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A night that was...

I remember waking up in the middle of the night, hearing a loud banging noise and an even louder whistling noise coming from the back of the house. The winds and rain were banging against the outside of the house. I tried to turn on the light in my room, only to realize that there was no electricity. I ran over to the loud banging noise, extremely aware of the serious damage the storm could be doing to our house. I saw my mother holding a flashlight, clinging on to her clothes, as my father hurriedly was trying to close the windows that had opened up, and the latches had been broken, due to the storm. After helping my father close the windows with sticks and rope, I remember trying to go back to sleep in my room but not being able to against all the loud noises of the storm interacting with the house. I was 14 years old, and this was Cyclone Dina, a storm that caused more than $50 million in damage in Mauritius. I was never quite sure if our window damage was accounted for in that damage.

Cyclones, hurricanes, typhoons, willy willy’s; these are all just different names for the same weather phenomenon. This weather phenomenon is a large mass of air that rotates around a strong center of low atmospheric pressure. Tropical forms of this storm have extremely strong winds, and a spiral arrangement severe thunderstorms that bring about an exorbitant amount of rain. The center of the storm has extremely timid weather; no winds and the sun comes out. Right around this region is the strongest portion of the storm, and the central calm region is colloquially referred to as the “eye of the storm”. When the eye passes over you, you know that you have seen the worst of the storm, sometimes twice. I remember being told in our geography class that back in the day when people did not know a whole lot about the phenomenon. As the eye would cross over the island, the worst of the storm would hit, and then it would be calm as the eye passed over. People would come out of hiding, with lives returning to normal, but then immediately after the worst of the storm would hit again.

Mauritius is a small island nation 2000 km off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, part of the Mascarene Islands in the Indian Ocean. The cyclone warning system consists of four classes in Mauritius. Class I is issued 36 to 48 hours before winds of 120 km/h are expected to hit the island. Class II is issued so as to allow (as much is practical) 12 hours of daylight before winds of 120 km/h hr. Class III is to allow 6 hours of daylight before the winds. Class IV is when 120 km/h winds have been recorded in any location and would continue uniterrupted. Whenever we would hear about a cyclone, I would hope and pray for at least Class II to be declared; all schools got closed and every child is sent home if it is declared in the middle of the school day. I remember getting on to buses and going home on a few occasions.

Over 300 storms have affected the Mascarene Islands. The deadliest of which hit the shores of Mauritius in 1892, killing more than 1200 people and destroying infrastructure all over the island. The worst of the storms have dropped more than 97 inches of rain, and have had winds of over 280 km/h, and have caused billions of dollars in property damage over the years. Two storms pass over the country on average, and a cyclone will make landfall once every five years. In addition to loss of human life and infrastructure, these storms have also permanently affected the ecology. In the St Brandon Islands, part of the Mascarene group, hammerhead sharks were blown into the coral reefs during a bad storm, and have thrived there ever since.

I was privileged enough to spend 2000-2003 in Mauritius; my father was posted there through the Indian Navy to work with their Coast Guard. Mauritius has a curiously interesting history. It was discovered by the Portuguese early in the 16th century, and was then colonization by the Dutch in the end of the 16th of the century. It was then occupied by France in the early 18th century, and then by the British in the 19th century, all vying for its enviable geographical location as a port, before the Suez canal got rid of the need for ships going all the way around Africa when sailing between Europe and Asia. The country gained independence in 1968 from the British, and has since developed a robust system to handle the storms that frequent their shores. Building codes in the country have been updated and improved significantly over the years. The whole country was always prepared for these storms, having been battered repeatedly over many decades. The class categorization had clear guidelines for the public, and everyone followed the rules when storms approached the country. After the storms had passed, I was always amazed by how quickly authorities would remove broken trees and branches strewn across public roads. The world would do well to learn from countries such as Mauritius, as climate change is bringing extreme weather at an increasing rate all over the world.

Dr Asheesh Ravikumar Lanba is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Southern Maine. He has lived across India, Singapore, Mauritius and USA. Dr. Lanba is an avid hiker, mountain biker, cinephile and cynophile. He also played cricket for his university at the national and inter-varsity level in Singapore. He obtained his PhD in Engineering Science & Mechanics from the Pennsylvania State University and has a Bachelors in Engineering from Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

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