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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Cyclone Phailin was an emotional roller-coaster ride: L S Rathore 10-20

Cyclone Phailin was an emotional roller-coaster ride: L S Rathore

Interview with Director-General, India Meteorological Departmenty
L S Rathore


India was rocked by two major disasters this year - cyclone Phailinand the Uttarakhand flash floods. While the former was managed well and the evacuation process praised globally, the latter lacked the same coordination. L S Rathore, Director-General of the India Meteorological Department, which was accurate in predicting Phailin's movement, talks to Somesh Jha on how it all panned out. Edited excerpts:

The Phailin disaster was well managed and the Met department predicted it right. Were the state governments supportive?

The state governments were very cooperative. We had a very good dialogue with the National Disaster Management Authority and meticulously planned every action required to combat the disaster. The flow of communication with the media was appropriate since we held six press conferences. So, it was the overall coordination that clicked.

Every agency was terming Phailin a super cyclone. What made the India Meteorological Department (IMD) not term it the same?

That requires guts. I am conscious that as a responsible operational forecaster, I have to be as accurate as possible. Informing the government and the stakeholders is a big decision. So, you have to weigh the function of your wrong information. Once you are confident of your forecast, you need courage to stick to it.

This helps save expense and the inconvenience to the public at large. Once you deliver the information confidently, people start believing in the institution. So, we did the analysis of the facts at our disposal and were confident of our prediction. A kilometre of evacuation costs crores of rupees and so much inconvenience to people. When so much is at stake, one really requires courage to deliver.

How did we predict more precisely than other agencies?

In every event, we do an analysis and there is always some amount of divergence. At the end of the day, it is the operational forecaster who is responsible. Hence, he/she analyses the situation with greater intensity and monitors every minute detail at his disposal. Apart from that, experience also matters. My people have a better grip over the Indian Ocean basin than the Americans. Moreover, India is responsible for eight neighbouring countries, not just itself. Therefore, we have a mandate. On the other hand, it doesn't mean that they (the Americans) were absolutely wrong.

Are you saying India is better equipped than the other international agencies ?

Yes, we are better equipped in our region because of extra surface observations and other functionaries that are not available to them.

Other forecasters were calling it a super cyclone. Were you worried that you were not reading it right?

You cannot sleep. And neither can you sleep, after it has happened because of the excitement of coming out with an accurate prediction. At the back of my mind, definitely, there was some fear. My whole team was tense. We were monitoring conditions every 10 minutes. But we were confident about our prediction.

What was the biggest challenge you faced at that time?

The first thing is to get the correct assessment of the ground situation, then to predict it precisely and deliver the information to the stakeholders, most importantly to gain the faith of the people in the system.

We forecasted it four days earlier which worked wonders. We were tracking and working on predictions daily. So, working on short-term goals and achieving them made the people believe our forecast. Even the two hour difference that came at the time of landfall… the cyclonic winds came as close as 30 kms to the coast and Phailin was stuck there for two hours. During those stressful moments, there were all sorts of rumours. Some said it had reached Andhra Pradesh and had moved on, while others were anticipating a completely different situation. But we were really confident. Honestly, it was an emotional roller coaster ride, just like at the time of the satellite launch.

Even the public's faith in the forecast was restored after we came out with accurate predictions daily. It is not an easy task to evacuate people. Nobody wants to go until they are really sure they are going to die. So, I had to go to the media and make them believe what we are saying is what is going to happen. In Odisha, I got immense response. I am a household name in Odisha. Everyone knows about the Met department. Hence, when the administration told them about the forecast, they immediately evacuated.

The Uttarakhand disaster was not managed the way this situation was handled…

I would not call the Uttarakhand floods purely a Met department disaster. In Amar Ujala, after our information, a news report on June 15 gave warnings to the residents and tourists. People could have been moved to a safe location. The reasons were quite different in that situation. First, the monsoon had hit early and the snow-melt rate was very fast, which had compounded, resulting into the creation of artificial lakes and breaching of existing ones. The water rushed in all of a sudden and there was a breach of the dam.

Is the state government at fault?

They were also not aware that something of this intensity would be triggered.

Does this mean that the disaster was unavoidable?

Yes, it was an unavoidable disaster.

Reportedly, the Uttarakhand government said the IMD issues these warnings every year…

If that dam wouldn't have had burst due to high intensity rain, there wouldn't have been so much impact and probably, no casualty as well.

Are you saying there was an infrastructure issue involved there?

We informed the state government on time. Handling the situation after that is their job.

How could such a situation be avoided?

In mountains, where there is denser habitation, we need to monitor the upstream river.

Is it possible under the IMD's ambit to do so?

It is not the IMD's job. There is the Central Water Commission and other agencies for this.

Why can't the IMD get it right every time - especially when we know that so much is at stake and majority of our population still depends on the monsoon for agriculture?

You cannot be completely correct no matter what and even after 100 years of experiences.

But the prediction rate of the monsoons is nowhere near 100 per cent…

Cent per cent accuracy can't happen even in the US, although, the weather there is so much more predictable because of the extra tropical climate.

During the 2009 drought, the department predicted there would be a normal monsoon but it was nowhere close to the reality…

It is true. But the medium range forecast was correct all the time. We do have difficulties in predicting long-term rainfall. The atmosphere does not have a memory and its nature changes in six months. In fact, no other country except India is predicting (the weather) on this scale. Had it been easy, others could have done this.