Sri Lanka knew what was coming. Still the early warning was of limited help in the face of wrath of nature, unleashed along the sea board all the way from Trincomalee to southern beachfronts. The cyclone, somewhat unfashionably named as 04B, due to it being the 4th in line to wreak havoc during the 1978 North Indian Cyclonic Season, made landfall just south of Trincomalee on November 23rd, and created a path of destruction in its wake, all the way to North Western sea board. Damage has been unprecedented –the biggest ever cyclone related destruction let loose on Sri Lanka to date.
Over 900 lives were lost, including countless animals and tens of thousands of trees, among them more than 20000 acres of coconut lands. More than 4000 people suffered injuries. Over 60% of paddy fields of Maha season harvest was destroyed. Only 2% of structures escaped damage along its path. More than 50% houses had roofs blown off. Batticaloa, though being way off the center of the 04B was hammered, causing huge damage, including one fifth of its sea going fishing fleet.
Although the cyclone made its entry in Trincomalee, the worst damage was unleashed on Batticaloa. The severity of damage that fell on Batticaloa was such that ‘’age old gigantic mammoth trees lining the Esplanade one after the other crashed with an ear splitting sound of fury,’’ as one article put it. Damage to trees was not limited to the coast line. Many dozens of massive colonial era trees were fallen in Kandy, completely altering the city’s appearance, forever. Kalkudah would endure impact other than wind and rain, for seas would rush 1.5km inland.
Wind speeds ranging from 140 to 200 kmph caused havoc as the cyclone made its painfully slow advance towards Gulf of Mannar. Incidentally, 04B was to bring the worst damage of all four of the cyclones brewed by the Bay of Bengal during the cyclone season of 1978, with its damage of nearly 300000 dwellings affecting over a million Sri Lankans.
As the historical data shows, Sri Lanka has been mostly spared from cyclonic storms created in the Bay of Bengal. Only five of them had reached our eastern shores, ever since the records begun in 1881, with the typical ‘cyclone alley’ heading northward towards India and Bangladesh. However, the arrival of cyclonic storms, which happen to cause comparatively less severe impact, have been more common, with up to 15 of them making landfall. The cyclonic storm created in Dec 1st, which is heading our way, has been estimated to create winds up to 75kmph, while it advances towards Trincomalee.
During the aftermath of the cyclone in 1978, teams of technical experts from Australian Government, UNDP, and a number of state institutions of Srilanka proposed the implementation of techniques for cyclonic resistant construction as our building standards in cyclone prone regions. As to how these standards have been followed by the mostly chaotic and irregular construction carried out throughout Sri Lanka remains to be tested.
2020 North Indian Cyclonic Season has been the worst, in terms of damage, with its 3 very severe cyclonic storms and multiple depressions causing losses over 15 billion US Dollars, mostly from the extremely destructive super cyclonic storm Amphan, which devastated parts of Bengal and Bangladesh in May 2020.The books of this season are not closed yet, as Burevi, the fourth cyclone, possibly the last in this season spins its way towards the east coast.