Cyclone 01B was born on 4.27 in the Bay of Bengal, east of the Indian Ocean, as a depression that deepened later in the day. On 4.28, the infant storm, named "Nargis", hovered over warm ocean waters, gained strength, opened an eye, and grew to a category 1 hurricane. On 4.29, she moved westwards, intensified to category 2, and faced Bangladesh. Then her strength flagged, the eye blurred, and she lost direction. She curled from west to north. On 4.30, she recuperated, turned east, and faced Burma. On 5.1, Nargis reopened her eye and accelerated to category 3, now spinning toward the Burmese coast. On 5.2, cyclone Nargis peaked as the equivalent of a category 4 hurricane. She made landfall in the Irrawaddy delta and swept inland. Weakening, she curved north to Rangoon. Finally she washed out, a day later, on the mountain slopes dividing Burma from Thailand.
Numbers are still soft around the edges. BBC reported 5.5. that the Burmese storm toll 'tops 10,000'. On 5.6, BBC cited Burmese state media with news that more than 20,000 had been killed, more than 40,000 were missing, and 1,000,000 are homeless. On 5.7 word had it that 100,000 may have died.
In terms of toll, Nargis was the worst storm in Asia for 20 years, since a 1991 hit on Bangladesh, and the worst storm on the whole for a decade, since Mitch hit Central America 1998.
In terms of force, Nargis was not as bad as she could have been. This was not a cat 5 storm. The cat 4 peak lasted less than a day. Nonetheless, the human toll is terribly high. Why?
I count five reasons that appear to have made things worse.
The oppressors of Burma's citizenry classified the emerging information. Instead of evacuating settlements right after the storm vector pointed to Burma, two days before landfall, the lugnuts in charge just watched the disaster unfolding and kept media free of news, for security reasons. And now, with corpses bobbing in the water, the uniforms may take a page from Karl Rove's 2005 Louisiana manual and broadcast in Burmese, "let's not play the blame game". Both Katrina and Nargis were bad, not extreme, yet the toll for both was extreme, not bad. Both governments were caught with their pants down. Both governments ignored warnings. The Myanmar junta is the Mickey Mouse version of the Bush regime. The Myanmar junta dismissed warnings of the storm track, not trusting evil foreign weather stations; the Bush regime dismissed warnings of climate change making New Orleans' levees insufficient, not trusting evil rational scientists. The toll, in both cases, is extreme, in part because the leaders rejected information instead of acting on it. If you want to delete the first cause, lift information control. Closed societies kill. Open societies don't.
Consider the damage done to coastal ecosystems prior to the cyclone. BBC headlined this cause 5.6., citing ASEAN's secretary-general, with mangrove loss 'put Burma at risk'. Storms like Nargis arise over warm water. The ocean has no barriers to growth. Storms whip up waves and vent until they blow themselves out. But dry land is an obstacle course. Each toppled tree, each hurled object, each downed wall bleeds wind energy away and helps to exhaust the force. A hurricane at the coast is just a rainstorm farther inland. The sea-land interface is vulnerable. Yet on the latitudes relevant here (Rangoon on the 19th, New Orleans on the 29th parallel), the interface tends to have natural protection. On the seaward side are mangroves, belts of biomass, which absorb wave and wind energy. On the landward side are wetlands, bluegreen sponges, which soak up further incoming energy and cushion weather blows. Eliminate mangroves (as done in Burma) or wetlands (as done in Louisiana, by National Geographic 206.4, October 2004, p. 89, "at a rate of 33 football fields a day"), and the hammer falls on a naked beach, flooding and flattening houses, killing people. Stopping beach development and restoring coastal ecologies saves lives.
The toll is extreme because population density is extreme. Consider the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. There have been waves caused by seaquakes since the dawn of time. There is nothing odd about tsunamis. Yet that tsunami killed a quarter million people -- which is the worst known tsunami toll since humans evolved on Earth. Still, don't blame the tsunami. Blame the species: world population quadrupled in the past century and is on the verge of doubling once more, with the greatest density along tropical coastal regions. Hence the toll. If we want to minimize the third cause, do reverse engineering. You can't tell people not to live at the coast if they make their living there coast. But you can decrease (slowly and over time, to be sure, but still, better than nothing), coastal density by decreasing overall density. And you can decrease overall density by lowering reproduction rates. You can do so by empowering women -- gender equality, as UN demographers know, is the best tool for family planning -- and by evolving new sexual mores. The species is suffering from a baby glut just when we're running out of things, including real estate. We need to learn, and teach, that sex, at least in the 21st century, serves recreational purposes only, and may lead to procreation only under exceptional circumstances. If we don't want to keep seeing huge tolls , then lets trim our fat numbers and leave 19th century values behind.
But we can't quite blame all these baby-making folks. After all, as UN studies show, they prefer to make less babies, and they request assistance. The third reason needs to be qualified by a fourth factor: population density in developing nations is higher in part because of the Mexico City Policy by US president Bush 2001. Sure, we might argue that Myanmar wouldn't have let any of the NGOs affected by the gringo Gag Rule in anyway. But are we certain? Extreme tolls are made possible by high density, and preserving high density has been possible by the unilateral global implementation of the Mexico City Policy reinstated by the US. And even if Myanmar were the exception to the rule, the rule would still hold that the US since 2001 is guilty of aiding and abetting planetary overpopulation; that due to the US president, worldwide sex has led to more babies, and that due to the US president, a greater share of the babies born are babies dying. Thus blame Bush. If you want to delete the fourth factor of the toll, at least in categorical terms, rescind the Mexico City Policy.
Finally, blame Bush again. That Nargis happened is natural. But without Bush Nargis may well have been weaker. While the rest of the world is trying since Kyoto '97 to ease up on the oil addiction and to expand into carbon-neutral energies, Bush has done the opposite: he rejected Kyoto, dismissed until a few months ago the causal link of oil use and climate change, deepened American dependence on fossil fuels, ordered the resource-driven invasion of Iraq 2003, and had his minions sabotage binding emission caps at Bali 2007. Compared to the USA under Bush, there is no nation on the planet that drives as much, that farts so many greenhouse gases into the air, and that is as guilty of perpetrating planetary climate change. The measly five American percent of the total world population have created one third of global greenhouse gas emissions; the same five percent, under Bush, have prevented efficient carbon management; the same five percent, under Bush, are to be held accountable for a perfectly avoidable third of the heat our species has sunk into the seas. The same five percent, under Bush, are consequently to be blamed for a third of the climate-change-induced rise in more frequent and more intense seaborn storms. And this includes Nargis. Thus blame Bush. And while this may sound strange today, chances are it won't, in the not-too-distant future, to international tribunals and courts, when the litigation for damages starts. The right thing to do, for doing one's share towards preventing another disaster of Nargis' magnitude, is not just to donate to relief efforts, but also, and finally, to impeach the climate changer in chief.
It's never too late to do the right thing.
Postscript 25 August 2008:
Four months after the catastrophe, International Herald Tribune publishes an article, "Ghosts amid the wreckage in Myanmar," which reviews the situation. 138,000 are dead or missing. 800,000 are homeless. Nearly half of the assistance pledged has yet to appear. The Junta blocked aid for three weeks. The Irawaddy delta is "a vista of ruin and debris, where human and animal bones and the last decomposing bodies still cluster the edges of waterways."