THE floods in Penang, reportedly the worst in 30 years, were the result of a rare weather phenomenon known as a cyclone, a rotating large-scale air mass. However, this cyclone was small and in the stages of becoming a tropical storm.
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’s rainfall detecting radar.
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 known as a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean and a cyclone in the Indian Ocean.
The Penang cyclone was not the first to hit Peninsular Malaysia. 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 a tropical depression as it crossed the state towards the Straits of Malacca. However, many people were killed and property 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 weakened state until the next day. Unfortunately, the cyclone remained almost stationary over the island for more than 12 hours and dumped more rain on the island.
At the same time, the cyclone pounded the island with a sustained gale-force wind, which resulted in trees being uprooted and landslides. Had the Penang cyclone continued moving on its original trek, the island would have only suffered a few hours of unusually heavy rain.
Typhoon Vamei taught us that a full-blown cyclone can strike this country with serious consequences, even though it is small.
Hence, the National Security Council (NSC) must have a standard operating procedure (SOP) when it comes to dealing with a cyclone. It should be fully monitored as it approaches and enters the country.
The SOP must make it mandatory for the authorities to issue warnings to the public over an impending cyclone before it makes landfall so that those living in its path, especially in flood-prone areas and hillslopes, can evacuate or take preventive actions.
The cyclone warning is crucial since the storm is more dangerous than thunderstorms and monsoon rains due to its rotating gale-force wind.
The cyclone that struck Penang made landfall on the east coast of southern Thailand on Friday morning (Cyclone 1). By Saturday morning, it had moved to Kedah with a well-defined swirl in the rainfall pattern (Cyclone 2). By evening, the cyclone was already over Penang island and rain had intensified (Cyclone 3) since the cyclone was above water.
Instead of moving across the straits, the cyclone lingered over the island for more than 12 hours before moving inland to Perak and later Kelantan.
The looping trek of the cyclone was evident from an image posted on the American Joint Typhoon Warning Center website on Monday (Cyclone 4).
Had a cyclone warning been issued by the authorities on Friday morning or earlier, deaths could have been prevented as residents could have taken precautionary measures. Valuable assets could have been saved.
In fact, calls to set up a cyclone warning system had been made since 1998, but they seemed to have been ignored by the authorities.
Had the Penang cyclone been as strong as the one that struck Johor, the devastation would have been worse and more people could have died.
NSC should seriously consider setting up a cyclone warning system before a more powerful cyclone strikes the country with a higher number of casualties and more property losses.