Four dead including one school child of 13 in the unprecedented flood that hit the country on Wednesday last. The child was returning home after early school dismissal due to torrential rain warning. No sooner had she alighted from the bus than she attempted to cross an over flooded bridge to reach her residence. But the water gushing outrageously from the river swept her away from the roadway. How could she gauge the strength of such sudden surge?
Passers by stood dumb, powerless. Several houses were inundated, cars wrecked and roads damaged, causing gross inconvenience. It’s been raining heavily since the preceding week but none expected such a catastrophic outcome like a flash flood that would sweep everything on its way.
I’ll be dealing with the recent flood event of 26 March 2008 in a series of four posts starting from this one. I’ll make a brief analysis of the sequence of events that caused widespread confusion and come up with some suggestions based on experiences here and there.
In such events we tend to look for a scapegoat. That’s typical political, and often communal, strategy. Can we find one? Should we venture to point fingers? Be wary. And don’t be shocked if you happen to unveil the culprits. And culprits there are definitely, three: somebody, nobody and everybody.
In this post I’ll look into what happened on the morning of Wednesday 26 March and what the existing emergency scheme says about torrential rain warnings.
The authorities criticised
The people are pointing at the Meteorological Services for not having warned the population in time. They criticised the Minister of Education for not having taken appropriate action to order school closure right from the morning on that day and for having dismissed school late at a time when, they say, the downpour had exceeded torrential stage. The people are angry with what they call an ineffective emergency response service. They had to organise their own rescue system to prevent those they could from drowning.
Could the torrential rain have been predicted? Was the flooding (over flooding or flash flood) foreseeable? Why did the Meteorological Services wait until 11.00 am (07.00 UT) to issue a torrential rain warning? Why did the Ministry of Education fail to declare a school holiday on that day? Were the authorities up to the level of their responsibility? These and many other questions are still haunting the minds of the people who are outraged and need reassurance.
To a question from the press during the weekend the Deputy Director of the Mauritius Meteorological Services was blunt: “I challenge any meteorological station in the world to be able to predict such torrential rain.” He further stated that, if we can calculate the percentage of humidity in the atmosphere, it’s impossible to know the amount of rainfall that the clouds will release at a given time.
Torrential Rain Emergency Scheme (TRES)
Yet there is a Torrential Rain Emergency Scheme which forms an integral part of the Cyclone and Other Natural Disasters Scheme. This scheme lays specific responsibilities on various bodies, like the Local Authorities, the Meteorological Services, the Road Development Authority, the Ministry of Education, the Police, and the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) among others with regard to the action to be taken in the event of torrential rain conditions. Let us see some of its salient features in order to understand whether what happened on Wednesday could have been prevented. The scheme provides as follows:
- The Meteorological Services is required to advise the Ministry of Education and Human Resources and issue warnings at regular intervals as soon as “climatic conditions prevailing over Mauritius or Rodrigues produced 100 mm of widespread rains in less than 12 hours and that this heavy rain is likely to continue for several hours”.
- “Whenever torrential rain conditions have produced 100 mm of rains and heavy rains are likely to continue at the beginning of a school day, schools will not be opened for school children. If such a condition is observed during school hours the Meteorological Services will inform the Ministry of Education and Human Resources who will arrange through the MBC, private radio stations and the Police to warn the public accordingly.”
- “As soon as such a warning is issued all classes will stop.” And the National Transport Authority has the responsibility “to arrange for bus facilities in all routes to be provided, as soon as possible, to school children who travel by bus.”
What really happened in that dreary morning?
At 5.00 am (01.00 UT) rainfall recorded hadn’t reached 100 mm, the weather services say. But the communiqué issued at that time did mention that people including school children should take precautions in view of heavy rainfall forecast. After having ascertained the criteria was reached, the Meteorological Services issued a torrential rain warning at around 11.00 am (07.00 UT). The Cyclone and other Disasters Committee met subsequently and it’s only then that the decision was taken to stop school. By that time it was nearly 2.00 pm (10.00 UT). We all know what followed.
It cannot be said with ease whether a decision could have been taken to close schools altogether on that day in the absence of clear and specific instructions to that effect in the scheme. People can draw their own conclusions based on existing procedures and knowledge of the prevailing situation.
In my next post I’ll probe deeper into the existing scheme and find out how the various parties responded in relation to the responsibilities entrusted on them.