Cyclone took a path that led to maximum destruction
BANGKOK - A cyclone with winds up to 120 miles per hour. A low-lying, densely populated delta region, stripped of its protective trees.
When Cyclone Nargis struck Burma's Irrawaddy delta and pushed a wall of water 25 miles inland, it had all the makings of a massive disaster.
"When we saw the storm track, I said, 'Uh, oh, this is not going to be good," said Mark Lander, a meteorology professor at the University of Guam. "It would create a big storm surge. It was like Katrina going into New Orleans."
Forecasters began tracking the cyclone April 28 as it first headed toward India. As projected, it took a sharp turn eastward, but didn't follow the typical cyclone track in that area leading to Bangladesh or Burma's mountainous northwest.
Instead, it swept into the low-lying Irrawaddy delta in central Burma. The result was the worst disaster ever in the impoverished country.
It was the first time such an intense storm hit the delta, said Jeff Masters, cofounder and director of meteorology at the San Francisco-based Weather Underground. He called it "one of those once-in-every-500-years kind of things."
"The easterly component of the path is unusual," Masters said. "It tracked right over the most vulnerable part of the country, where most of the people live."
When the storm made landfall early Saturday at the mouth of the Irrawaddy River, its battering winds pushed a wall of water as high as 12 feet some 25 miles inland, laying waste to villages and killing tens of thousands.
Most of the dead were in the delta, where farm families sleeping in flimsy shacks barely above sea level were swept to their deaths.
Almost 95 percent of the houses and other buildings in seven townships were destroyed, Burma's government said. UN officials estimate 1.5 million people were left in severe straits.
"When you look at the satellite picture of before and after the storm, the effects look eerily similar to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in how it inundated low-lying areas," said Ken Reeves, director of forecasting for AccuWeather.com.
"The Irrawaddy delta is huge, and the interaction of water and land lying right at sea level allowed the tidal surge to deliver maximum penetration of sea water over land," Reeves said. "Storms like this do most of their killing through floods, with salt water being even more dangerous than fresh water."
The delta had lost most of its mangrove forests along the coast to shrimp farms and rice paddies over the past decade. That removed what scientists say is one of nature's best defenses against violent storms.
"If you look at the path of the storm that hit Myanmar, it hit exactly where it was going to do the most damage, and it's doing the most damage because much of the protective vegetation was cleared," said Jeff NcNeely, chief scientist for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, using the name that Burma's ruling military junta gave to the country.
"It's an expensive lesson, but it has been one taught repeatedly," he said. "You just wonder why governments don't get on this."
Despite assertions by Burma's military government that it warned people about the storm, critics contend the junta didn't do enough to alert the delta and failed to organize any evacuations, saying that made the death toll worse.
"Villagers were totally unaware," said 38-year-old Khin Khin Myawe, interviewed in the hard-hit delta town of Labutta. "We knew the cyclone was coming but only because the wind was very strong. No local authorities ever came to us with information about how serious the storm was."