(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Alarm bells over possible tidal surge

Bangkok Province governor Apirak Kosayodhin and Bangkok Metropolitan Administration mitigation staff participated in a disaster preparedness and mitigation practice for storm surge forecasted to hit several coastal communities in the coming months.
Apiradee Treerutkuarkul/IRIN

Wandee Niamhom has been living by the Bang Khunthian seashore all of his life. When the 57-year-old shrimp farmer heard recent warnings that a large storm surge could hit Bangkok and affect his own area between September and December, he became a bit scared and started making preparations.

He stockpiled water, instant noodles, torches and other supplies in case of an emergency. "We're not panicked, just being cautious and ready for any storm surge should it come," he told IRIN. "Nature is unpredictable."

The chairman of the National Disaster Warning Committee (NDWC), Smith Dharmasarojana, told IRIN he was certain that provinces in the inner Gulf of Thailand, particularly Bangkok City and the neighboring province of Samut Prakan, which are major business and industrial areas, could be severely hit by the tidal surge.

He said the storm surge phenomenon is associated with low pressure, in which sea levels rise offshore and can cause flash flooding when the tide reaches land.

In Pan Thai Nor Sing township, Samut Sakhon Province - forecasted by Smith Dharmasarojana to be an area that could also be hit hard by a storm surge - business was brisk at grocery stores as people bought emergency supplies.

Raywat Nimnoi, a grocery store owner, said: "We can't wait until the last minute to buy food and other essentials. By that time, we might not be able to purchase anything because the prices will skyrocket or supplies will be sold out," he said.

Potential for disaster

If Smith is right, Thai residents in the high-risk areas are right to be stockpiling emergency goods. "A storm surge in the Gulf could cause greater damage than the one triggered by Cyclone Nargis in Burma last May," he said.

Strong winds could cause the ocean's surface water to pile up higher than the ordinary sea level and surge against the shoreline. Such a storm could generate waves of 2.2-4.5 metres in height which could flatten coastal communities, he said.


Photo: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) illustration of the devastating effects of storm surge which some are forecasting to hit Bangkok and neighbouring provinces between September and December 2008

Global warming also increases the chances of storm surges and other natural disasters occurring more frequently and with greater strength, said the NDWC chairman, adding that he was disappointed that Thailand had not done more to adopt storm surge preparedness and response measures.

Smith called for the relevant national agencies to develop a comprehensive strategy to mitigate the impact of storm surge in a bid to avoid a repeat of the devastation wrought by Typhoon Gay, which in 1989 generated powerful tides that ravaged southern communities. He also suggested the need to construct a long sea wall of four to five metres in height along vulnerable coastal areas.

Others downplay the threat

Wattana Kanbua, director of the Thai Marine Meteorological Centre, downplayed the fear of storm surge, saying the chance that such phenomenon would hit Bangkok and Samut Prakan was less than one percent. Only storms bigger than depressions, such as typhoons or cyclones, have the potential to trigger storm surge and people need not fear that because the Meteorological Department could issue a warning five days before a storm surge occurred, he said.

Records show Samut Prakan Province has not experienced a storm surge in the past century, while southern and eastern provinces have been hit by several. Prachuap Khiri Khan, Chumphon, Surat Thani in the south and Trat, Chantaburi and Rayong in the east are more at risk of storm surge, Wattana told IRIN.

Bangkok City's governor, Apirak Kosayodhin, nonetheless, believes it is best to be well prepared for a tidal surge, with the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration already having developed a disaster preparedness and evacuation plan in preparation for a storm surge.

"It's better for everyone to stay alert and prepare for and mitigate a disaster," Apirak said.

And if that is not enough, on 26 August, 499 Buddhist, Christian, Islamic and Hindu priests, accompanied by a sacred Bhudda statue in the "Calming the Ocean" posture, will participate in a "Stop the wind, stop the water" ceremony on the shore in Samut Prakan Province.

at/bj/cb

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