Friday, December 14, 2012

Extreme Weather: Tropical Cyclone Evan pounds Samoa and Fiji

Updated 19 December, 2012: The tropical paradise of Samoa in the South Pacific has been lashed with gale force winds, flash flooding from torrential rain and a 3 metre storm surge from Category 2 tropical cyclone Evan on Thursday and Friday. After two days the tropical cyclone is now moving west and intensifying as it heads in the direction of Fiji. Wallis and Fortuna Islands also lie directly in the storm path and northern atolls of Tonga may also be affected to some degree.

The cyclone arrived with little warning at Samoa on Thursday morning, December 13, pounding the islands. Up to 4,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes and villages and took refuge in evacuation centres in schools and church halls.

On Thursday afternoon Samoan Deputy Prime Minister and Acting Chairman of the National Disaster Council, Fonotoe Pierre Lauofo, made a “declaration of disaster” on the national radio.The cyclone was still near Samoa's Upohu island on Friday causing waves of up to 6 metres.

While Fiji waits for Evan to hit on Sunday, a massive cleanup had started in Samoa to assess the extent of the damage to infrastructure, restore power and rebuild after the destruction wrought by the cyclone.

Destruction and Recovery in Samoa

On Samoa, four people have been confirmed dead with seven people missing. Large parts of the capital Apia was flooded, and the airport and port are closed. The Vaisigano River which runs through the middle of Apia burst it's banks causing widespread flooding. Uprooted trees have brought down power lines in many areas with electricity grid disrupted for most of Samoa. While power is expected to be restored to Apia's Central Business District by Saturday, it may be several weeks before electricity is restored to outlying villages. A water treatment plant has also been destroyed reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

The United Nations Reliefweb confirms that the main water treatment plant in Samoa has suffered major damages and access to water is yet to be restored. The electricity grid is down. "Electricity remains off for the whole country, with only critical services such as the hospital, National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC) and the Samoan Meteorology Service being powered by standup generators. The latest reports suggest that the Apia Central Business District (CBD) may be reconnected by the end of the day. With a lack of available capacity reconnecting the rest of the country may be problematic with some reports suggesting that only 70% of the country will be reconnected within two months." says the UN OCHA situation report issued on December 15. There are early estimates of over 1,000 homes destroyed by the cyclone.

It is estimated that 50 percent of roads on Upolo Island have sustained damages, with 60 percent now passable. Fifty percent of landlines have been affected and mobile networks are congested. The Government of Samoa expects the impact on agriculture and fisheries to be extensive.

Both Australia and New Zealand have committed an initial immediate amount of $50,000 in recovery aid, with a New Zealand Environmental Health Assessment team and a rapid response worker from Australia on their way to Apia, Samoa. Emergency supplies have also been prepared to fly in on short notice. Further emergency cash assistance from UNDP and UNOCHA has also been made available.

The World Health Organisation have released funds for an emergency assessment of the damage caused by tropical cyclone Evan on Samoa, and for immediate health sector response to the disaster. WHO is also offering technical assistance to mitigate many of the public health risks posed by lack of water, sanitation, hygiene, food security and to help restore livelihoods as soon as possible.

The storm is the most powerful in the region for 20 years, and one of the most destructive in Samoan Cyclone History. Read a first hand report in the Samoa Observer: Shock as Cyclone Evan belts Samoa. See photos: Samoa Reels from Cyclone Evan

Evan is the first named cyclone of the South Pacific's summer cyclone season this year. Evan grew from a tropical storm into a categorised cyclone between December 11 to December 13, with maximum sustained winds had increasing to 90 knots (103 mph/166.7 kph) according to NASA.

Update 14 February 2013: Further aid from Australia to rebuild schools and health clinics.

Further assistance for rebuilding damaged facilities on Samoa after Cyclone Evan were announced by Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr on Tuesday 12 February 2013. In a short two day trip to Samoa, Bob Carr announced a further $7 million in aid to repair or rebuild 18 schools and nine health clinics damaged by the tropical cyclone.

"Rebuilding these facilities will enable more than 5,300 students to continue their studies and more than 25,000 people to access health care in the coming months," Senator Carr said. "It will also support the Australia Pacific Technical College to provide training courses for those most affected by the disaster. Carpentry training will enable those who have lost their houses to gain skills to rebuild their communities. Training in hospitality will allow those who are temporarily unemployed to improve their skills and earn income while hotels and small businesses are being rebuilt."

The assistance is in addition to $1.65 million in emergency aid delivered in the immediate cyclone aftermath.

Caption: Projected path of Tropical Cyclone Evan early on December 14. More recent projections show the forecast track proceeding slightly to the north, to hit the northern islands of Fiji on Sunday afternoon.

Fiji Prime Minister warns of Threat

The cyclone is continuing to intensify and is likely to become a category 4 storm and could potentially reach category 5 (the highest storm ranking). The tropical cyclone is projected to hit Tokelau to the north of Samoa, then the Wallis and Futuna Islands, before hitting Fiji and possibly Vanuatu. Later in the week Evan might even impact the north Island of New Zealand as it works it's way around a blocking High.

Fiji Priime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama has addressed the Nation to be on alert. Evan is expected to directly hit Fiji on Sunday. The Prime Minister warned people to secure property and stock up with food and water in preparation for the Tropical cyclone to hit Fiji. (Watch the address on youtube)


At 4pm on Friday 14th December the Fiji Meteorological Service issued a strong warning in a media release to residents of Tonga and Fiji to prepare for damaging winds, flooding and storm surge.

The cyclone is intensifying and expected to attain Cat 4 status in the next 12 to 24 hours. As it exists under very favourable oceanic and atmospheric conditions, there is a good probability of it attaining CAT 5.

At this stage, and on its projected track as well as intensity trend, TC Evan should move across the northern parts of Tonga on Saturday and arrive into the Fiji waters later on Sunday 16th December, as a CAT 4 or possibly CAT 5, severe tropical cyclone.

Damaging heavy easterly waves/swells will precede the cyclone, generated by the combined effect of TC Evan and an intense area of high pressure to the far south of Fiji. The resultant wave attack on our coastal communities, especially those facing the east and northeast, as well as those near the path of the cyclone, is expected to be severe. At this time, maximum sustained winds near the centre of the cyclone, as it moves into Fiji, are anticipated to be around or above 180 km/hr. Associated momentary gusts will be a lot higher, at the most, double these values. Rain will be frequent and heavy. Flooding including sea flooding of coastal areas is expected.

All communities in Fiji should be prepared now, heed warnings, and act responsibly, to avoid unnecessary loss of lives and/or property.

Caption: Evan threat track at 7am (Fiji time) December 16, provided by Fiji Meteorological Service

You can follow updates on the Fiji Meteorological Service Facebook Page - following here reduces the demand on their own website.

Caption: Storm surge maximum height. From Global Disaster and Alert Co-ordination System (GDACS). Copyright European Union.

The Fiji Meteorological Service put out a further bulletin at 3pm Saturday 15 December warning that although the projected path of the cyclone has shifted just to the north of Fiji that damaging impact will be felt particularly in coastal communities. "The cyclone is now moving towards the west-southwest at 30 km/hr. The cyclone is still intensifying and may attain Cat 5 status in the next 24 hours to 48 hours. Close to the centre, maximum sustained winds are estimated around 90 to 100 knots (170 to 185 km/hr). Damaging Gales extend to about 185 km to the south of the cyclone centre."

The service warns of damaging heavy swells and storm surge, "The resultant wave attack on our coastal communities, especially in Northern Lau, Taveuni, Vanua Levu and nearby smaller islands, as well as northern Viti Levu and Yasawa and Mamnuca, is expected to be severe." Winds are expected to be "170 km/hr with momentary gusts over 230 km/hr. Rain will be frequent and heavy especially along and close to the track. Flooding including sea flooding of coastal areas is expected."

No casualties reported from Wallis and Futuna


The small islands of Wallis and Futuna, French dependencies located between Samoa and Fiji, felt the might of cyclone Evan, with initial reports saying that there were no casualties, although extensive damage was caused to housing and roads.

According to a report on Radio New Zealand, Benjamin Gerard, the head of the Wallis and Futuna administration’s cabinet, said that Wallis suffered the more direct impact:

“You can say about twenty families’ houses have been damaged. It’s the roads that have been damaged... and damages have been cast to infrastructures rather han to people. The most important thing is that not a single death or casualty has really been cast.”

The French administration on New Caledonia are despatching emergency supplies and a mission to assess the damage and help with initial recovery.

Donations for rebuilding on Samoa and Fiji

Habitat for Humanity International, a christian non-profit housing aid program, has launched an appeal for donations through it's New Zealand subsidiary: Habitat for Humanity New Zealand. Initial United Nations reports say that 1,500 homes have been destroyed or damaged on Samoa, with figures as yet unavailable for Fiji.

“Habitat for Humanity Fiji is assessing the situation in-country as Cyclone Evans moves away, and Habitat for Humanity New Zealand is deploying a team to Samoa to work with local emergency management units and other partners to design a coordinated disaster response program. We are committed to helping affected families rebuild their lives”, said Rick Hathaway, Asia-Pacific vice-president for Habitat for Humanity in a UN Reliefweb report.

Fiji: No casualties but substantial destruction to infrastructure

No casualties have been reported on Fiji although there is widespread destruction from winds gusting at up to 270km/hr with 200mm of rain in a 24-hour period. The interim Prime Minister declared this morning 'A state of disaster' in Fiji which will stay in effect for 15 days allowing authorities to speed up recovery work. According to reports:

  • Power and water supplies have been badly affected
  • roads have been shut down and damaged by debris, including fallen trees.
  • Eight thousand people remain in evacuation centres
  • continuing rain may cause further flooding over the next few days.

Australia Foreign Minister Bob Carr has pledged an initial $1 million each to Fiji and Samoa in emergency assistance and relief supplies for communities devastated by Cyclone Evan.


South Pacific and climate change

Elevated sea surface temperatures assist cyclones intensifying. Dr Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground forecast that "The storm will be a region with light wind shear of 10 - 15 knots and very warm ocean waters that extend to great depth, and could intensify into a Category 4 cyclone by Saturday, as it passes through the Wallis and Futuna Islands." Evan is expected now to pass just north of Fiji. The map below from Surf-forecast.com shows the elevated sea surface temperatures in the area between Fiji and Samoa. We also know that a warmer atmosphere carries more water increasing torrential rainfall and flooding.

Like with Hurricane Sandy, Typhoon Bopha there is a component of systematic climate change built into extreme weather events now. The IPCC released a report on Extreme weather, risk management and adaptation in a warming climate in November 2011. In January and February 2012 Fiji's climate disaster preparedness was tested with major flooding in western areas of Fiji.

According to an international study led by CSIRO oceanographer Dr Wenju Cai global warming is causing shifts in the rain band of the South Pacific Convergence Zone causing an increase in extreme weather across the island nation states of the South Pacific. The result of the movement causes drought and higher prevalence of forest fire in some areas while other islands experience extreme floods and increased frequency of tropical cyclones.

A report released in November 2011 on climate change in the Pacific Ocean region said that the region is getter hotter, sea levels are rising, rainfall is changing and equatorial winds have weakened. While cyclone may tend to decrease slightly in the future, cyclone intensity is likely to be greater.

Extreme weather events like severe Tropical Cyclone Evan provide the necessity for climate adaptation finance under the UNFCC process to help small island and developing countries like Samoa and Fiji to adapt and prepare for climate disruption events. Equally important is use of such funding and expertise from developed nations in rebuilding to take account of the increasing intensity of such events in the future.

Sources:

  • Projected track for Severe Tropical Cyclone Evan from RSMC Nadi Tropical Cyclone Warning Centre, Tropical Cyclone Warning Number 30 issued 1000 UTC Friday 14 December 2012
  • Fiji Meteorological Service, Media release 4pm December 14, 2012 - Severe Tropical Cyclone "Evan"
  • Fiji Meteorological Service, Media release 3pm December 15, 2012 - Severe Tropical Cyclone "Evan"
  • Lead image of flooding and torrential rain in Samoa taken on December 13 from Savalinews.com : Samoa Reels from Cyclone Evan. Visit to see more photos
  • United Nations Reliefweb, 15 December 2012 - UN OCHA situation report No 2.
  • Australian Foreign Minister media release 12 February 2013 - Australia announces further assistance for Samoa