On a day when over 200 fishermen stranded at sea off Kerala were rescued, with no official estimate on those still missing in the wake of Cyclone Ockhi, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) warned that “high waves” towering 3-4.9m would be seen 10 km off the state’s coast from 6.30 pm to 11.30 pm Saturday.
According to a joint bulletin issued by IMD and Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS), the severe cyclonic storm, centred over Lakshadweep, is likely to further intensify in the next 24 hours. At least 10 locations on the islands would witness high waves ranging from 4.8-7.4m in the next 24 hours, along with “heavy to very heavy rainfall”.
With the Kerala government issuing an alert for all coastal districts, IMD director general K J Ramesh told The Indian Express, “The worst impact of the cyclone is likely to be over by tomorrow evening.”
Government officials said 218 fishermen were rescued on Friday in a joint effort by the Navy, IAF, Coast Guard, the state government and merchant vessels. Of these, they said, 60 were rescued by a Japan cargo vessel, M V Energy Orpheus, following an alert issued about the rescue.
With no information on those still missing — many had gone out to sea on Wednesday evening — protests erupted in the coastal villages of Thiruvananthapuram district as relatives of stranded fishermen blocked roads, alleging “government apathy”.
Also read | What is cyclone Ockhi?
While Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan rejected the allegation, saying his government received the alert only around Thursday noon, a senior IMD official told The Indian Express that not all cyclones could be forecast much in advance.
“It all depends on the birth and life cycle of the cyclone, and the place where it develops. Those on the eastern coast originate far from the coastline, around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and take a few days to reach the mainland. They can be forecast in advance. In this case, the cyclone originated at sea, west of Sri Lanka, and moved towards Lakshadweep, which is not very far away. Kerala and areas of Tamil Nadu got an ever lesser lead time, about one-and-a-half days,” said Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, head of services, IMD.
The IMD was able to verify information and issue its first warning at around 11.45 am on Thursday. This was unlike the case in many recent severe cyclonic storms on the eastern coast, with wind speeds of 100-140 kmph, like Phailin, Hudhud and Laila. These were all predicted 4-5 days in advance and an accurate path was forecast, ensuring adequate time to evacuate people from danger zones.
Asked about the height of the waves forecast, Mohapatra said it seemed to be higher than that witnessed in earlier cyclones but was “nothing unusual”.
“In our forecast, we had mentioned that the sea status was likely to be ‘phenomenal’. This means that the height of the waves can be as high as 14 metres. This happens only in the middle of the sea. As the cyclone approaches a land mass, the height of the wave decreases. But the small islands in Lakshadweep, for all practical purposes, can be considered in the middle of the sea. Therefore, it was expected that the waves would be higher, five to six metres, even eight metres at some places. This is nothing unusual,” Mohapatra said.
By Friday evening, the death toll due to cyclone-related incidents in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district rose to five. In Kerala, no further casualties were reported after the Navy salvaged two unidentified bodies during the rescue operation. Of the fishermen rescued, 80 were admitted to various hospitals in Thiruvananthapuram, officials said.
The Kerala Chief Minister said there was no delay by the government in taking prompt action. “The government got the warning at 12 noon on Thursday. Without a cyclone warning, an alert for the same cannot be released. Subsequently, all necessary steps were taken to tackle the situation. Apart from seeking the assistance of the Navy, Air Force and the Coast Guard, the state government asked the Director-General of Shipping to alert cargo vessels along the coast. Accordingly, a Japan ship rescued 60 fishermen,” said Vijayan.
IMD regional director S Sudevan said, “We had issued weather alerts on November 27 and 28, warning fishermen about bad weather. On November 29, the alert had stated that wind speed would be up to 70 kmph.”
He confirmed that the low depression forecast was scaled up to a cyclone alert only on Thursday. “Only when the wind gains at a particular speed, can we issue a cyclone warning. This low depression suddenly developed into a cyclone, and Kerala got only less than 24 hours to prepare,’’ said Sudevan.
As part of the rescue operation, officials said, the Navy deployed 11 ships and two helicopters, the Coast Guard two ships and two aircraft, and the IAF two helicopters. Besides, officials said, four columns of the Army have been readied for deployment at the Thiruvananthapuram coast, if needed. A special control room was also opened at the Thiruvananthapuram airport to coordinate the ongoing rescue operation.
Meanwhile, panic continued to grip fishing villages along the coast with little communication available about those missing.
Chief Minister Vijayan claimed that a group of stranded fishermen was reluctant to abandon its vessels and fishing nets. “These fishermen, who went in 33 country boats, wanted their vessels taken to the coast safely, which is not practical at this stage. They would be convinced about the prevailing situation and brought back to the coast,” he said.
An official communication from the Navy said their vessels found 38 fishing boats that were previously reported missing. “These boats have been supplied with food and rescue kits. Efforts are on to trace more such boats…,” it said.