Cyclone double whammy

Emergency assessment teams are scrambling to get an indication of the damage in Madagascar after tropical storm 'Eric' and cyclone 'Fanele' hit the Indian Ocean island in quick succession this week.

Fanele struck the western coast of Madagascar in the early hours of January 21, near the town of Morondava, according to local authorities, destroying buildings, flooding large areas and cutting off thousands of people.

On 19 January, "Eric affected 1,960 people, damaging 1,652 [buildings, mostly homes], caused one death and left 27 injured and 992 people without shelter," Dia Styvanley Soa, spokeswoman for the National Office for Natural Disasters Preparedness (BNGRC), told IRIN. The storm skirted the eastern coast of the world's fourth largest island with wind speeds of around 100km/h.

A helicopter has been dispatched to survey affected areas and authorities fear the worst as more information trickles in: "Fanele was definitely more intense than Eric and the damage it caused is very [severe]. The chief of the region of Menabe [where Morondava is situated] said Fanele entered in the morning and stayed for more than four hours - Morondava is destroyed by 80 percent," Soa said.

Fanele made landfall from the Mozambique Channel as a category 3 cyclone and swept through the southern part of Madagascar, gradually decreasing to a tropical storm before exiting to the Indian Ocean.

Not caught off-guard

With relief efforts already underway, Colonel Jean Rakotomalala, Executive Secretary of the BNGRC, stressed the importance of Madagascar's recent investments in disaster preparedness. The focus has shifted from being reactive, and limited to response and recovery after an event, to a more comprehensive approach centred on preparedness.

"We can see the payoff of prepositioning stocks ahead of the cyclone season," Rakotomalala said in a statement on 21 January. "This has made it possible to help victims immediately, in anticipation of more assistance from [other areas].

Besides prepositioning relief items, "We have given more responsibility to the regions by developing regional contingency plans. It's a tool for them to know what to do within 24 and 48 hours after a catastrophe," Soa said.

''We can see the payoff of prepositioning stocks ahead of cyclone season. This has made it possible to help victims immediately''

The BNGRC and its partners – UN agencies, NGOs and civil society organisations - also conducted emergency simulation exercises in various parts of the country.

"We have prepared ourselves well ... the training and sensitisation of people [at local level] has continued, but we also know that situation can be beyond our capacity."

Not out of the ordinary

Around 70 percent of Madagascar's population live on less than a dollar a day and extreme weather events are part of the island's history. The cyclone season usually kicks off in December and runs through April, when storms hit some of the poorest regions in the country.

In 2008 over 100 people died when Madagascar was hit by cyclones Fame, Jokwe and Ivan. The powerful winds, heavy rains and flooding affected over 340,000 people, of whom 190,000 lost their homes.

2007 was the worst year on record, with six cyclones affecting nearly half a million people, mainly in the central and northern parts of the island; in the parched south drought has persisted for several years.

Temperatures in the Indian Ocean are well above average, according to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and meteorologists are predicting that 2009 may be a particularly bad year.