The Weather: More Realism, Less Paranoia

A broad swathe of people we have come across have felt that the over-cautionary approach of the Meteorological Services in respect of the latest two cyclones we have had, namely Bejisa and Edilson, was not warranted.

The ghost of March 2013, when flash floods hit a very localized area of Port Louis following a sudden cloudburst, seems to be still alive at the Meteorological station in Vacoas.

We are fully aware that meteorology and weather forecasting is not an exact science as we the public and the weather professionals would like it to be, but how come there is more accuracy of prediction of the weather in countries such as France and UK, and the USA? In fact, when Class II had been announced for cyclone Bejisa which came around New Year time (2013/2014), a number of people were very frank: they were looking at the track of the cyclone available on France’s satellite channel rather than on our weather website. They did not go by what the latter was putting out, and were indifferent to the local weather bulletin. They were simply following the government’s general tendency to rely more on foreign experts than local ones. Can they be blamed for doing so?

They had already made extensive plans and preparations for the New Year celebrations – and they were definitely not going to cancel them, based on the information they were receiving from the French sources, which they trusted more. They were confident that Bejisa would not be playing spoilsport, given that it was moving towards Reunion rather than coming to Mauritius. And when they were proved right in their reliance on the French sources of the weather for Mauritius, naturally they cried victory and made some cocky comments about the Vacoas station.

Similarly is the case for cyclone Edilson. We have had nowhere near cyclonic conditions at all, and the rapidity with which cyclone warnings were rolled out and removed exceeded the speed of development of risk that the cyclone was expected to constitute. In fact, people were aghast that a cyclone warning Class I was put out when, really, all that we were experiencing was excessive heat and humidity. The cyclone was still nearly 400 km away.

On balance and in retrospect, was a Class III really necessary so late on Wednesday afternoon? The cyclone had slowed down, reducing further the possibility of it having enough time to pose a real danger to Mauritius, and besides the gusts recorded were within a range that Mauritians are used to, during which they carry on as usual. Wednesday night was pretty quiescent all over the island, though there was some heavy rain at places, like the convectional rains that one gets in summer, but not more than that. And yesterday morning there was more generalized rain, again with some heavy showers here and there, but nothing really threatening.

It is necessary therefore to have some more clarity about the functioning mindset and some more precision factored into the information at the Vacoas station. Simply saying that there is a danger of inflechissement of the cyclone’s trajectory is not enough, and is beginning to sound both stale and glib. Surely there must some way of calculating the probability of such a change and putting this information out in the bulletin for the public’s appreciation? That risk is always there in all the cyclones that are coming down to our region from the north – but a more educated and more aware public has heard of the magnitude of a risk. And so a greater degree of sophistication is expected by that more intelligent public from the Meteorological Services.

And an equivalent, adapted response from government also, instead of it too falling into the trap of over-caution. For example, it should be possible to have sectoral decision-making with approval from the central government. Thus, it was quite reasonable to shut down the schools, but government offices and industry could have been allowed to operate yesterday, perhaps starting an hour later and releasing an hour earlier. In any case with schools closed there would have been less traffic on the roads and that itself would have been a coping measure. Besides, nothing could have prevented government from making good use of the national television and launching regular appeals to the population to make judicious use of the essential services, such as attendance at hospitals for example. In the same way, air traffic could have been restricted, guided by the Civil Aviation Authority in the main.

All in all, therefore, it is felt, after the handling of cyclones Bejisa and Edilson by the Meteorological Services that there must be more realism and professionalism at the station in future.

 


* Published in print edition on 7 February 2014

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