How the weather service failed to warn of the Gauteng and KZN storms

The South African Weather Services (SAWS) has admitted they failed to warn the vast majority of citizens about the serious storms that swept across Gauteng and Kwazulu Natal earlier this week.

The senior manager of stakeholder relations at SAWS, Ndivhuho Mafela said on Thursday it had come clean and that it needed to improve its infrastructure and community reach.

The CEO of SAWS, Jerry Lengoasa also said they were “reflecting” on their role as the weather service and the “challenges” of these events.

Lengoasa was speaking at a press briefing in Pretoria after the storms in KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng killed around 13 people and damaged countless buildings and property.

Kwazulu Natal premier Willies Mchunu earlier told media that more than 133 schools had been affected in the province, including some which will be used as marking centres for matric exams. “The estimated costs to repair the damaged schools is about R136-million. Government will do everything in its power to ensure that learners who are preparing for the final matric examination are not affected‚” he said.

A number of issues were brought to light which could have prevented the large scale damage caused by the storm.

The SAWS released information about the storm to their “first level users” like the National Disaster Management Centre, insurance companies and via social media.

Lengoasa noted that the vast majority of ordinary citizens did not receive critical “life and livelihood-saving information”.

He said they issued their warnings in time, but they would have been able to predict heavier rainfall had their monitoring tools been working. “We could have issued the severe weather warning probably much earlier,” he said.

He also said only one of their radars were fully operational because they are 10 years old. “Some of the most important monitoring tools like the Durban radar was not operational at the time of need due to system breakdown,” he said.

Lengoasa said one of their biggest challenges was funding. He said their infrastructure maintenance and forecasting capability required investments to be made.

He said the SAWS sent about 1000 SMSes to national disaster risk managers who then decide what to do with the information. They also send the information to the National Disaster Management Centre, which is responsible for activating action from support services like the South African National Defence Force.

He said the SAWS is planning on launching an SMS service to citizens where they can receive weather alerts. This, Lengoasa says will be rolled out in March next year on World Meteorology Day.

A media official at the Centre for Disaster Management said the eThekwini municipality had an updated plan to deal with impending storms but would not elaborate on the details.

Bobby Peek, director of Groundwork, a non-profit environmental justice organisation, told The Daily Vox the devastation caused in KZN could have been avoided. “Disaster management knew about the storm the day before and they could have easily told everyone to stay home. They ignored the weather bureau,” he said.

The Ethekwini Municipality has sent out a warning to Durban residents of two approaching cold fronts however these are not expected to be as bad as the storm that hit Durban on Tuesday. A spokesperson for the Kwazulu Natal premier told The Daily Vox that disaster management teams are on full alert, and warned that low-lying areas are at most risk so rescue teams are on standby.

Additional reporting by Lizeka Maduna

Featured image by Stephanie Naidoo

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