Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Colombo Floods

Sri Lanka is just about to enter the South West monsoon after a period euphemistically called the pre-monsoon or inter-monsoon. In other words when it’s not monsoon it’s pre or inter monsoon. Perhaps this is because in Sri Lanka there are two monsoonal periods, the southwest and northeast; the first in May – August and the second November – February.

Now if you add this up you’ll see that there’s only a couple of months between each monsoon! So it seems a little strange that the Bureau of Meteorology advises inter-monsoon seasons

“...began with heavy thunderstorms and mini cyclones reported from many parts of the country causing floods in some areas and destruction from mini cyclones. Evening thundershowers and strong winds were quiet (I personally doubt the probability of ‘quiet’ thunderstorms but they are ‘quite’ likely) common during the inter-monsoon period.”

Now that sounds pretty much like a “lesser” monsoon to me but the Bureau tells us that the

“... special features of the inter-monsoon period are that there is no consistent wind flow and thunder accompanied by heavy rains with showers take place mostly in the evenings.”

Dr. B.R.S.B.Basnayake (Sri Lankans are always blessed with lots of initials) of the Centre for Climate Change Studies adds

"Sea breezes have a greater effect during the inter-monsoon period. The rain clouds form in the hilly areas and also create thunder and lightning. The clouds form around 10 or 11 a.m. and in areas like Nuwara Eliya (hill country) afternoon showers could be experienced. In the evening the clouds shift towards the coastal areas of the western and south-western belt between 4 and 5 p.m," he said.

  • And lightning does create havoc! On average about 50 Sri Lankans die from lightning strike and several hundred are injured. While this is appalling it’s not because Sri Lanka is particularly dangerous – it’s a result of the way people earn livings. Farmers in open paddy and fishermen on fishing poles (these are poles sunk into the sand a few hundred metres off shore where fishermen sit and fish beyond the breakers) in open ocean are obvious targets. Sometimes it’s not such risky behaviour that attracts God’s wrath;

    Lightning strikes Army rehearsal in view of commemoration
    (Lanka-e-News, May 21, 2010, 9.45AM) One the 17th May, a sudden lightning struck a group of Army officers of the Defense division who were present for the rehearsal in view of the forthcoming first anniversary war victory celebrations at the Galle Face green.Of those injured, three have been admitted to the Army Hospital while another had been admitted to the Colombo General Hospital for treatment, reports say.On the 17th, when the group of Army officers assembled at the Gall Face Green for rehearsal in preparation for the celebration, a sudden downpour forced them to stop the rehearsal. The victims of the lightning had been in a group at one spot.
    Major General Prasad Samarasinghe answering inquiries regarding this episode said, the victims were in a container parked on the marine drive along with the Army vehicle which brought them for the rehearsal. Due to the severe lightning the victims were subjected to a shock and received injuries.The anniversary celebrations of the war victory was suspended due to the torrential rains, and will be held next week, the Major General added.

    The ongoing concern about lightning has lead the Government to issue guidelines on avoiding strikes:


    · Keep away from any connectivity with water. Avoid bathing, cloths washing, dish washing etc.
    · Wipe and dry up your body as quickly as possible.
    · Avoid wearing wet cloths.
    · Try to be inside a properly enclosed building.
    · If at home, the most secured position is lying on the bed not touching any walls. Restrict your body expand only to the rubber mattress.
    · Avoid being closer to windows, doors, car porches, cloth lines, metal fences, metal shelters, transformers, switch boards and telephones.
    · Avoid concrete walls and floors as it may have metal bars inside.
    · Move away from groups of people.
    · Avoid leveled outdoor open spaces. Cease all outdoor activities.
    · Avoid being on top or near hill tops, roof tops and tower tops.
    · Avoid being in or near water swimming pools, rivers, streams or beach.
    · Never use any phones mobile or land. Disconnect the phone wires.
    · Do not use or be near the refrigerator.
    · Disconnect TV antenna wire and place it outside through a window.
    · Avoid using computer or other electric / electronic appliances.
    · Disconnect all coded electrical connections. Stop battery charging.
    · Ensure that the earth wire resistance does not exceed 10ohm/meters.
    · Take pets inside the building. Leave their metal chains outside.
    · Avoid using umbrellas and other objects with metallic components.
    · Avoid riding bikes, motor bikes, horses and open roof vehicles
    · Switch off car stereos. Close the shutters and doors when driving during lightening. As much as possible, do not touch metal parts. Avoid driving in leveled open spaces. Park in basements at all possible circumstances.
    · Avoid taking shelter under tall trees. Squat down to lower your height.
    · In the night lightening times, consider disconnecting main power from the MCB and try to depend on candle light during the danger period.
    · If the time gap between the lightening flash AND the thunderbolt is less than 15 seconds, you are in the danger zone. If you can hear the thunder you are in the striking distance. The lightening can strike as far as 16 kms (10miles) away from the raining zone.

(Data Courtesy National Disaster Management Center)

Based on this advice (assuming you are concerned about being struck by a electrical discharge rather than skin colour) the best solution is to do absolutely nothing but lie in bed, completely dry on a rubber mattress (and not among a crowd) and avoid “expanding” yourself as much as possible.

Apparently many people do not heed this simple optimisation of life during thunderstorms. Sri Lanka’s death toll from flood and lightning attest to that but it seems peculiar that these lessons haven’t been learnt over countless generations.

This year’s pre-monsoon has been severe; 500,000 people have been displaced and around 30 killed in the storms and floods. The surprise this generated in the community is of itself surprising.

A quick look over the past years identifies 120,000 people displaced in 2009; 50,000 in 2008; 110,000 in 2007 and so on. While 2010 was larger than most it is still the natural state of events. However “earthslip” warnings were issued by the Disaster Management Centre following the heavy rains and roads in all the major cities were impassable due to massive flooding. In Colombo, long lines of vehicles were seen marooned in the water which at certain points had risen to nearly five feet. Much of this was caused by the inherent dislike of Sri Lankan drivers to wait for anything including high water.

Heavy rains also damaged 50 houses and properties in coastal areas even raising from the dead guests at the Wadduwa-Pothupitiya cemetery. Strong winds also damaged more than 400 acres of banana cultivation. As of 26 May, more than 513,000 people or 118,888 families had been affected, including some 17,039 people who have been forced to move out of their homes with some 1,354 houses have been damaged or destroyed according to the UN.

The Bureau of Meteorology hopefully declared on the same day that the pre-monsoon
period was almost over and the monsoon will start in about 48 hours. Now that’s good news!

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