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Early warning crucial to limiting Pacific islands storm-surge damage

Tom Abke

Storm surge is a major threat to Pacific island countries and territories, causing devastating loss of lives and property annually.

On average, 2.1% of the yearly gross domestic product of each Pacific island country and territory is consumed by the impact of storm surge, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

Early warning technology — paired with the international cooperation and planning of government agencies, militaries and local authorities — offers the best hope for saving lives and assets, according to Dr. Bapon Fakhruddin, a water engineer with Tonkin + Taylor in Auckland, New Zealand.

Storm surge is an abnormal rise in seawater level generated by cyclones — an all-too common occurrence in the Pacific islands, Fakhruddin told FORUM. “Cyclones bring a lot of devastation to the Pacific islands and kill a lot of people, and it’s mostly due to storm surge.”

Building physical barriers to block storm surge may be too expensive for Pacific island countries and territories, Fakhruddin said. An early warning system (EWS), however, such as one installed in Fiji in 2019, can alert Islanders two to four days in advance of storm surge.

“That kind of lead time is quite good enough for saving lives and even saving critical assets,” he said. The EWS estimates the surge’s size and intensity, helping authorities to pinpoint the projected location and extent of damage.

Fakhruddin credits the EWS with enabling Fijian authorities to prepare locals for Yasa, a Category 5 cyclone that hit the island nation in December 2020. Two Fijians were killed as a result of the storm’s winds but none by the storm surge, in contrast to the 44 people killed by Winston, the previous Category 5 cyclone that hit Fiji in 2016. (Pictured: An Australian Defence Force helicopter delivers supplies to rebuild a school destroyed by Cyclone Yasa on the Fijian island of Galoa in December 2020.)

Support from Australia and New Zealand was instrumental in implementing Fiji’s EWS, Fakhruddin said, as is the ongoing collaboration of meteorological organizations in both countries. Each nation’s Armed Forces also play a vital role in storm reconnaissance and response.

In more than a decade working in the region, Fakhruddin said he has often flown aboard a New Zealand Defence Force P-3 Orion to monitor storms. Images and data are fed back to his office, and assessments are rapidly sent to response teams such as the Red Cross and to government agencies.

Such convergence of efforts is key to mitigating storm-surge damage, he said.

“Confronting storm surge requires quite strong linkages, both on the global, regional and local levels,” he said. “We are talking about an engagement between meteorologists, hydrologists, oceanographers, coastal engineers and others.”

The United States also contributes to disaster response in the Pacific islands, Fakhruddin said. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance reported that it responds to an average of 65 disasters in more than 50 countries yearly, including preparedness and mitigation activities in the region.

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.



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