Disaster looms for India as ferocious Cyclone Phailin, currently equivalent in strength to a Category 5 hurricane, bears down on the subcontinent ahead of its expected landfall tomorrow night (Oct. 12), local time.
Experts say that the enormous and powerful storm, with maximum sustained winds of more than 160 mph (260 km/h), will bring a “catastrophic” storm surge, the water that a storm’s winds push in front of it and that inundate a coastline as the storm makes landfall, said Hal Needham, a climatologist at Louisiana State University. The storm surge is expected to reach heights of 20 feet (6 meters), Needham told LiveScience.
The storm is likely to be “as bad or worse” than a cyclone that followed a similar trajectory in 1999, called Odisha cyclone for the area it hit. That storm killed about 15,000 people and caused $4.5 billion in damages, said Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist for the online publication Quartz. Phailin (pronounced pie-leen) has now tied the record, with Odisha, for the largest cyclone on record in the Indian Ocean, Holthaus told LiveScience.
While a different rating system is used for cyclones in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal, cyclones are the same phenomenon as the hurricane seen in the Atlantic, where Phailin would be a Category 5 hurricane, the strongest type. According to the U.S. National Weather Service, these types of storms will destroy “a high percentage of framed homes,” with “total roof failure and wall collapse. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.” [A History of Destruction: 8 Great Hurricanes]
How it got so powerful
Cyclone Phailin underwent a period of rapid intensification in the past couple days — and continues to strengthen — for two primary reasons. First of all, ocean surface temperatures in the Bay of Bengal are warmer than 28 degrees Celsius (82.4 degrees Fahrenheit), which is “about as warm as ocean water can get,” Holthaus said. Warm temperatures favor intensification, as hurricanes are basically heat engines and are powered by the transfer of heat energy from the water to the upper atmosphere.
Secondly, there have been very light upper winds, and little wind shear, which is a change in direction or strength of winds with increasing altitude, Needham said. When there is too much wind shear, upper-level winds can tear apart developing hurricanes (and that is why there have been few strong Atlantic hurricanes to date this year). These calm conditions allowed Phailin to grow and strengthen, Needham said.
Phailin intensified almost as fast as any storm on record, going from the strength of a tropical storm, with wind speeds under 74 mph (119 kph), to the equivalent of a Category 4 hurricane, with wind speeds above 130 mph (209 kph), in the span of 24 hours, Holthaus said. It has also grown to be about half the size of India.
All this is a huge problem for India, and to a lesser extent Bangladesh, with a low-lying and heavily populated coastline, Needham said. The Bay of Bengal is also quite shallow, which means that storm surges tend to get higher because there isn’t a well of deep water to deflect energy from the strong winds, he said. The shape of the bay also channels water toward eastern India, making storm surges worse, he added.
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More than 200,000 people in India are being evacuated as a massive cyclone is sweeping through the Bay of Bengal towards the east coast.
Cyclone Phailin, categorised as “very severe” by weather forecasters, is expected to hit Orissa and Andhra Pradesh states on Saturday evening.
The Meteorological Department has predicted the storm will bring winds up to 220 km/h (136mph).
A deadly super-cyclone in 1999 killed more than 10,000 people in Orissa.
But officials say this time they are better prepared, the BBC’s Sanjoy Majumder in Delhi reports.
However, the US Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii is forecasting even stronger winds, predicting sustained speeds of up to 269 km/h (167 mph).
Cyclone Phailin is expected to make landfall close to the city of Gopalpur (Orissa state), the India Meteorological Department (IMD) warned on Friday.
It said Phailin would bring heavy rain, which would be accompanied by a storm surge of at least 3m (10ft).
“Extensive damage” was expected to mud houses on the coast.
“No one will be allowed to stay in mud and thatched houses in the coastal areas,” said Orissa’s Disaster Management Minister Surya Narayan Patra.
“The storm has high damage potential, considering windspeed,” IMD Director General Laxman Singh Rathore was quoted as saying.
The army is on standby in the two states for emergency and relief operations. Officials said helicopters and food packages were ready to be dropped in the storm-affected areas.
Meanwhile, the US Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Centre predicted that winds could reach 315 km/h, while the London-based Tropical Storm Risk classified Phailin as a Category Five storm – the most powerful.
The Times of India newspaper warned that local meteorologists may be underestimating the severity of the storm.
Meteorologists also say that the storm is not only intense but covers a wide area.
Fishermen have been asked not to venture out to sea.
Rain and winds are already being felt in Orissa, where authorities said they were setting up shelters for people who would need to be evacuated.
“We are fighting against nature. We are better prepared this time, we learnt a lot from 1999,” said Surya Narayan Patra.
Reports said that there had been panic buying in the state capital, Bhubaneswar, with shelves being emptied of food.
“I’m feeling scared and tense. My son is expected to arrive Sunday. Now I think he won’t make it,” housewife Manjushree Das told the Agence France-Presse news agency.
India’s eastern coast and Bangladesh are routinely hit by cyclonic storms between April and November which cause deaths and widespread damage to property.
In December 2011, Cyclone Thane hit the southern state of Tamil Nadu, killing dozens of people.