Natural Disasters

Why cyclones like Sitrang stoke fear? Loss & damage worth billions due to Indian Ocean storms

Cyclone Sitrang made landfall on along the Chittagong-Barisal coast last night & killed at least 9 people 

By Seema Prasad
Published: Tuesday 25 October 2022

Cyclone Sitrang, made landfall along the Chittagong-Barisal coast around 9 pm October 24, 2022, 9-10 hours before the forecast and caused widespread damage in the affected areas.

At leas nine people died, most crushed under trees, and flooding of low-lying coastal areas as well as disrupted power and telephone lines, the Reuters reported. 

The Indian subcontinent, however, is not new to this extent of damage due to cyclonic storms. Of the 17 strongest storms of each year between 2005 to 2021 formed over the northern Indian Ocean, 11 had devastating effects in India, with loss from each running into billions of dollars.

This time, mass evacuations on the West Coast of Bangladesh, and early warning to Rohingya refugees in southeast Bangladesh helped save some lives, officials said.

A storm that hit the Nagaon district of Assam damaged several houses, according to ANI. The estimated maximum sustained wind speed of intensity along and off the North and South 24 Parganas, including the Sunderbans forest area, was 60-70 km per hour and was gusting at 80 km per hour, at the time of landfall, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) said.

People living close to the Bangladesh border in West Bengal such as Gosaba, Kumirmari, Hingalganj, Taki and Basirhat will be evacuated, DTE resported earlier.

Damages incurred over the last few years

Almost a third of the national population (nearly 320 million people) is vulnerable to the impact of cyclones, according to a 2021 study by researchers at the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM). “Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal on the east coast and Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa and Gujarat on the west coast, and some Union territories in the country, covering 84 coastal districts, are affected by tropical cyclones.”

In 2020, the coastal areas of West Bengal close to the Bangladesh border such Gosaba, Kumirmari, Hingalganj, Taki and Basirhat experienced the costliest tropical cyclone on record for the North Indian Ocean. 

Cyclone Amphan, which made landfall on May 20 near the India-Bangladesh border, led to economic losses in India of approximately $14 billion, according to the State of Global Climate Report (2020) by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

“Large-scale evacuations of coastal areas in India and Bangladesh meant that casualties from Amphan were far lower than the number of casualties from previous comparable cyclones in the region.

Nevertheless, 129 lives were lost across the two countries, the weather monitoring agency said. “Amphan reached Category 5 intensity while over the Bay of Bengal. Although it weakened somewhat before landfall as a Category 2 storm, it still led to extensive wind and storm surge damage in the city of Kolkata and surrounds,” the WMO report read.

Cyclone Sitrang initially showed signs of rapid intensification that occurs before a super cyclonic storm, but its wind speeds, per the forecasts, do not exceed 80 km/h. 

This anticipation by scientists and meteorologists is because the last three super cyclonic storms (<221 km per hour) wreaked led to extensive damages:

  1. In 2021, Cyclone Tauktae (maximum 220 km/h) resulted in damages $2.87 billion
  2. In 2020, Cyclone Amphan (240 km/h) resulted in damages worth $15.8 billion
  3. In 2019, Kyaar (240 km/h) 11.5 billion resulted in damages worth $11.5 billion

Cyclones Amphan ($15.8 billion) and Kyaar ($11.5 billion) inflicted the worst damages. This is followed by cyclones Vardah in 2016 ($5.4 billion), Ockhi in 2017 ($3.65 billion), Nilofer in 2014 ($3.4 billion), Tauktae (2.87 billion) in 2021 and Phailin in 2013 (1.5 billion). 

Year Strongest storm of the year Deaths Damages
2005 Pyar 273 $21.4 million
2006 Mala 623 $6.7 million
2007 Gonu 16,248 $6.4 billion
2008 Nargis >138,927 $15.4 billion
2009 Aila 421 $618 million
2010 Giri 402 $2.98 billion
2011 Thane 360 $277 million
2012 Nilam 128 $56.7 million
2013 Phailin 323 $1.5 billion
2014 Nilofer 183 $3.4 billion
2015 Chapala 363 $358 million
2016 Vardah 401 $5.4 billion
2017 Ockhi 834 $3.65 billion
2018 Mekunu 343 $4.33 billion
2019 Kyarr 173 $11.5 billion
2020 Amphan 269 $15.8 billion
2021 Tauktae 85 $2.87 billion

Cyclones Gonu (2007), Chapala (2015) and Mekunu (2018) landed in the Middle East via the Bay of Bengal. Cyclones Mala (2006), Nargis (2008) and Gini (2010) landed in Southeast Asia via the Arabian Sea.

Cyclone Nargis, which affected Myanmar, Yangon, Bangladesh, Ayeyarwady and Sri Lanka, at a wind speed of 215 km per hour, inflicted losses worth $15.4 billion in those regions. 

Cyclone Phailin, traveling at a much higher wind speed of 260 km per hour, caused less losses in Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Andaman and Nicobar Islands at $1.5 billion.

Wind speed is not the only determinant, said Sanjay Srivastava, chief of disaster risk reduction at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific told Down To Earth. ‘The cause of economic impacts depends on the location of the landfall such as cities and the exposure of the economic assets present, as well as the lack of resilient land use or settlement planning.”

Nargis struck densely populated, urban areas with hugely exposed economic assets. Amphan hit relatively less exposed settlements, he added.

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