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On a good day, the Philippines is a paradise. Its groupings of volcanic islands amid emerald seas give rise to hundreds of microclimates, making it one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. Over 22,500 miles of coastline — almost enough to encircle the globe at the equator — are dotted with pristine beaches and breathtaking views. To preserve this bit of Eden, enlightened leaders have set aside over 10 percent of the nation’s surface area in bioreserves to protect the unique flora and fauna for future generations.
On a bad day, the seas framing these postcard-perfect vistas grow restless in a way that’s familiar to all Filipinos. Indeed, tropical weather disturbances are so common on the islands that as much as a third of the average rainfall comes from cyclones — or, as Filipinos call them, bagyos. A typical year occasions as many as 18 to 20 cyclone systems of varying intensities. This frequency of storms means Filipinos know to take seriously the warnings of the government. Indeed, in the 24 hours before Typhoon Haiyan’s landfall, the government evacuated over 800,000 residents in low-lying areas. The Philippine Red Cross opened 1,200 shelters for approximately 300,000 of these residents.
On a very bad day, the low elevations and ample coastline can conspire to flood homes and drown the life out of communities. Such was the case with Tropical Storm Thelma in 1991. With sustained winds clocking a mere 45 mph, the storm struck the eastern Visayas Islands — the same area hit this weekend by Haiyan — with storm surges and as much as 22 inches of rain. With over 5,000 confirmed fatalities and 1,500 missing, Thelma became the deadliest storm in the island nation’s history.
Friday and Saturday were very bad days for the Philippines. As Haiyan made its approach, commentators remarked extensively on its extraordinary organization, and its near-record high levels of sustained winds. But in a country accustomed to cyclones, it isn’t the wind that damages so completely as to have, literally, wiped communities off the map. Instead, it was a Haiyan storm surge of 20 feet in low-lying areas that destroyed with such abandon.
Anyone in lower Manhattan during Superstorm Sandy last year knows what this looks like: sea water flooding into buildings, destroying infrastructure and causing greater damage than any storm’s gusts. In the regional hub of Tacloban, the airport terminal was destroyed by waves rising up as high as the airport’s second floor. Like Sandy, when the damages are assessed, it will be the storm surge that is remembered as the greatest and most destructive force.
The coming days will be as ugly as the storm itself. As many as 8 million Filipinos are reported to have been seriously affected by the storm; almost a million have been displaced. While the government did yeoman’s work evacuating residents, tens of thousands are still unaccounted for. While humanitarian relief organizations like the Philippine Red Cross pre-deployed many relief assets, roads that were washed away, or left impassable by debris have complicated incalculably those efforts to distribute food, water, and medical supplies. Tens of thousands more are hungry and in need of shelter and care. Their hunger will increase before it abates.
Those who have lived through a disaster of this size know, too, that there are other difficulties the Filipino people have yet to encounter, but will. These road blockages will also slow the return of electricity, create long lines for gasoline, and lengthen travel times to hospitals. The clean-up will commence slowly, too slowly for many. There may be outbreaks of cholera from the compromised water supply. This nightmare will not be over any time soon.
The coming days will be as ugly as the storm itself.
How are we to comprehend these storms? Certainly understanding is key to preparing for future responses. Particularly as we take stock of climate change and its implications, understanding the nature of this storm — its winds, but more significantly, its storm surges and rain-- will figure prominently into how governments minimize risk going forward. It will also shape how citizens understand and respond to weather-related warnings: the decision to shelter-in-place has hugely different consequences if your greatest fear is storm surge, not wind.
Soon, the public’s attention in the United States will move on to some other, more captivating topic. Before the long-term analysis begins, let us at least hope that this shift in subject won’t be too soon. Much more needs to be understood, but much help is still needed to save lives.
The United Nations has called upon countries to lend a hand — and to contribute aid — to this island nation. You can help, too. Humanitarian efforts like those of the American Red Cross, the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Relief Services are spending scarce dollars to buy and transport food, water, shelter and medical supplies. They are dealing with crises and complications; they need all of our help.
This program aired on November 13, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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