Unlike thunderstorms and monsoon storms, a tropical storm is a large rotating storm that creates a swirling rainfall pattern which can be seen on the Malaysian Meteorological Department (MetMalaysia) rainfall detecting radar screen. In the Pacific Ocean, the weakest form of a tropical storm is called a tropical depression while the strongest form is called a typhoon. A typhoon is also known as a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean and a cyclone in the Indian Ocean.
The Penang cyclone was not the first cyclone to hit Peninsula Malaysia since another cyclone, Typhoon Vamei, struck Johor in December 2001. The Johor cyclone was extraordinary since it was created in the South China Sea just 12 hours before it made landfall in Desaru. Fortunately, it immediately weakened to become a tropical depression as it crossed the state towards the Straits of Malacca but many people were killed and properties damaged in the floods and landslides created in its path.
Fortunately, the Penang cyclone did not strengthen into a tropical depression and remained in that weak state until the next day. But, the cyclone remained almost stationary over the Island for more than 12 hours and dumped more heavy rain on the island than normal. At the same time, the cyclone pounded the island with a sustained gale force wind which resulted in many trees being uprooted and many landslides. Had the Penang cyclone continued moving on its original trek, the island would only suffer a few hours of extraordinary heavy rain and that would not have resulted in the worst flood in 30 years.
The Typhoon Vamei incident already taught us that a full-blown cyclone can and do strike this country with serious consequences even though it is small in size. Hence, the National Security Council (NSC) must have a separate standard operating procedure (SOP) when it comes to dealing with a cyclone where it should be fully monitored as it approaches and enters the country. The SOP must make it mandatory to issue a warning to warn the public of any approaching cyclone before it makes a landfall so that people living in its path in flood-prone areas and on the hill slopes can evacuate or take evasive actions. The cyclone warning is crucial since they are more dangerous than the heavy thunderstorms or monsoon rain due to the presence of a rotating gale force wind.
Had a cyclone warning been issued by the relevant authorities on Friday morning or earlier, some of the reported deaths could have been avoided since care givers of the elderly would have taken precautionary measures to move them to much safer locations. Many important and valuable assets could also have been saved since there will be ample time to move them to higher floors or grounds.
In fact, calls to set up a cyclone warning system had been made repeatedly since 1998 but they seemed to have been ignored by relevant authorities. Had the Penang cyclone been as strong as the one that struck Johor, the devastation would have been much worse and more people might have died as a consequence.
So perhaps the NSC should seriously consider setting up the cyclone warning system before a more powerful cyclone strikes the country with a higher number of casualties and more property losses.
*The author, Hartono Zainal Abidin is an expert in extreme weathers. He won United States Annual Lightning Safety Recognition Award in 2003. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.