In early May 2008, Burma was struck by Cyclone Nargis, which left over 138,000 dead and tens of thousands injured, and 2.5 million homeless. It was the worst natural disaster ever in Myanmar (Burma). Damage was estimated at over $10 billion, which made it the most damaging cyclone ever recorded in this basin. The Myanmar government estimated the storm completely destroyed 450,000 of 800,000 homes hit. Associated Press called it “Asia's answer to Hurricane Katrina”—except it was much more deadly.

Packing winds upwards of 195 kph (120 mph), Cyclone Nargis became one of Asia's deadliest storms by hitting land at one of the lowest points in Myanmar and setting off a storm surge that reached over 40 kilometers (25 miles) inland. Among the worst areas were Labutta, Bogale, Pyapon, Dedaye and Kyaiklat. More than 400,000 hectares of farmland were flooded with seawater and more than 200,000 drafts animals were killed in the Yangon and Irrawaddy areas. Before the storm hit this area produced 3.3 million tons of crops on 900,000 hectares of land in the monsoon season and 1 million tons of crops on 200,000 hectares in the summer. Initially some said that crops could only be raised on 40 percent of the damaged land and loses could clip two percent off Myanmar’s GDP for 2008 but after the disaster journalists reported that crops were raised in many places thought to be unable to produce crops.

Cyclone Nargis was a rare, eastward-moving, low-latitude, strong tropical cyclone. It made landfall in the evening of May 2, 2008 and lashed Myanmar for three days. It sent a storm surges 40 kilometers up the densely-populated Irrawaddy Delta. Nargis advanced eastward along the coastal delta region, over rivers, other waterways and villages surrounded by paddy fields. The cyclone initially hit the land with wind speeds of up to 194 kph, and later accelerated to a top speed of 238 kph. The name "Nargis" is an Urdu word meaning daffodil.

Two days after the cyclone hit AFP reported: “Nargis tore through Myanmar, razing thousands of buildings and knocking out power lines, state media said. Residents awoke to scenes of devastation after the cyclone bore through swathes of southern Myanmar, uprooting trees, cutting phone lines and water pipes, and clogging streets with debris. Myanmar's state channel MRTV said that 109 people had been killed in Haing Gyi island, just off the coast of southwestern Ayeyawaddy division where the storm first hit. The authorities have declared disaster zones in the regions of Yangon, Ayeyawaddy, Bago, Mon and Karen states. MRTV said that about 20,000 houses have been destroyed on Haing Gyi island, and 92,706 people there were now homeless. In one mainland township in Ayeyawaddy, 75 percent of all homes were believed to be destroyed, the channel said, adding that authorities had launched a rescue operation in the region.[Source: AFP, May 4, 2008]

Nargis made landfall around the mouth of the Ayeyawaddy (Irrawaddy) river, about 220 kilometers (137 miles) southwest of Yangon, before hitting the country's economic hub. The cyclone brought down power and phone lines. The coastal area of Ayeyawaddy appears worst hit by the natural disaster, but Yangon was also battered. Traffic lights, billboards and street lamps littered the roads after being knocked over by strong winds. Trees in the leafy city were uprooted, crushing buildings and cars, while water pipes were also cut, forcing people out onto the streets with buckets to try and buy water from the few shops that remained open. Roofs of houses have been torn away, while only a few taxis and buses -- which tripled their fares -- braved the debris-clogged streets. Electricity supplies and telecommunications in Yangon have been cut since late Friday night as the storm bore down from the Bay of Bengal, packing winds of 190-240 kilometers (120-150 miles) per hour.

Nargis is the deadliest named cyclone in the North Indian Ocean Basin, as well as the second deadliest named cyclone of all time, behind Typhoon Nina of 1975, in which 229,000 people died after the Banqiao Dam collapsed in China. Including unnamed storms like the 1970 Bhola cyclone, Nargis is the eighth deadliest cyclone of all time, but an uncertainty between the deaths caused by Nargis and those caused by other cyclones (like the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone), could put Nargis as seventh deadliest or higher, because the exact death toll is uncertain. Nargis was the first tropical cyclone to strike the country since Cyclone Mala made landfall in 2006, which was slightly stronger, but had a significantly lower impact. According to reports, Indian authorities had warned Burma about the danger that Cyclone Nargis posed 48 hours before it hit the country's coast. [Source: Wikipedia]

Deadliest Tropical Cyclones Rank (Name/Year, Region, Fatalities): 1) Bhola 1970, Bangladesh 500,000; 2) India 1839, India, 300,000; 3) Haiphong 1881 , Vietnam 300,000; 4) Nina 1975, China 229,000; 5) Nargis 2008 Myanmar 140,000. [Source: NOAA, MDR]

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Meteorological History of Cyclone Nargis

The first named storm of the 2008 North Indian Ocean cyclone season, Nargis developed on April 27 in the central area of Bay of Bengal. Initially it tracked slowly in northwest direction. Upon encountering favorable conditions, it quickly strengthened. Dry air briefly weakened the cyclone on April 29 but after that it heading east towards Myanmar and rapidly intensifying. On May 2, it attain peak winds of at least 165 km/h (105 mph). Some sources assessed peak winds of 217 km/h (135 mph), making it a weak Category 4 cyclone. The cyclone moved ashore into the Irrawaddy Delta of Myanmar at full force. It plowed through the delta, passing near Yangon, gradually weakening until dissipating near the border of Burma and Thailand.

Associated Press reported: “Meteorologists say the storm, which gathered strength in the Bay of Bengal and whipped up 120-mph winds, took an unusual track heading eastward into the densely populated delta region where a quarter of the nation's population live. Forecasters began tracking the cyclone April 28 as it first headed toward India. As projected, it took a sharp turn eastward, but didn't follow the typical cyclone track in that area leading to Bangladesh or Myanmar's mountainous northwest. Instead, it swept into the low-lying Irrawaddy delta in central Myanmar. The result was the worst disaster ever in the impoverished country. 'When we saw the (storm) track, I said, 'Uh oh, this is not going to be good,'' said Mark Lander, a meteorology professor at the University of Guam. ''It would create a big storm surge. It was like Katrina going into New Orleans.'' [Source: AP, May 7 and 8, 2008]

It was the first time such an intense storm hit the delta, said Jeff Masters, co-founder and director of meteorology at the San Francisco-based Weather Underground. He called it ''one of those once-in-every-500-years kind of things.'' ''The easterly component of the path is unusual,'' Masters said. ''It tracked right over the most vulnerable part of the country, where most of the people live.''

In the last week of April 2008, an area of deep convection persisted near a low-level circulation in the Bay of Bengal about 1150 kilometers (715 mi) east-southeast of Chennai, India. With good outflow and low wind shear, the system slowly organized as its circulation consolidated. At 0300 UTC on April 27, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) classified the system as a depression, and nine hours later the system intensified into a deep depression. At the same time, the Joint Typhoon Warning Center classified it as Tropical Cyclone 01B. With a ridge to its north, the system tracked slowly north-northwestward as banding features improved. At 0000 UTC, 5:30 AM Indian Standard Time, on April 28, the IMD upgraded the system to Cyclonic Storm Nargis while it was located about 550 kilometers (340 mi) east of Chennai, India. [Source: Wikipedia +]

On April 28 Nargis became nearly stationary while between ridges to its northwest and southeast. That day the JTWC upgraded the storm to cyclone status, the equivalent of a minimal hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale. Around the same time, the IMD upgraded Nargis to a severe cyclonic storm. The cyclone developed a concentric eye feature, which is an eyewall outside the inner dominant eyewall, with warm waters aiding in further intensification. Early on April 29, the JTWC estimated Nargis reached winds of 160 km/h (100 mph), and at the same time the IMD classified the system as a very severe cyclonic storm. Initially, the cyclone was forecast to strike Bangladesh or southeastern India. Subsequently, the cyclone became disorganized and weakened due to subsidence and drier air; as a result, deep convection near the center markedly decreased. At the same time, the storm began a motion to the northeast around the periphery of a ridge to its southeast. The circulation remained strong despite the diminishing convection, though satellite intensity estimates using the Dvorak technique indicated the cyclone could have weakened to tropical storm status. By late on April 29, convection had begun to rebuild, though immediate restrengthening was prevented by increased wind shear. +

On May 1, 2008, after turning nearly due eastward, Cyclone Nargis began rapidly intensifying, due to greatly improved outflow in association with an approaching upper-level trough. Strengthening continued as it developed a well-defined eye with a diameter of 19 kilometers (12 mi), and early on May 2, 2008 the JTWC estimated the cyclone reached peak winds of 215 km/h (135 mph) as it approached the coast of Burma, making it a Category 4 storm. At the same time, the IMD assessed Nargis as attaining peak winds of 165 km/h (105 mph). Around 1200 UTC on May 2, Cyclone Nargis made landfall in the Ayeyarwady Division of Burma at peak strength. The storm gradually weakened as it proceeded east over Burma, with its proximity to the Andaman Sea preventing rapid weakening. Its track turned to the northeast due to the approach of a mid-latitude trough to its northwest, passing just north of Yangon with winds of 130 km/h (80 mph). Early on May 3 the IMD issued its final advisory on the storm. It quickly weakened after turning to the northeast toward the rugged terrain near the Burma-Thailand border, and after deteriorating to minimal tropical storm status, the JTWC issued its last advisory on Nargis. +

Cyclone Nargis’s Katrina-Like Surge Inundates the Irrawaddy Delta 40 Kilometers Inland

Cyclone Nargis submerged about 783,000 hectares of paddies in 19 townships, or about 63 percent of the area's farmland, damaged crops equivalent to about 80,000 tons of grain, destroying 707,500 tons of stored rice as well as 85 percent of seed stocks. It also killed many draft animals, including 50 percent of the buffaloes, according to the PONREPP (Post-Nargis Recovery and Preparedness Plan, put together by U.N. and Association of Southeast Asian Nations officials working with the Myanmar government). "The storm surge was the major cause of the disaster," said Dieter Schiessl, director of the World Meteorological Organization's disaster risk reduction unit. Most of the dead and missing were in the low-lying Irrawaddy delta, home to 6 million people. Most fatalities were caused by tidal waves.

Jim Andrews, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather, told Associated Press that satellite photos taken after the storm showed flooding of similar magnitude to that of Hurricane Katrina. He said water covered thousands of square miles in the Irrawaddy Delta, although it was unclear how deep the water was. "It's a similar kind of land to New Orleans ... an intricate network of tidal creeks and openings that allow easy access for a powerful storm surge to penetrate right into populated land," said Andrews. "The impact was maybe the same order of magnitude as Hurricane Katrina.” [Source: AP, May 7, 2008]

Associated Press reported: “The storm made landfall early Saturday at the mouth of the Irrawaddy River, its battering winds pushed a wall of water as high as 12 feet some 25 miles inland, laying waste to villages and killing tens of thousands. Most of the dead were in the delta, where farm families sleeping in flimsy shacks barely above sea level were swept to their deaths. Almost 95 percent of the houses and other buildings in seven townships were destroyed, Myanmar's government says. U.N. officials estimate 1.5 million people were left in severe straits. ''When you look at the satellite picture of before and after the storm the effects look eerily similar to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in how it inundated low-lying areas,'' said Ken Reeves, director of forecasting for [Source: AP, May 8, 2008 :::]

The Irrawaddy delta ''is huge and the interaction of water and land lying right at sea level allowed the tidal surge to deliver maximum penetration of sea water over land,'' Reeves said. ''Storms like this do most of their killing through floods, with salt water being even more dangerous than fresh water.'' The delta had lost most of its mangrove forests along the coast to shrimp farms and rice paddies over the past decade. That removed what scientists say is one of nature's best defenses against violent storms. :::

''If you look at the path of the (cyclone) that hit Myanmar, it hit exactly where it was going to do the most damage, and it's doing the most damage because much of the protective vegetation was cleared,'' said Jeff NcNeely, chief scientist for the International Union for Conservation of Nature. ''It's an expensive lesson, but it has been one taught repeatedly,'' he said. ''You just wonder why governments don't get on this.'' :::

Lack of Preparation and Warnings Exacerbates the Cyclone Nargis Disaster

Associated Press reported: “Despite assertions by Myanmar's military government that it warned people about the storm, critics contend the junta didn't do enough to alert the delta and failed to organize any evacuations, saying that made the death toll worse. ''Villagers were totally unaware,'' said 38-year-old Khin Khin Myawe, interviewed in the hard-hit delta town of Labutta. ''We knew the cyclone was coming but only because the wind was very strong. No local authorities ever came to us with information about how serious the storm was.'' [Source: AP, May 8, 2008 :::]

“The India Meteorological Department, one of six regional warning centers set up by the World Meteorological Organization, began sending regular storm advisories April 27. The information appeared in Myanmar's state-run newspapers, radio and television 48 hours ahead of the storm. But the international advisories said nothing about a storm surge. And Myanmar, unlike its neighbors Bangladesh and India, has no radar network to help predict the location and height of surges, the WMO said. :::

“There also wasn't any coordinated effort on the part of the junta to move people out of low-lying areas, even though information was available about the expected time and location of landfall. ''How is it possible that there was such a great death toll in the 21st century when we have imagery from satellites in real time and there are specialized meteorology centers in all the regions?'' said Olavo Rasquinho of the U.N. Typhoon Committee Secretariat. :::

“Bangladesh has a storm protection system that includes warning sirens, evacuation routes and sturdy towers to shelter people, measures that were credited with limiting the death toll from last year's Cyclone Sidr to 3,100. Atiq A. Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies and a disaster specialist, said Myanmar's death toll would have been lower if it had such a system. ''Taking some action to move people from affected areas would have dramatically helped reduce the numbers of causalities. Absolutely,'' Rahman said. :::

“But junta officials and some weather experts said evacuating a large area with millions of residents would have been nearly impossible, given the poor roads, the distance to some villages and the likely refusal of some families to leave. ''Even if they warned them, they can't go anywhere. Or they are afraid to go anywhere because they are afraid of losing their property,'' said Lander, the University of Guam professor. ''It is debatable how much of a mass exodus you could have had.'' :::

Lack of Radar Hampered Cyclone Nargis Warnings

Eliane Engeler of Associated Press wrote: “The government of Myanmar told the United Nations it warned its population of the devastating cyclone it lacked a radar to predict the high tidal waves that caused most of the fatalities, the U.N. weather agency said. Myanmar's meteorology department started to send out warnings six days before Cyclone Nargis hit the coast, based on information from World Meteorological Organization offices around the world, "The storm surge was the major cause of the disaster," said Dieter Schiessl, director of the World Meteorological Organization's disaster risk reduction unit. The wind speed was correctly forecast, he said. But "the problem was the lack of a radar network to monitor the storm," Schiessl said. [Source: Eliane Engeler, Associated Press, May 8, 2008 <<]

Myanmar told the worldwide organization that it had warned the population in newspapers, television and radio broadcasts of the impending storm, he said. Schiessl said his organization was unable to verify how the warning information was used by the authorities and "what really reached individuals." He said the World Meteorological Organization did not know if the Myanmar authorities had the capacity to predict tidal waves. "In a storm surge, the shape of the ocean floor and the shape of the coast has a significant impact on the dimension of a storm surge in a specific geographical location," said Schiessl. "That information can only be generated locally." Tropical cyclones have hit the country on average only once in 40 years, a reason that preparedness may not have been a top priority for Myanmar, he said. <<

Cyclone Nargis and Global Warming

Associated Press reported: “Some environmentalists suggested global warming may have played a role. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that warming oceans could contribute to increasingly severe cyclones with stronger winds and heavier rains. ''While we can never pinpoint one disaster as the result of climate change, there is enough scientific evidence that climate change will lead to intensification of tropical cyclones,'' said Sunita Narain, director of the Indian environmental group Center for Science and Environment. ''Nargis is a sign of things to come,'' she said. ''The victims of these cyclones are climate change victims and their plight should remind the rich world that it is doing too little to contain its greenhouse gas emissions.'' [Source: AP, May 8, 2008 :::]

Weather experts, however, are divided over whether global warming is a factor in catastrophic storms. At a January conference of the American Meteorological Society, some postulated warmer ocean temperatures may actually reduce the strength of cyclones and hurricanes. Masters, at Weather Underground, said Wednesday that in the case of Nargis, the meteorological data in the Indian Ocean region ''is too short and too poor in quality to make judgments about whether tropical cyclones have been affected by global warming.'' :::

Superstitions and Cyclone Nargis

Melinda Liu wrote in Newsweek: “One thing is keeping many Burmese going: the hope that the cyclone might signal the end of Burma’s junta...Burmese widely view Cyclone Nargis a ‘divine intervention.”...Many devout Buddhists trace th catastrophe back to a violent sacrilege committed by the junta”—the killing of monks in other in the September 2007 Saffron Revolution.” Now the monster cyclone, with all its human suffering is bing taken as proof that the junta have lost the “mandate of heaven”—the supernatural right to govern.” [Source: Melinda Liu, Newsweek, May 19, 2008 /:\]

“Burma's generals are no less superstitious than their countrymen. They changed the country's name to Myanmar in 1989 on the advice of soothsayers. They decided "Burma" was unlucky...In 2005, the regime heeded astrologer advice and moved the country’s capital—at great expense—from Rangoon to Naypyidaw...The new capital escaped the worst of Nargis’s wrath, making the generals, look either prescient or blessed—if not just plain lucky.” /:\

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy,,, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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