The Chistmas Day Storm - Typhoon GREG

[Excerpted from CNN and The Star]

On the Christmas night of 1996, a tropical storm (GREG) battered Borneo's west coast, brining the death toll to 182 (as of Jan. 1 1997). The storm destroyed more than 4,000 houses, and left some 3,000 people homeless with 200 to 300 migrants missing.

Tropical Storm GREG, which blew ashore in the east Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo Island from the South China Sea at 44 mph (70 kph) on Chistmas day, triggered heavy rains and floods that swelled rivers to overflowing, downed power lines and washed out road and communications links. It also ripped down houses and thatched huts, raging for several hours on Christmas night before dissipating and moving east.

Storm GREG's biggest blow was to Keningau, a small logging town 95 miles (150 km) south of Kota Kinabalu, capital of Sabah. Officials said 500 houses in nine villages along four rivers in the town were washed away. It was one of the worst storms to hit Sabah in living memory.

Malaysian Information Minister Mohamed Rahmat said the casualty rate could have been reduced if the nation had a better early warning system for storms. He said the Malaysian Meteorological Services Department had warned on Christmas eve that it expected heavy rain and strong winds from a tropical depression heading towards Sabah, without actually suggesting that a tropical storm was coming.

The Civil Defence Department is willing to set up an Integrated Catastrophes Warning system which warns and keeps the people informed about impending natural disasters.

The department's public relations and documentation staff officer Norhafifi Ismail said yesterday such a system would allow people more time to prepare for the disaster.

The system, he said, was capable of measuring wind velocity, temperature and depth of rivers. Its alert system comprised a variety of sirens of which the smallest could be heard as far as 5 km and the largest at 20km away.