Cyclone Aila and Weird Priorities

The eye of Cyclone Aila before making landfall near Kolkata
The eye of Cyclone Aila before making landfall near Kolkata

On the 25th of May, 2009, a cyclone (or tropical storm, depending on where/when you’re talking about) made landfall more or less over Kolkata (formerly Calcutta).  From there it headed north, pounding Myanmar, Bangladesh, and India’s West Bengal state.   Various world news outlets report confirmed deaths from as few as 100 up to 231 or 300.  Thousands of people were missing.  Injuries, both directly from the storm and its damage, and amongst rescuers, is 6,000 or higher.  It’s estimated that over 5 million people are affected by the storm.  “Nijhum Dwip, a low-lying coastal island with 25,000 residents, was reportedly submerged.” (New York Times)

In addition to the human cost, the Sundarbans were hit hard as well.  The Sundarbans are the largest mangrove forest in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and habitat to hundreds of threatened Bengal tigers–perhaps as much as 25% of all Bengal tigers in existence.  It is feared that the storm surge may have polluted with salt water many of the sources of tigers’ fresh drinking water.

Cyclone Aila came very early before the monsoons, the first May storm of its size since 1989.  Aila was the 5th wettest tropical cyclone on record in India.  It saturated soil that is expected to receive another 118 inches of rain when the monsoons hit.  Aila alone caused as many as 40 landslides (with one source claiming nearly 100) in and around the town of Darjeeling, one of the most famous tea growing regions in the world.

Looking at maps from May and June ’09 posts on this India-local blog show several Darjeeling tea estates that were extremely close to or directly affected by these landslides.  Estates mentioned in the slide maps include Happy Valley Tea Estate, Singell Tea Estate, and Long View Tea Estate.  I haven’t yet found any information on whether any of the 26 deaths in Darjeeling are owners or employees of these (or other) tea estates.  According to Wikipedia’s article on the storm, at least 50,000 hectares (over 120,000 acres) of agricultural land was lost during the storm.

But here’s where the weird priorities come in.  The New York Times article linked above is the only mention I found in American media.  In the tea industry, it wasn’t until this last week that I heard anything about the storm.  And then, it was in the form of various people trying to raise money to help the Makaibari Tea Estate recover. Then I started looking and found an article by the World Tea News about the cyclone–again asking for aid, talking about the damage sustained by the Makaibari Tea Estate, and how they’re getting aid for recovery.

Makaibari?  Don’t get me wrong, it’s dreadful that they’ve lost workers’ homes, have a damaged factory, and lost 12 of their 1,509 acres of land.  I am especially fond of their second flush teas.  I hope that they heal the traumas of the event and have a speedy recovery of property and livelihoods.

But the tea industry (at least in English, as far as I can tell) is only talking about one farm?  Didn’t it occur to anyone that the cyclone may have damaged nearby farms?  Was it just that Makaibari’s CEO Rajah Banerjee sent out a dramatic press release about their plight that caused everyone to forget the other 86 Darjeeling tea plantations?  I would think that the folks at the World Tea News would have contacts at other Darjeeling estates and might contact them as sources for their story.  I’d think people would be raising money for the whole region, not just one farm.

I’ll try to see what else I can find about non-Makaibari tea estates and how they are doing and if I find something I’ll update this article.  In the mean time, check out this satellite image of Cyclone Aila to get a sense of how big the storm was.

Thanks go out to meteorologist Chris Warren of Seattle’s KING5 News for helping me figure out some weather data about the cyclone.

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