Coming to grips with Cyclone Phailin

Whether India’s weather forecasters would ever get the weather report right had been the million dollar question until Cyclone Phailin hit Gopalpur. On schedule. It not only helped the affected people weather the storm, it helped put on hold people’s cynical attitude towards the India Meteorological Department (IMD).

With the exception of a small guileless group that accepts everything from political promises to weather reports unquestioningly, most others love to indulge in weather forecast bashing. I am not just sceptical about weather forecasts; I go a step further and believe that the exact opposite of what is predicted would happen. The proverbial unpredictability of the weather and by extension the belief that whoever predicts it will go wrong have helped me reach this ridiculous assumption. A forecast that reads, ‘Warning: Heavy to very heavy rain with thunder showers for the next two days’, after three days of heavy rain, comforts me and I rush to put the clothes out to dry. On the other hand, if the weather gods, read IMD, predict rain in the middle of a hot spell, a mere glance at the forecast makes me sweat profusely; I know we are in for a scorching summer. The success of the recent prediction has left me confused.

When the media began reporting IMD’s information about the cyclone, at first mildly but soon with frenzied excitement, I followed the news with great curiosity. For the sake of the people in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh coasts, I hoped the reports would run true to form and prove to be wrong; but the nature of the details being shared was gradually winning my respect for the much maligned weather bureau.

The 24/7 TV channels were delighted. Here was something with enough meat in it to keep them going for 72 hours and more. Their on-site reporters got their best raincoats and jackets out and moved into the danger zone where they screamed themselves hoarse trying to be audible over the howling winds. The reporting became almost hysterical with every channel vying with the others to get a couple of drops ahead of their rivals. ‘Not super, but near super’; ‘it’s a treacherous category 5 cyclone’; ‘no, it’s just a severe category 2 storm with wind speeds below 164 kph...’

The US and British weather forecasters who predicted a storm equal in severity to the destructive Katrina, and believed IMD was erroneous in underestimating its force, were left red in the face when IMD’s predictions proved spot on. And for a brief while, the cyclone took the wind out of Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement sails. The governments of the affected states swung into action well ahead of landfall. Was it because of the coming elections? Never mind the end, the means were admirable. They initiated one of the biggest evacuations in public memory which helped save thousands of lives. The Centre too wanted a piece of the cake and hogged some credit saying the recent improvements it introduced in the IMD led to the precise nature of the predictions. Let’s hope the rehabilitation process, well away from media glare, is equally praiseworthy.

I learnt how storms get upgraded. The IMD steadily upgraded the storm in the Bay of Bengal to a deep depression, then to a cyclonic storm, giving it the name Phailin. The name intrigued me. Why ‘Phailin’? Was it because it was furiously filing in or piling into the coast? Not at all. It had no such meaningful significance. It is the Thai word for ‘sapphire’, and is pronounced ‘pai- leen’. Only severe tropical cyclones are named: remember Fanoos, Laila, Nilam? The deadliest north Indian Ocean hurricane, the 1999 Odisha cyclone which deserved a more striking name, was tamely called Cyclone 05B.

Naming of tropical cyclones began officially in 1945 from prepared lists to help identify storms instantly in messages between the forecasters and the public. Since 2004, the IMD began naming tropical cyclones within the North Indian Ocean. The next cyclone here is going to be Helen, a name chosen by Bangladesh. Of Troy? Unofficially the practice started in early 20th century when an Australian forecaster gave a storm the name of a politician he disliked. Then came the turns of wives, girl friends... Hell had no fury like cyclones with the names Katrina, Rita, Wilma, Irene. Let’s wait for Helen.