The 2014 Cyclone Hudhud disaster
A quick deficiencies analysis
A huge and powerful cyclone equivalent to a category 3 (/4?) hurricane with an overall diameter of 2000km hit India and then predicably travelled inland and dumped huge quantities of rain and snow on the Himalaya, trashing the Annapurna area in particular. Around 50 people died directly as a result, around a third foreign trekkers and the rest local guides and porters and trekking crew. All this death should have been prevented but here is why it wasn't.
+ there was significant forewarning (free, readily available info) and definitely enough time to act
+ there were offices capable of advising/controlling trekkers and guides either side of the Thorung La pass
+ Nepal doesn't enforce its silly satellite phone licencing (India's rules are shortsighted, and enforced)
+ there was a practice run the year before with Cyclone Phailin
- few Nepalis knew what a cyclone was nor understood the implications
- debatably the culture is more reactive/fatalistic rather than proactive
- the Thorung La (pass) trail is not marked with navigation poles
- partial failure of the Thuraya satellite SMS-email network under disaster load (calls went through though)
- little understanding of carbon monoxide poisoning among Nepalis
There was a COMPLETE and UTTER FAILURE of:
- the government weather forecasting service
- any single person in government to either realise the seriousness or pass on concerns to the appropriate authorities
- ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area) to provide any advice whatsoever, despite having checkposts on either side of the pass
- TAAN (Trekking Agents Association of Nepal) to do anything useful whatsoever prior
- TIMS permit system to be of any use whatsoever before or after
- of TAAN to say/do anything constructive afterwards, show any understanding of the problems
- of communications (and policing) in Chharka, Dolpa
- of any organization above to learn lessons from Cyclone Phailin one year prior
- Thuraya's SMS service to Ncell mobiles (the biggest mobile operator)
- Constellation, Thuraya's country representative; they ran out of phone credit scratchcards for days
Deaths were caused by:
- avalanches (don't trek while it is snowing hard)
- hypothermia (take shelter or huddle protectively)
- carbon monoxide poisoning (don't run trekking stoves without ventilation)
- an unmarked route (the most popular teahouse alpine pass trekking routes should be marked, at minimum)
- inexperienced guides
- bad advice from lodge managers
- lack of info given to guides, porters and solo trekkers
What should be done?
At minimum, Nepal deperately needs
+ a new style of three day weather forecasts, farmer focused (and five days at a later stage)
+ a severe weather warning mechanism
+ education on lightning (this kills many villagers each year)
+ daily updated weather forecasts and trail conditions on conservation area and national park notice boards
+ to reopen national park sub-offices (for wildlife protection and info etc) and boost morale
+ durable, comprehensive marking of popular alpine trails, particularly passes
+ labelling of trails junctions in all conservation and national park areas
+ relax low power walkie talkie rules (ie like the American FRS system; bigger camping trekking groups and climbing groups should use them as standard)
+ Ncell to work out SMS message service with Thuraya service
+ graded trek guide training with basic and advanced, up to mountain leader standard
(the mountain guide training IS working well)
+ get rid of the restricted area permits that hurt local business and raise administrative barriers for little purpose except corruption
and a thousand other things that won't happen for years; I'll spare you further rants for now.
The cyclone was BIG news in India (covering a large chunk of a large country) and to some Himalayan veterans, that lights a warning signal. A quick search showed this; is your red light flashing already? Is the flashing blinding you?!
Lower on the page is a prediction for up to 150mm rain to hit central Nepal. 150mm rain is 1500mm snow, or 1.5 metres/5 feet of snow.
How accurate is that? Days prior I would say "not very," but even if only half fell, 75cm (2.5 feet) that is still worth warning people about. If the computer model was wrong the other way - 3 metres, well...
And could the track be wrong? Let's say it is only 90% accurate, as cyclone/hurricane paths are hard to model. (I have tracked lots at guess the accuracy is better than 95% though, three days out, and all forecasting service said in this case their forecasts were accurate, little chance of error).
Anyway, if there is a 90% chance of more than 75cm/2.5 feet of snow in the mountains, surely you MUST WARN people? Absolutely.
In fact the models were amazingly accurate.
Oh, but what warning was there?
Tuesday 7 Oct
JTWC (US navy) says cyclone is forming.
Wedneday 8 Oct
The cyclone is tracked to hit Vishakapatnam, warning in major Indian newspapers.
“Analysis of various models makes it clear that there are little chance of cyclonic system would veer from its present course,” Dr. Sahu said. The course was nearly identical to Cyclone Phailin the year before.
Thursday 9 Oct
Weather experts can predict with high reliability the cyclone will hit the Mid-western development zone of Nepal hard.
Friday 10 Oct
Warnings that it will be "severe"/cat 3+ and readily available free info shows Cyclone Hudhud is tracked to degenerate on Nepal.
Saturday 11 Oct
It hits Vishakapatnam, world headlines.
Sunday 12 Oct
More world headlines. All media in Nepal is seemingly slumbering.
Monday 13 Oct
Nepal newspaper Republica's forecast is "Generally cloudy throughout the country, brief rain or thundershowers likely to occur at some places of the eastern and central regions and one or two places in the western regions." No severe weather warning, whatsoever. There were warnings on TV of rain/snow so bring in your harvested crops.
Tuesday 14 Oct
Hikers start climbing the Thorung La (pass) in the morning while it is already snowing.
A Nepal morning news headline is "Cyclone Hudhud causes rainfall across Nepal", yet the forecast is "Mostly cloudy in the central and western regions and generally cloudy in the eastern region. Rain likely to continue at many places in the country, chances of heavy rainfall at one or two places of the central and western region." Ummm, no mention of snow, whatsoever. No mention of continuous precipitation for 24+ hours. No severe weather warning.
Another news headline: "The cleanup begins in India".
No cherry picking either. No idea ...
So there was at minimum four days warning yet the newspapers in Nepal ENTIRELY missed it; TV and radio hinted at it only. News in Nepal is reactive, rather than proactive. And that goes for the government as well.
But what is a cyclone?
I discovered last year while trying to warn people about the impending arrival of Cyclone Phailin that few people in Nepal understand what the implications of a cyclone are. I told the office staff to warn all our groups in the mountains a (degenerating) cyclone was coming. The next day I hadn't seen any action and I told them to do it NOW. That is when smartest person asked "What is a cyclone?".
In the end it was mainly mountain staff that had seen me forecasting for our Everest summit pushes that simply believed me when I said lots of snow will come and with out necessarily understanding the situation, moved to safer locations. One group flew out before and just as the storm hit, on the call of the western leader who I could talk with. In calling by phone one guide with another company warning that a metre of snow might fall, I was told "but it is fine at the moment in Lobuche,". They didn't do anything special.
This year, after Hudhud, a curious and smart local trekking guide asked me "What is a cyclone?". I was stunned. With cyclones two years in a row, at virtually the same time of year too, I think now everyone knows the implications, which is really what matters. It is a pity so many had to learn the hard way.
I think the last large storm of cyclone origin to hit Nepal was around 2004, and prior one hit around every three to four years.
Don't get me started ... briefly:
News is reactive in Nepal, line reporters are mostly from city areas and have little/no trekking experience, and extrapolating is not skill I have seen on display. However, last year Kunda Dixit of the Nepali Times did publish info of a direct hit coming. My guess it was mostly not understood. Last year also my Facebook warning message failed to go viral, sadly.
The government weather forecasts use an archaic system, and from the '80's and '90's many a trekker will remember the "Mainly fair thoughout the Kingdom" forecast. The weather service hasn't improved and there is no severe weather warning system. Shame on them.
Major teahouse trekking routes through alpine areas should be marked with durable navigation aids and trail junctions signposted. This would normally be 2 metre poles, but mules trains, who may push a simple system over across the Thorung La and Larkya La, should be accounted for. Note all these areas are in conservation areas or national parks, and they should be responsible for this sort of thing. The tops of the passes have photogenic signs but otherwise the officials seem to be wallowing in their own filth rather than carry out any of their duties, except collect the fees.
I see petrol generators running in enclosed rooms during Kathmandu's long loadshedding periods and often comment, have spewed forth on the dangers of generator exhaust fumes building up to highly educated people, and have usually encountered a brick wall. Street vendors sit at car exhaust level. At least most trek crews do ventilate their kitchen tents. However, is this part of the trekking guide course? Unlikely.
For the last decade or so Nepal's bureaucracy and government have been paralyzed with divisive, unproductive politics and horrific corruption and in that condition is basically incapable of either learning from mistakes or making positive change to save itself - let alone others.
Where did people die?
Details are scattered all over the web but quickly from limited research:
- four people died when an avalanche hit them near Phu in the Nar-Phu region
- many on the Thorung La route between the top of the pass and the first lodges from both avalanches and hypothermia
- near the Niwas La, apparently (seven?) of the trek crew died of CO (carbon monoxide) poisoning in the kitchen tent
- others near the same Niwas La; the route from Upper Dolpo to Jomsom
- at the real Dhaulagiri BC or near there while on expedition climbing Dhaulagiri I
- Langtang region from avalanche
Wikipedia has little to say of yet.
It is simple, in a heavy fall or snow or rain, get safe quickly and stay there for 24 hours AFTER it stops raining/snowing. If you move the day it stops raining/snowing, exercise EXTREME caution.
Obviously there is no disaster response system worthy of the name in Nepal and the probable resulting chaos after a large earthquake are scary. Truly scary. *Uh-oh, famous last words...
Contrast with India
A decade or so ago a similar cyclone killed over 10,000 Indians. Now with disaster planning and better communications etc, despite huge infrastructure damage only a few dozen people died. Tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands were evacuated, saving lives. If India can do it, Nepal can too...
How did Project Himalaya do?
I was with Alan and Andy exploring the Mu La, a pass not named on maps and thanks to a timely sat phone message alert from Helen and Richard, I got an updated forecast from Esther in Singapore. We turned tail immediately and stayed in the nearest village. We rerouted, although later found unexpected conditions and had to reroute again.
Kim was given satellite phone warnings and in Khoma (Upper Dolpa) the snow was moderate and caused no real issues. They rerouted the end of their trek and finished back in Dunai-Juphal. See Previous treks for more.
The top photo is in Mukot (4000m) after the storm, after rain had drenched the previous snow, and is the night for the people who entered eternal night. We feel for the family and friends of the dead in this sad and unnecessary tragedy.