Cyclones and us

At the time of writing, Tuesday February 7 morning about five hours after the last bulletin from the Meteorological Services issued at 4.15 hours, a weakened cyclone Carlos is probably edging to its closest point to Mauritius as it moves onwards in its south westerly curve towards Reunion island.

It has been a rather slow-moving cyclone, 4-6 km per hour, so that the cloud masses associated with it, of a diameter of approximately 50 km, have had ample time to copiously water almost all parts of the island. The rains have no doubt been intermittent, but they have come in gusts like the accompanying winds which have, comparatively (with respect to other cyclones we have experienced), not been really that strong, ranging from 50 to 80 km per hour.

For example, when Carol of tragic memory struck in 1960, we were told that wind gusts were so strong that the needle of the wind speed measuring equipment overshot and broke, indicating that the gusts were probably of the order of 200 km per hour. This may be anecdotal, and the fact needs to be checked from the appropriate sources by those keen to do so – but the ground reality for those of us who lived through Carol is that the wind speed was indeed excessive, for its effects witnessed right under our very noses were not only frightening but apocalyptic.

We saw iron sheets wrenched from the roofs of houses fly in the air, like flying saucers we remarked to each other as this was happening, wafted like feathers in the air currents. What a coincidence that last week at a dinner a friend of mine mentioned this during our conversation which, for whatever reason, had veered to the topic of our childhood memories – and Alix with her sister Carol still haunted us! Ah, would that they were real and beautiful nymphs rather!!

Our great fear was the risk that these ‘flying saucers’ would land against our own houses, especially if they were to hit the all glass fronts typical of colonial houses, for that would have been pure havoc. As it is, after the ‘eye’ of Carol had passed over the island, the ‘tail’ winds were so overwhelming that these glass fronts were shaking like teeth clattering when it is very cold. Us boys and the menfolk had to push against the wooden framework with all our might to prevent it from caving in. This would have automatically led, in its wake, to a shattering of the glass panes which would have caused, without a shadow of a doubt, injuries to our hands.

One such case comes to my mind, that goes back to about 20 years ago when I was working at Jeetoo Hospital and was also seeing cases referred to the Medical Tribunal of the Ministry of Social Security. It was a young man, about 24 years old, who was recently married and lived in Pamplemousses with his wife and their nine-month old baby. He had come seeking social aid as he was unable to work because of a severe injury to the right hand during a cyclone about two years earlier.

The story was that the front door in the small wooden house with iron-sheet roof that he lived in had been pushed open by the wind and rain in the night. As he rushed to close it, he inadvertently pressed against the glass pane rather than the wood frame as it was dark, and sustained a deep cut in the front of his right wrist and hand. There was damage to a main nerve and to the tendons of the thumb and index finger: tendons are cord-like structures that cause the fingers to move.

He had undergone complex surgery to repair the nerve and the tendons followed by physiotherapy to restore movement, a process that takes several months in such injuries of the hand. Unfortunately, because of the extensive scarring across the wrist and the palm, the wrist was bent towards the palm along with the thumb and index finger, so that he could not extend them nor perform the essential functions of the hand: pinch, hold, grip, etc.

This disability prevented him from carrying out the trade he had learnt and inherited from his father: tailoring, being unable to wield tailor’s scissors or do the drawings on the cloth preliminary to doing the cuttings. One can imagine his plight at this young age, with a non-working wife and child to feed, and family support was less and less forthcoming. And he was right-handed.

What was more important – giving him back his hand function or writing him off for a disability pension, the easier route? The answer is obvious. So I proposed a plastic surgery operation to him; this would involve removing the scar on the front of the wrist and palm, and replacing it with healthy skin taken from the groin, known as a ‘McGregor groin flap’ in our jargon. It was a two-stage procedure over a few weeks. He agreed, and I duly carried out the operation.

Six months later he was back at his tailoring job, relieved and happy to be able to look after his family again. Whenever I remember this particular patient, I reminisce that had any of us pushing against that glass front in 1960 sustained a similar injury, we might well have landed in a situation similar to his without possibility of restoration of function in those days. Surgical techniques have evolved tremendously since.

And so have they in meteorological forecasting too and in access to information about what tropical depressions and cyclones are up to. We might think they are erratic, but no: their formation and subsequent movement are premised on variables which can be characterized and measured, so that there may be randomness but not chaos in their behaviour. This is what allows for a fairly accurate predictability, which would have been even more so had all the variables been known. Unfortunately, as we know in any field of science, and to use terms which have gained currency in another context, there are always ‘known knowns’, ‘known unknowns’, and ‘unknown unknowns’.

It is the unknown variables in particular that can vitiate the best calculations. But even as regards the known ones, some of which not only can change by tiny amounts that make a great impact – for example, a half a degree temperature change over the surface of the sea – but also fluctuate from moment to moment, with a similar consequence in terms of impact. That makes the job of weather forecasters more difficult – but also more exciting too. At least I presume so, for to a specialist – which forecasters are – it is no fun dealing with only routine cases day in day out, which would be extremely boring. Certainly in medicine a complex case triggers more profound thinking and the search for newer answers, and that is what makes for advances and keeps medical practice ‘alive’ and interesting.

And so, in our hands courtesy Mr or more likely Miss Smartphone, the telephone, the radio and TV, and online sources, we can nowadays track the cyclone in real time. Right now, 11.15 a.m., there is no more any cyclone warning – hurray! – and there is a pale sunshine that I can see outside my window. The situation is better in Port Louis, according to someone I talked to just now, luckier its denizens! From the satellite picture I could make out that as Carlos moved westwards taking its cloud ring with it, a zone of clearer weather would follow in its wake, and I am looking forward to a better afternoon. But then, I tell myself, this is Curepipe and so…careful about being too enthusiastic.

Still, let us be thankful for the small mercies, as the saying goes. For one, the cyclone has brought a good amount of rain. Not enough to fill our reservoirs maybe, but at least we have some relief, and no doubt the underground aquifers would also have received their share. On the other hand, as is now the case for most of our cyclones, we are spared catastrophic damage and loss of lives, when compared to what happens elsewhere, even in developed countries.

In fact, I am sure that by tomorrow things would be back to practically normal – which is a lot to say indeed, when we think of days gone by and it took weeks and months to recover from the devastation caused by cyclones. But that is also because we are much better prepared in terms of disaster management logistics and manoeuvres, as well as preparedness in the running of our essential services. And thank goodness for that.

RN Gopee

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