May 7, 2008 / 12:42 PM / 12 years ago

Myanmar warned on cyclone, not tidal wave: U.N

GENEVA (Reuters) - Myanmar appears to have alerted its people that a powerful cyclone was on its way, but lacked information about the deadly storm surge that came with it, the United Nations weather agency said on Wednesday.

World Meteorological Organization (WMO) expert Dieter Schiessl told journalists that authorities in the former Burma began issuing forecasts of strong winds and rainfall several days ahead of Cyclone Nargis’ landfall on Friday and Saturday.

But it was the accompanying tidal wave — which was as high as 12 feet — that caused the most devastation in Myanmar, where officials say 22,500 people have died, 41,000 are missing and 1 million lost their homes.

“The overall wind speed was broadly correctly forecasted,” said Schiessl, the WMO’s director for strategic planning and weather and disaster risk reduction.

“In a storm surge the shape of the coast and the geography of the ocean floor has a significant impact. That information can only be generated locally,” he told a news conference in Geneva, the U.N.’s European hub.

Myanmar is rarely subjected to storms of this magnitude. Its last tropical cyclone with costal landfall was about 40 years ago, Schiessl said.

Authorities in the isolated state, whose military regime has been rebuked by the United States and other Western powers, told the WMO that Myanmar’s Department of Meteorology and Hydrology started issuing warnings about the cyclone on April 27, with data drawn from several monitoring centers worldwide.

“Timely and appropriate” information was transmitted to government authorities and disseminated through national television, radio and the written press, the WMO said. It cited reports it received from Myanmar, which U.N. experts in Geneva have not been able to independently verify.

It is not clear whether Myanmar knew how to respond to those warnings, Schiessl said, raising parallels to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in which hundreds of thousands of people perished.

International researchers are developing systems to help forecast the size of storm surges, and sophisticated radar systems exist that can help coastal surveillance.

“No such a radar system is available in the coastal area of Myanmar,” Schiessl said, noting that few developing countries could afford to implement such technology on their own.

“We need to find donor organizations that are prepared to provide the financial resources,” he said. “Developing countries lack the financing and also the staff resources to deploy and operate these systems.”

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