Article Published in THE STATESMAN

That Deadly Bolt from the Blue

Navtej Sarna

Seven years ago it made big bold screaming headlines; today those headlines are relegated to the back files of newspapers. That is what time does to tragedy.

Seven years ago a cool but vigorous breeze blew down the streets of North Delhi. And became, suddenly, a furious sound that burst upon us. Flames sprouted from an electricity pole at the Maurice Nagar crossing and we began to sprint for shelter as the transformation from cool and lovely to cool and deadly became complete. Today fear and bewilderment mark the memories of those terrifying minutes.

We had crouched in a college corridor as the ill wind swept past us. Caught in the backlash of a flippant generation, we had, even then as we crouched, begun to wonder - a la Snoopy - whether it was a bird, a place or what. Only to discover later that it had been a tornado. It had seemed a vicious magic device unleashed by an angry god. Striking down a narrow, unfortunate path, the storm had left huge trees uprooted, walls flattened, buses overturned, and many people dead.

There was a tossed-up statue, a murderous labyrinth of power lines, and a strange, almost unholy calm.

It lasted barely a few minutes. First, it attacked the senses as it came hurtling down with a flash from Shakti Nagar towards Maurice Nagar. Then, it attacked the body as it began to suck up everything in its way into its gigantic self. And, finally, it sped off losing its force gradually and emptying its bowls along the way.

A scooter going down Mall Road was deposited on the roof of Khalsa College, a soft drink kiosk near Delhi University’s Arts Faculty was found, battered and bent, nearly 500 meters away. Buses were flung a hundred meters off their course, and the human casualties were horrifying.

People who saw it from afar remember it today as a very beautiful cloud, but the weatherman it was who analyzed the vicious face of this funnel-shaped fury. Even as people hunted for a name to describe this phenomenon, scientists at the Meteorological Department pointed out that a tornado was a bit of a mystery, even to them.

It was not the same thing as a cyclone, they said. A cyclone has a diameter of at least 100 km and lasts several days. A tornado is rarely over a kilometer in diameter and lasts only a few moments. A rare happening was a tornado in the USA which lasted over seven hours.

Take a thunderstorm and add to it a combination of thermal and mechanical forces and you will get the ménage a trois of nature that goes by the name of tornado.

Rotating Winds

Winds rotating at a high speed usually in an anticlockwise direction form a whirlpool structure. A semi-cavity forms in the vortex with the centrifugal forces creating a vacuum, and this gives the tornado its destructive power. The enormous pressure difference sucks objects mercilessly into the seemingly insatiable belly of the storm and the debris which is collected gives the tornado its dark, ominous colour.

The tornado is a frequent happening in the USA. These short-lived, ferocious storms hit hard and fast and often in “families” of two or three. In an awesome 25 minutes in 1942, Baldwyn in Mississippi was hit by two tornadoes. A stunned Minnesota in 1951 saw an 83-ton railroad coach with 117 passengers swept 80-ft into the air and flung into a ditch. Oklahoma has been struck by over two dozen such storms since 1892.

Tornadoes are difficult to predict; the only prediction which can be made with any certainty is that of a severe thunderstorm. A tentative area of high tornado-potential can then be marked off. Sky warm stations in the USA manned by trained watchers keep a keen lookout for these storms. Localized destruction patterns help the community organize warnings and evacuations. Ironically, it is the frequency of the tornado that has established an effective warning system.

In India, tornadoes have usually occurred in rural areas; the Delhi tornado was probably the first to hit a thickly populated area. The absence of concrete structures in rural areas has kept casualties low.

But the 1963 a tornado that swept through 33 villages of the Cooch-Behar area left over 100 people dead and thousands homeless. Less credible is the tale of the 1892 tornado in the 24-Parganas where hailstones weighing 1.6 kg each were reportedly seen. The occurrence in largely rural areas has made reporting, recording and early sighting of tornadoes difficult in India.

Its enigmatic violent nature and tremendous destructive power make the tornado one of the most fierce of nature’s weapons. When it struck Delhi, it had left behind a fearsome night. We had watched in a daze as the area was cordoned off and relief work set in motion.

Searchlights had lit up the narrow path of destruction while fire engines and ambulances sounded through the night. The next day it had all seemed a bit too much to believe.

And as the initial shock wore away, the Delhi University wags went into action. One pointed out that only the front of a well-known girls’ college had been ravaged; another that the Delhi University Students’ Union would gherao the Vice-Chancellor in protest.