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Making Cyclone Forecasts Useful to Emergency Managers

Upasna Sharma ( teaches at the School of Public Policy, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.

A relatively neglected area in hazard warnings research is the usefulness of hazard warnings in decision-making by emergency managers. Based on the interactions and interviews with various emergency managers at the state and district levels, the experience of emergency managers in using cyclone warnings for various kinds of decisions they need to make during emergency situations is analysed. The findings reveal that there are several areas—such as the content of the message, associated uncertainty, language, frequency, and timeliness—where improvements are required.

The author is thankful to all the district collectors and revenue officials in Machilipatnam, Prakasam, and Guntur districts in Andhra Pradesh, Cuddalore and Nagapattinam districts in Tamil Nadu, and the joint commissioner (Revenue) in Chennai for providing valuable insights and sharing their precious time for interviews. The author is indebted to her supervisors Anand Patwardhan and D Parthasarathy for their unstinting support and guidance. She is grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their insightful feedback and comments.

Much of the emphasis of the empirical literature on “warning response” has been on “public” response to hazard early warning, that is, the response of the people at risk due to the hazard (see bibliography prepared by Mileti et al [2006] for numerous research articles published on this issue). The process of decision-making by the emergency managers and their response to warnings during a natural hazard have received relatively lesser attention and have undergone minimal objective assessment (Gladwin et al 2007). Studies on the management side of disasters have focused on organisational and coordination issues (for example, Dynes 2000; Lindell et al 2007). To the author’s knowledge, there is not even a single study that systematically examines the extent to which the warning messages are useful for emergency managers, and the limitations of the warning messages in aiding their decision-making.

This is an important issue to study as many decisions and actions that emergency managers1 take for the area under their jurisdiction are usually triggered on receiving hazard warnings. The quality of the decisions made and actions taken by the emergency managers, for example, disseminating the warning to people at risk, evacuating people from danger zones, etc, are likely to be affected by the quality of the warning they receive and the manner in which they interpret the warning.

Based on the author’s interactions and interviews with 23 emergency officers at the state, district, and sub-district levels, which included the joint commissioner (relief), collectors, district revenue officers (DROs), and block- and mandal-level officers, during fieldwork for her PhD (2005 to 2008) in Krishna, Guntur, and Prakasam districts of Andhra Pradesh, and Cuddalore and Nagapattinam districts of Tamil Nadu, this article seeks to provide an evaluation of hazard warnings, their various attributes, and the extent to which they meet the information needs of emergency managers. These warnings are evaluated in the context of cyclone warning systems in India.Tropical cyclones are a dominant natural hazard for Indian coastlines, and the entire east coast ofIndia and adjoining Bangladesh is subject to tropical cyclones during the monsoon and the post-monsoon periods. Every year, the Indian coastline experiences cyclones ofdiffering severities, varying from depressions to severe storms. An analysis of all the cyclones that arose in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea from 1877 to 1990 (Patwardhan et al 2003) shows that, on an average, eight cyclones crossed the Indian coastline per year with the majority making landfall on the east coast of India, which runs along four states: West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu.

Content of Warning Messages

A typical warning message from the India Meteorological Department (IMD) to state and district disaster management authorities has been illustrated below. It is an example of an actual warning from the Cyclone Warning Centre, Visakhapatnam, to the state relief commissioners, collectors, DROs, and mandal revenue officers (MROs).

Two stage warning (.) Cyclone Warning Bulletin No. 3 issued by CWC Vishakapatnam at xx:xx hrs IST of date xx-xx-xxxx (.) Cyclone warning for the districts of Prakasam, Guntur, Krishna, East Godavari & West Godavari and Vishakhapatnam districts (.)

The cyclonic storm “Ogni” over west central Bay of Bengal moved northwards and lay centred at xx:xx hrs IST of y/day the xx-xx-xxxx near latitutde 15.5 degrees north and longitude 80.5 degrees east about 50 kms east of Ongole (.) It is likely to move in a northernly direction and cross Andhra coast between Ongole and Machilipatnam by morning of today
the xx (.)

Under its influence rainfall at most places with heavy to very heavy falls likely at a few places and extreme heavy falls at one or two places likely over coastal AP during the next 24 hrs (.) Gale winds speed reaching 70 to 80 kmph likely along and off coastal areas of above districts, breaking off tree branches and causing some damages to kutcha houses (.)

Tidal waves one to one decimal five mts above normal tide likely inundate coastal areas of above districts during the same period (.) State of sea will be high to very high (.)
Fishermen advised not to venture into the sea (.) Danger Signal No. 7 hoisted at Vadarevu and Nizampatnam ports (.) Danger Signal No. 6 hoisted at Machilipatnam and Kakinada ports (.) Local Cautionary Signal No. 3 kept hoisted at Krishnapatnam, Vishakhapatnam, Bheemunipatnam and Kalingapatnam ports (.) The above warning is for Prakasam, Guntur, Krishna, East Godavari and West Godavari and Vishakhapatnam districts (.) All CIS only (.) Convey this message through V.H.F. sets to pass all the concerned P.S.S. (.)2

The warning message reveals that the contents describe who the message is intended for, the current location and the movement of the cyclonic system, and the likely location as well as the time when the cyclone is expected to cross land. It also provides an estimation of the likely weather (in terms of wind speed, rainfall, and tidal surge), the likely impacts due to the cyclone, and some cautionary advice like “fishermen advised not to go into the sea.”

While most district authorities responsible for managing the situation in their district during a cyclone acknowledged that the information received from the IMD is useful to them in taking decisions, many of them felt that the level of detail about the cyclone movement and intensity in the warning message was not enough. For example, one of the district collectors said that terms like “cyclonic storm” and “severe cyclonic storm” do give some indication of the severity of the cyclone, but these terms are not sufficient to understand how severe a cyclone really is and in what span of area it would cause damage. While the current position of the cyclone and the likely direction of its movement are mentioned, how quickly the cyclone is likely to move—crucial information if the emergency is to be handled in time—is not mentioned. In general, there is an expectation of greater detail in the warning message about the features that describe the movement and intensity, landfall time, and landfall location of the cyclone because it affects decisions related to many activities on evacuation and relief.

Also, the same message had been sent to all six districts (Visakhapatnam, East Godavari, West Godavari, Krishna, Guntur, and Prakasam) irrespective of the fact that the range of the location (Ongole in Prakasam district to Machilipatnam in Krishna district) where the cyclone was expected to cross land, as given in the warning message, spans only three districts (Krishna, Guntur, and Prakasam). The IMD justifies this action by saying that the models used for predicting the movement of the cyclone and its landfall point can produce an error range of 100 kilometers (km) to 150 km. While a few of the district collectors felt that the IMD with its present technology could not do better than this, the others expected that the IMD should be able to provide more district-specific information in the various warnings they send. With the current information, there is a problem of the district administration being over-prepared (which causes problems for belief and confidence in cyclone warnings at the local village level) or under-prepared (which could be disastrous) for the event.

Timeliness of Messages

Timeliness of the warning message is an important issue over which there is a clear mismatch in delivery by the IMD and the expectations of the practice domain. There are usually four different instances of time mentioned in the warning message. One is the “time” for which the location, intensity, and movement of the cyclone is described. The second is the time at which the cyclone is expected to cross land. The third (which is usually at the bottom of the message) is the time at which the warning message was drafted before delivery to the practice domain. And, the fourth is the time (noted down in ink by the person who received the fax or the telegram) when the message was received by the practice domain.

The gap between the time at which the actual location and other characteristics of the cyclone are described and the time when the warning message is drafted is usually between four and five hours. This happens because all the observations from the field observatories and Area Cyclone Warning Centres (ACWC) on the coast are first sent to the IMD headquarters in New Delhi, where these observations are used for formal models for analysis and prediction. While the Cyclone Warning Centres (CWCs) and ACWCs also do their own analysis and share those results with the IMD, they are not authorised to issue any formal warnings on their own until they get the go-ahead from the headquarters in Delhi. The IMD in New Delhi finalises the severity and other characteristics of the cyclone. Once these have been finalised, the necessary warning bulletins are issued by the corresponding ACWCs or CWCs.

The gap between the time at which the warning message was drafted by the IMD, and the time at which it was received by the district and state authorities is usually between 45 minutes and two hours. Hence, the total time lag between the actual position time of the cyclone and the time at which the warning is received becomes about six to eight hours, which is a serious issue for managing the situation at the district level as one of the collectors mentioned, “there is almost 6 to 8 hours delay and that to a great extent hampers the preparedness because 6 to 8 hours means a lot in cyclone preparedness.” Another example was given by the joint collector of Krishna district,

In Dec 2003, cyclone warning centre, Visakhapatnam, gave the warning bulletin that the cyclone was 180 km south east [SE] of Ongole (which is about 130 km south of Machilipatnam in Krishna district). But I basically depended on the radar station (located at Machilipatnam) information where we could see that the entire system was only within 100 km of Machilipatnam whereas we received a message a little while earlier that it was 180 kms SE of Ongole. Based on the radar station information, we immediately alerted the people and it was a miraculous escape for us.

Language Used in Messages

Language is another attribute of the message where what the IMD delivers and what the district disaster management authorities expect do not match. According to many district officials, the language used in the warnings is often too technical. For example, one of the collectors said that the likely direction of the cyclone mentioned in the warnings, say, north westerly, seems rather vague in terms of understanding the specific movement of the cyclone.

Another collector explained the point through an example from the context of floods, where they received a warning that 4 lakh cusecs of water would be released from the dam into the river and that could cause inundation of some riverline habitations. The collector said that,

it is difficult for me to understand 4 lakh cusecs of water unless I see how much 4 lakh cusecs is. One knows that cusecs indicate the volume of water. But one does not know what will be the spread and the height of the water. One cannot imagine 4 lakh cusecs of water, how it would be in a low-lying area and how it would be in a normal area. There is an expectation in the practice domain that the terminology used in the warning message be more amenable to their understanding.

Insufficient Frequency

The warning from the IMD is sent to the practice domain in four stages. First is the “pre-cyclone watch,” which is sent to the maritime states when a low pressure system develops in the sea—but is far away from the Indian coast—so it is under watch. Once the system in the sea starts moving from the depression stage to the cyclone stage, then the second-stage warning, that is, the “cyclone alert” is issued by the IMD. The respective CWCs of the maritime states, likely to be affected by the cyclone, issue the cyclone alert to the state and coastal district authorities. The cyclone alert is usually issued 48 hours in advance of the commencement of adverse weather. The third-stage warning is the “cyclone warning” which is issued 24 hours in advance. The fourth-stage warning is the “post-landfall outlook,” which describes what happens after the system crosses land.

When the low pressure system is at the depression or deep depression stage, the IMD issues bulletins about the depression/deep depression twice a day based on the 8:30 observations (the bulletin is issued around noon as it takes about three hours to collate and analyse the data) and the 17:30 observations. Once the depression or deep depression enters the cyclone stage, the frequency of the issuing and sending of bulletins is increased from twice a day to every five to six hours. The IMD sends in a warning only once after every new analysis of the data on the position of the cyclone, and movement and intensity of the cyclone, which happens in about every four to six hours. They do not repeat or resend the same message. Receiving an update on the position, movement, and intensity of the cyclone about to four to five times a day, while it is useful, is not sufficient for the district administration for taking decisions on the evacuation and management of the cyclone situation at the ground level. They expect to receive these updates at a greater frequency because even a few hours can make a huge difference in cyclone preparedness.

Channels of Communication

There are several channels—wireless, phone, fax, and telegram—through which the IMD cyclone warning messages are received by the practice domain from the state relief commissioner’s office and the CWC. A few years ago, the main channels of communication between the science and practice domain for the dissemination of warning was the telegram and the landline telephone (which could be problematic due to communication failures and outdated lists of telephone numbers). The use of mobile telephones in the last few years has ameliorated this problem to some extent. Additional channels of information are the All India Radio, and the television news networks and newspapers. Although, generally, the warning message received from the state relief commissioner’s office and the CWC in that particular state is considered the formal warning, if the news about the cyclone is heard from one of the media channels—sometimes before receiving this formal warning—the district-level disaster management authority may start gearing up for action.

Several district collectors spoke of the necessity of having a satellite phone in every district; a real necessity for them because the communication and the transportation infrastructure are among the first to be hit by a cyclone. While some districts like Krishna have procured satellite phones, every district on the coast does not have them. Also, the collectors emphasised the improvement of the wireless network at all levels in the practice domain. The wireless helps in internal communication, whereas the satellite phone helps them to get in touch with the state headquarters in case total communication breakdown happens.

Uncertainty in Warning Messages

The three most important elements of a warning message for decision-making in the practice domain are the likely landfall intensity, likely landfall location, and likely landfall time of the cyclone. However, there is uncertainty associated with all these three elements of the warning because the cyclone movement and intensity are not absolutely predictable with the present level of scientific and technological knowledge. Lipshitz and Strauss (1997) point to three basic strategies of coping with uncertainty in a naturalistic decision-making framework—“reducing” uncertainty, “acknowledging” uncertainty, and “suppressing” uncertainty—each of which consists of more specific tactics of coping with uncertainty. The strategies emergency managers employ for dealing with the uncertainty associated with the elements of the cyclone warning message are discussed below.

Reducing uncertainty: The obvious strategy to cope with uncertainty is to reduce it (Lipshitz and Strauss 1997), though removing it altogether is rarely possible. The following tactics are usually employed for reducing uncertainty associated with cyclone warning message.

(i) Collecting factual information in addition to that given in the warning: This is the chief tactic employed by the decision-makers to reduce uncertainty before making a decision. For example, the collector of Guntur said that, “I talk to the Vizag people (CWC, Visakhapatnam) to ask them how likely it (cyclone) is, when and where it is likely to be to get the additional information.” The collector of Cuddalore also said that he “keep(s) in direct touch with director of meteorology, Mr Ramanan, based in Chennai. Also if there is anything urgent, the director of meteorology immediately rings me up and tells me.” The collector and joint collector of Krishna district spoke of being in direct touch with the Doppler Radar station which is located at the Krishna district headquarters in Machilipatnam and get immediate online information about the movement, intensity, and location of the cyclone. The Guntur collector said, “We just orally call them (CWC, Visakhapatnam), once they withdraw the cyclone warning we just confirm whether it’s really withdrawn and we say thanks for the entire period for whatever the support they gave during the entire period, I make it a point to thank them, because we keep calling them at all odd hours, 12.30 am or even 1 am during the cyclone period.” The common feature in all the above interactions between the science and practice domain is that these are informal interactions for collecting information in addition to that given in the formal cyclone warning for taking decisions.

(ii) Seeking advice and opinions of others and relying on doctrines: In addition to informally collecting information from the meteorologists, the collectors also seek the advice and opinion of the people at the local level. For example, the joint collector of Krishna district said, “We also ask the old people in the villages and the government officials, who have been in this area for many years, whether the intensity of this cyclone seemed similar to or less than the 1977 cyclone (landmark cyclone in Andhra Pradesh in terms of severity and impacts) before taking a decision on evacuation.” The collectors of Guntur, Krishna, and Prakasam also mentioned the existence of a manual of cyclone preparedness that is updated during the cyclone preparedness meetings that are held every six months before the start of the cyclone season.

Acknowledging uncertainty: Lipshitz and Strauss (1997) find that this strategy for coping with uncertainty can be applied when reducing uncertainty is either unfeasible or too costly. They also identify the two broad ways the decision-makers can use for acknowledging uncertainty in their decisions. The first way is by taking uncertainty into account in selecting a course of action. For example, in the “rational choice models,” decision-makers choose among different alternatives by assessing the utility of the outcomes of these alternatives (in terms of costs versus benefits) and the associated probability of that outcome materialising. The second way of acknowledging uncertainty is to prepare to avoid or confront potential risks by using various “forestalling” tactics such as “pre-empting,” that is, to generate specific responses to possible negative outcomes, or “improve readiness,” that is, to develop a general capability to respond to unanticipated negative events (for example, put forces on alert).

The rational choice models are usually not used explicitly in the decision-making in the practice domain discussed in this case study because the decision-makers find it difficult to estimate probabilities associated with the outcomes. The decision-makers in the practice domain do use various forestalling tactics to acknowledge uncertainty associated with the cyclone warning message while making their decisions, for example, taking all the preparedness measures even when it is not certain that the cyclone would cross your district or one of the neighbouring districts. Many of the decision-makers do apply this strategy and it is well illustrated by the Guntur collector:

We had seen last year, it was said that it [cyclone] was going to hit at Ongole [which is in the neighboring Prakasam district] and then suddenly around 12.30 in the morning they [warning message] had said that it [cyclone] was going to cross at Baptla [which is in Guntur itself]. So at 12.30 and you are giving just 1 and half to two hours. It would take 1 hour and 15 minutes itself for our people to reach Bapatla. So since we had gotten warning earlier that there is likelihood of continuous rain and cyclone, we were getting prepared for it. Our people were already stationed there. It is advantageous for us to send some officers there, keep them and start doing some ground work. Whether or not it is going to hit, I always think in terms of calamity even if you overdo a little, it is OK. It is pardoned after some point of time. People will only shout that unnecessarily you disturbed us but it won’t cause any damage except feeling inconvenienced. So I always take more caution so that things don’t go [awry].

Suppressing uncertainty: The major tactic for suppressing uncertainty is the tactic of denial, that is, ignoring or distorting undesirable information. While there is some anecdotal evidence of suppression of uncertainty by the decision-making unit (individual or household) at the community or village level through denial or disbelief about the intensity of the cyclone mentioned in the warning, there is a lesser frequency of occurrence of such suppression of uncertainty by the decision-makers in the practice domain, especially in recent decades (after the landmark super cyclone of 1977 in Andhra Pradesh and 1999 in Odisha). None of the people interviewed reported suppression of uncertainty associated with the warning message through denial or disbelief. Rather, the tendency was to treat the uncertain warning information as certain and disseminate it further downstream as certain information. Therefore, in one sense, uncertainty associated with warning information was suppressed in this case too, which has its own problems as it leads to greater disbelief among the local people about the accuracy of cyclone warnings that would come in the future.

In Conclusion

The cyclone warning information sent from the IMD to state and district administrations does provide the emergency managers a window of 48 to 72 hours before the occurrence of the cyclone. But, uncertainties in forecasts about the landfall location, time, and intensity create dilemmas for those taking operational decisions at the ground level. Clearly, the severity of the cyclone is a crucial factor in determining a number of operational decisions, for example, dissemination of warning further downstream, timing of evacuation, areas to be evacuated, mobilisation of relief stocks, etc. Currently, the IMD provides information on the severity of a cyclone through three parameters: central pressure and wind speed, expected rainfall, and tidal surge. As is evident from the specimen warning message presented above, while the information on wind speed is relatively specific, information on rainfall and tidal surge is less specific, and can create ambiguity for the emergency managers as to how to interpret this information for taking action.

As has been discussed in this article, the emergency managers take a number of measures (for example, reducing, acknowledging, or suppressing) to manage this uncertainty. Timing, frequency, and language are other attributes of warning messages where there is a mismatch between what is delivered by the science domain and the expectations of the emergency managers regarding these attributes. Addressing the various concerns surrounding cyclone warning messages discussed in this article will be instrumental in improving the usefulness of the cyclone warning messages for emergency managers in India.


1 Emergency managers are the public authorities responsible for managing disasters, that is, officials and staff at the state, district, and sub-district levels who are involved in the warning, evacuation, rescue, and relief processes during natural hazards.

2 The information on time and date has been suppressed to avoid reference to any particular event.


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Updated On : 7th Dec, 2018


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