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Typhoon Linda hits Vietnam

Southern Vietnam was devastated by Typhoon Linda during the first two days of November 1997. The rapid development of the storm in the East Sea not far from the Vietnamese coast meant that there was little time for warnings to be issued and acted upon. Over 600 people are known to have died in the storm’s passing.

Historically, the southern provinces of Vietnam that make up the Mekong Delta and the Cau Mau Peninsula experience severe tropical storms, on average, once every ten years. Yet not since 1904 has this region suffered such an intense and destructive storm.

On Saturday November 1st a tropical low pressure storm moving in a westward pattern in the East Sea (the South China Sea) suddenly gained intensity and developed rapidly into the tropical typhoon named Linda.

As the storm passed over the southernmost coast of Vietnam it was estimated that the winds were reaching 100 km/hr and, as the storm moved further west at about 20 km/hr through the Gulf of Thailand, winds at its centre were still over 90 km/hr.

Vietnam has developed an effective early warning system for storms which incorporates use of the media, television and radio and local officials who then alert inhabitants in towns and villages. But given the speed and intensity with which Typhoon Linda developed little warning could be given to the thousands of fishermen who were at sea as the storm approached.

The fishing fleets are made up of boats powered by small 15 to 20 horsepower engines. Very few of the fishermen have radios and even less carry life preservers.

Following the typhoon’s passing, helicopters and navy cutters were used in a massive search and rescue operation with the result that around 5,000 fishermen were rescued, after clinging to buoys or boat planks, even empty plastic bottles, for days.

Meanwhile, on land, entire communities were flattened, tens of thousands of people were left homeless, nearly 500,000 hectares of rice-fields were destroyed, and roads, dikes and bridges were smashed and washed away. Initial reports estimated the overall cost of the damage at around US$500 million.

As the storm tracked west through the Gulf of Thailand into the Bay of Bengal, it continued to wreak destruction, killing over 30 people in Cambodia and Thailand with around 200 fishermen reported missing.

Track of typhoon Linda

Casualty figures remain provisional. As of early December, the Vietnamese government reported that over 2,000 people remain unaccounted for in the aftermath of the storm.

The unexpected positioning and intensity of Typhoon Linda has given added impetus to the work of those Vietnamese concerned with coastal protection.

An extensive system of sea walls and dikes has been constructed throughout the country but resource constraints mean that in many areas the height of the dikes is not sufficient. On the Cau Mau Peninsula, previous destruction of the mangrove forests which provide natural protection against storm-induced flooding aggravated the impact of Typhoon Linda.

There has been some speculation as to whether the typhoon was intensified by the extreme El Niño event of 1997. In fact, the number of cyclones approaching the Vietnamese coastline normally decreases during El Niño events as the storm distribution over the western North Pacific responds to the altered pattern of surface temperatures and winds. Was Typhoon Linda an abnormal response to an unusual El Niño event or was it an isolated occurrence? The fact that the storm occurred during the closing months of what seems likely to be, world-wide, the warmest year on record also warrants consideration.

Regardless of its causes, Typhoon Linda demonstrates that, even with a highly developed civil protection system, many thousands of individuals remain at risk when the warning time is limited by rapid storm development. Improved monitoring and prediction of storms such as Typhoon Linda must be a high priority.

On the Web

See Tuan V Nguyen's home page for further information on the impact of Typhoon Linda, details of an appeal that has been launched and photos of the storm's impact. The latest news can be found through Infoseek.

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