The Real Calamity of Typhoon Haiyan

Super Typhoon HaiyanEvery so often a calamity of such magnitude comes along and turns the world upside down. The world however always rights itself, although many times not without significant change as compared to it’s previous state. The recent disaster here in the Philippines that left the city of Tacloban on the island of Leyte with a face lift (unrecognizable) is one such disaster. Some times you know that they are coming (disasters) but have no earthly idea how bad things can get or what the outcome might be.

First, I would like to apologize to my blog readers for being offline and absent for such a long time. It’s not totally Typhoon Haiyan’s (Yolanda’s) fault. I have experienced what many writers do and it’s called “writer’s something or other”. Actually, just getting settled here in the Philippines, and finishing up work on the house has consumed many more hours than I ever expected. I have a honey-do list that is so lengthy it could qualify as a novel.  It has been a retirement derailment of sorts which has taken me so far out of my groove I feel like I’m on the flip side (vinyl record lingo). So as the dust begins to settle, along comes a bitch of a storm called Yolanda and just rearranges life as we knew it. Anyhoo, I am hopefully back on track and should be able to contribute regularly to the blog.

As a long time resident in the field of meteorology (25 year career), I understand weather “phenomenon” better than most. I’m not bragging here but compared to the layman on the street, and as weather-wise as some people might be, I am able to sort through weather data and information with some degree of accuracy and with quick analysis skills, I can assimilate a now-cast (and short term forecast) better than some active prognosticators I know. My added experience in the Western Pacific (typhoon theater) has spanned more than 8 years living and forecasting in this region, so my qualifications somewhat precede me.

activetrack2My first glance at what would become Super Typhoon Haiyan was on Sunday, the 3rd of November when a friend back in the U.S. gave me a heads up on a developing low pressure center in the Intertropical Convergence Zone, or ITCZ, well to the east of the Philippines. The ITCZ is a zone of seasonal wind convergence and associated convection where most all tropical disturbances in the Pacific originate. This convergence zone stretches across the Pacific from Central America to Eastern Asia, and migrates to either side the equator, depending time of year.

Intertropical Convergence Zone

Intertropical Convergence Zone

Having desktop access to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite products enables me to make quick assessments of disturbances and storms based upon cloud imagery, available in many different spectrums. That day I took serious note of this tropical depression and told my wife “it looks like we could have a big storm heading this way.” By the next day (Monday morning), I told Teri that maybe she should inform her family that this storm looks serious enough that we should all begin taking some simple precautions. At this point though, there had been no local guidance provided from any authority other than the normal Tropical Cyclone Summary that is routinely issued by the Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC) in Hawaii. It was not until Tuesday the 5th that the storm was upgraded to a Tropical Storm.

Now, being that my brother-in-law is a long time local fisherman who owns his own livelihood (boat) and knows most all the other fishermen in the village, I thought it would be prudent to communicate to him that he consider taking some precautions with his fishing boat. He could also take the liberty of providing all his peers a heads up. At this point, JTWC had the forecast track passing directly over our area (Calbayog City, Samar) and they were just now discussing upgrading this storm to a typhoon. As serious as this storm appeared to me, nobody here seemed to be riled up about it. As I talked to some of the locals, I kept getting the same response – “Oh, no problem, we have many Bagyo (Bagyo means Typhoon) like this before…no problem.” It’s as though everyone in our Barangay seems to think our geographical location lends absolute protection from storms. Because the village of Tomaligues is situated between two small coastal mountains (large hills), it does afford the community some protection from storm generated winds. But, as much as I can’t begin to explain the “Venturi” effect or likelihood of a storm surge to the commoners here – many who’s English vocabulary is pretty much limited to the word “English” – I could not help the community understand that these two little mountains would provide no protection from a direct hit from a super typhoon. I quickly realized that I was wasting my time trying to make in-rows communicating to the community and it’s elders. So I turned my focus to the family to make sure we were prepared. We still had plenty of time.

On Wednesday-Nov 6th, I walked across the street to the little sari-sari store with my two oil lamps to get them both filled with lamp oil, which the nice elderly lady happens to sell there. She must have noticed the sense of urgency on my face and she asked me about my need to fill the lamps. I exclaimed “because the typhoon is coming”. With a look of curiousness, she asked “Typhoon?” and I responded back to her with a big emphatic smile, “yes typhoon…Super Typhoon!”  At this point her eyes widened and with nervousness in her voice she says “what super typhoon?”. It was at this moment I realized that this entire community had no idea that potentially within 48 hours we could all be found homeless and floating in the ocean. I also realized herein lies the “real calamity” at hand…there are no effective or dependable communications here, nor is there a local warning system in place, and aside from that hit and miss information which trickles down out of Manila via radio or TV (providing all systems are operational), nobody is paying much attention! These people were looking down the rifle barrel and had no idea they were looking directly at a magnum shell. At this point, if this storm remained on track and the storm center passed just to the north of Calbayog City, we would have experienced a certain fate – and potentially very similar to the one that was dealt to Tacloban.

Samar Eastern Visayas

Samar Eastern Visayas

Because of Samar’s physical location, Samar is in the heart of the Western Pacific typhoon belt and although Eastern Samar is prone to taking a real lashing from storms, the geophysical features of Samar Island include some rough mountainous terrain which can somewhat disrupt a storms circulation, lessening the effects of the strongest winds on the western seaboard. The location of other smaller islands to the near west also diminish the ocean “fetch” area which is needed for the creation of large sea waves or significant storm surge. Basically, there are only 18 kilometers of ocean that separates Western Samar from the adjacent islands to the west and helps to prohibit wind generated sea waves (or surge). With that limited fetch area, waves tend to be of minimal impact as compared to what Leyte and Eastern Samar experienced, both of which have eastern exposures to the Pacific Ocean. However, if the storm center did pass to our north, and we had be been experiencing enhanced Habagat (southwest monsoon) conditions, we would have felt much more wind and seen some coastal flooding as a result of the winds being “onshore” as opposed to what we actually received. There is also the timing of wind, water and high tides to create the perfect conditions for surge and flooding. Here in Calbayog City, we dodged the bullet. Damage locally was limited to some misplaced tin roof panels, a few leaking thatched roofs and few lost banana trees (banana trees are the first victims in any storm due to their weak structural nature). As it turned out, Yolanda was not a problem…for us. It’s what happens after a disaster of this magnitude effecting nearby areas that becomes the real concern.

At first, my attempts were to help advise the community to the seriousness of this storm. By the time the storm was within 48 hours, my concerns turned on family safety and security. I was finally able to convince my wife and her sister and her husband that this was no “normal” typhoon. This was a real danger and now that the fox was in the hen house, I had garnered their full attention. Did the rest of the family make the same preparations we were making – no, but I could tell there was now some genuine concern. I had them thinking worse case scenario, and I guess that’s the best I could have hoped for. I felt as long as my brother-in-law’s boat was safely moored, they really did all they could do. Except for having plenty of candles and drinking water, there is not much else the many folks here can prepare with. A few men checked out their homes and a few re-secured or added additional thatching to their roofs. Some guys just threw lumber or extra used motorcycle tires on the thatch to help hold it down in the wind. To the many residents with tin roofs and those who had no where with all to make preparations…well, it was simply a wait and see scenario.

Provisions

Provisions

It was not until Thursday, the day before the storm took Tacloban on the island of Leyte, that a village official here took to the streets with megaphone in hand warning the residents of the coming typhoon. Although I cannot understand the Waray language (local dialect), I could tell that the delivery of the warning message had no tone of either sense of urgency or concern. Just a new version of your typical everyday typhoon warning, with only the times, dates and names changed. Even after the announcement by the village official, folks just seemed to go about their usual business. Women doing laundry, kids playing in the streets, the fishermen hanging out at the seawall all telling their stories about ‘the one’ that got away. And, karaoke was still bellowing out of the jungle. By Thursday afternoon, we had made several trips to town and were well stocked with water, canned chips, cookies, cartons of milk, and anything else that was not immediately perishable. Teri even brought home a fifth of Jack Daniels (obviously for first aid sterilization purposes). We had candles, lamps, flashlights, batteries, plenty of food and water. Because we lived in a fishing village, barring all the boats sinking, there would be fresh fish caught daily. Our rice harvest just came in a few days earlier so we were in a good position for staple foods. In my mind, we were as ready as we could be. It was also later in this day (Thursday) that we first witnessed the previous 12 hour storm track history plot which was indicating a more westward track than forecast. This was good news for us as the new track positioned the storm passing to our south, which put us north of the Eye. Thank goodness for us. Bad news for the good city of Tacloban and other points to our south and east. It was satisfying to know that we were well prepared and that we were safe, and with no damage to property. But for me personally, it was just another exercise in futility as the locals now all can say, “See, we told you so!”

To be continued…..”The Aftermath”