecast disturbances in the low pressure areas because a ‘squall line’ had formed,” he said. A squall line refers to a phenomenon where a number of active individual thunderstorms organize themselves into a line. This system of thunderstorms can produce severe weather patterns in the form of heavy rainfall, strong winds, hail and severe thunder.

The Sunday Times learns that despite signs of a developing stormy condition, the Met. Department’s weather forecast for November 25 sent to the Fisheries Ministry had not mentioned strong winds. In fact the weather update stated, “Occasional showers or thundershowers will be experienced in the deep and shallow sea areas off the North-Eastern, Eastern, South-Eastern and Southern coasts and scattered showers in the other sea areas.” Rough conditions had been predicted in the sea areas of Northern, Eastern and South-Eastern coasts and the Gulf of Mannar.

It had stated that the winds would blow from the north-easterly direction resulting in wind speeds of about 20-30 km/hr in the sea areas around the island. The speed may increase upto 40-50 km/hr in the Northern, Eastern, South-eastern and Gulf of Mannar sea areas .

However international weather forecast bodies, news agencies weather and independent websites monitoring the weather pattern change had alerted about extreme weather conditions in the Indian Ocean by November 23.

In fact, the popular international surfers website had carried a weather warning including the speed of the gale three days before.

About 150 surfers from Australia, England, Germany, Italy and Japan who were in Hikkaduwa and other surfing areas in the south were aware of the adverse weather well in advance and had lamented over their inability to inform officials or coastguards.

The National Aquatic Research Agency (NARA) claims that an officer attached to the Agency’s Ocean Observation Centre had called the Met.Department to inform it of changes in the ocean and cyclonic weather conditions on November 23.

Chairman Dr. Hiran Jayawardena said the officer who contacted the Met Dept. was told by the duty officer that strong winds cannot be interpreted as a cyclone.

“There is always an issue on the reliability of communication. The Met. Department should be tracking severe weather conditions by monitoring weather updates and sites,” he said, He also said there should be a more effective way of communicating with fishing boats.

“There is no legal requirement for fishermen to wear life saving jackets, therefore many don’t. We have also suggested that warning flares be fired in case of an emergency,” he said. However, Met. Department chief G.B. Samarasinghe denied that an official from NARA had warned the department. He said a probe would be conducted.

Rumassala: Families of those missing and others throng the beach on hearing that a body had washed ashore. Pix by Krishan Jeevaka Jayaruk
An early warning tower in Matara

Meanwhile Disaster Management Centre spokesman Pradeep Kodippilli said the centre had not received any warning. “The DMC is not a technical agency but a coordinating one. If we were informed, within a few minutes emergency operations would have commenced,” he said.

Commenting on the usual practice he said, while it is the responsibility of the Meteorology Department to issue warnings about severe weather patterns including tsunamis and cyclones; the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau or the National Building Research Organization (NBRO) gives warnings about landslides, the Irrigation Department on floods and opening of sluice gates and NARA on changes in sea –levels.

He said although the DMC has early warning system towers they cannot make any announcements until an official warning is issued by the Met. Cept. “We are fully equipped especially after the 2004 tsunami and the three forces along with the police are ready to assist us at any time,” he said.

However, the Sunday Times learns that the Hikkaduwa Multi-Hazard and Tsunami Warning System that was constructed at a cost of US dollars 2000 has been out of order for almost a year.

Meanwhile, 65,866 people from 16,654 families were affected by the severe weather conditions while 812 houses were fully damaged and 8155 partially.

Ampara, Anuradhapura, Badulla, Batticaloa, Galle, Hambantota, Jaffna, Kalutara, Kilinochchi, Matara , Moneragala, Mullaitivu, Nuwara Eliya and Ratnapura districts were affected by heavy showers, floods and gale-force winds last week.

What's hit the Met Dept. website?

The Meteorology Department website has not been updated since October 21 this year. Lalith Chandrapala, a director of the Department who is also in charge of the website said, that Information Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) was hosting the website and it was their responsibility to look into the technical problems faced uploading.

He said the website would be up and running on Tuesday (Nov. 29) but upto last evening it had not been updated.

However, ICTA communication officer Athula Pushpakumara said although they hosted websites it was not their responsibility to upload the content. He said the agency in the past hosted about 330 government websites both technically and financially but because of a series of security breaches and hacking of government websites recently they have decided to halt updating websites and have requested departments to maintain secure passwords and security links. “Uploading the content is not our responsibility,” he said.

A Met Dept without meteorologists

The Sunday Times learns that the Met. Deparment has a severe shortage of meteorologists with seven essential posts lying vacant.

The minimum qualification to be a meteorologist is a Bachelor’s Degree (Special) in Physics or Mathematics. However, the starting salary of a meteorologist is only Rs. 20,000 without allowances.
In addition a number of experts in the field of Atmospheric Physics and Dynamic Meteorology have apparently left the country, with the department funding some individuals’ Masters programmes but only a few opt to remain in the country.

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