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What have we learned from typhoons?

Analyses of problem-solving science that advises political decision-making is still needed to offest disaster

What have we learned from typhoons?

Victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) in this file photo call attention to unfinished rehabilitation and climate change mitigation programs. (Photo by Vincent Go)

Published: September 26, 2017 09:08 AM GMT

Updated: September 26, 2017 09:11 AM GMT

Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda to Filipinos) struck Tacloban and nearby areas on Nov. 8, 2013, killing more than 6,300 people. What have we learned since then?

Typhoons strike anywhere along our coastline. There always seems to be something new that shows our inadequate preparation. Extreme weather plays out in different ways, exposing many difficulties.

First, governments are designed for continuity, the status quo. Second, warnings need translation in context. Third, people may not know the best action to be taken in a given event.

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Fourth, and perhaps most elementary, a major percentage of Filipino families are highly vulnerable. Fifth is climate change — how have we prepared for this other than just play politics?

Government is designed for normal times, not for a crisis response of immediate and large-scale ground operations. The military and police are often the first line of engagement. Governments by nature are bureaucratic and slow, with many checks and balances. Government projects are easily delayed.

Now, various protocols and crisis teams are being designed to improve both national and local responses.

It is no longer enough to say a typhoon is coming.

Manila has been traditionally focused on typhoon speed. For decades, the only warning was in terms of wind speed; nothing on the volume of water being carried.

But slow moving depressions or storms can be more dangerous than a typhoon. On Nov. 2, 1991, Typhoon Uring (95 km/h) landed with minor effect in Tacloban, in the central part of the Philippines, where the rivers flow in the opposite direction to any approaching storm.

Uring turned into disaster on the other side of the ridge as the slow moving storm filled up two rivers moving with the storm’s flow. Where the two rivers joined just before Ormoc City, they formed a massive wall of water.

The list of disastrous combinations of event type, landscape and vulnerability is decades long.

Typhoons developing in the Pacific, while analysed at the national level, have to be translated into the potential of specific hazards on the ground where they hit. People need local knowledge of the land, infrastructure and high-risk areas of flood and landslide.

Most people especially in urbanized environments today, don’t know where hazards are greatest and how to avoid them. People need somewhere to evacuate beyond a school, and resources to sustain them, if warnings are to lead to effective action.

Vulnerability is also a matter of one-parent families, infants and elderly, house construction materials and exposure to hazards. For many poor families, disaster doesn’t need super-force typhoons.

Science tells us that the number of typhoons worldwide is not increasing. But their severity is growing; ocean temperatures of the Pacific Ocean (one third of the world’s surface) have reached the highest on record.

Much of the future depends on what is planned and done now. As with economic development where the future belongs to those who do the planning, disaster risk reduction is about planning and following through on all points of the problem with all involved.

Will we just treat the symptoms of localized problems without addressing the critical cause?

The Yolanda landscape in Tacloban can be deceiving, seeing Santo Nino Church rebuilt and the vibrant, sturdy street food market nearby.

But beyond this, not much has changed along the shoreline. People are back on the front line no-build-zone. Hopefully, they have evacuation centers, time, resources, and the organization to get to safety with the next warning. 

Given current levels of carbon emissions and the lack of strategic shifts in energy planning, we must brace for a sea level rise and temperature climatic shifts.

Like the storm surge in Tacloban that people couldn’t envisage, how can we explain climate shifts that have not yet happened to people?

Can science be preventative or at least precautionary or is it only experience and suffering (of the poor) that count?

What does Yolanda mean for us now? It is not simply about 30m2 homes, safely away from rivers and landslide-able slopes. It’s about livelihood.

People are vulnerable when they are economically excluded and are unsuccessful in the most basic upliftment of their household.

Presently, despite all the financial support for housing the peoples’ inability to participate in the local economy determines to the greater extent their vulnerability. Building evacuation centers and systems now is for many people more realistic than individual safe housing, which to include all may take another 25 years. More infra and adaptation is needed, but most of all is the support of community life where hopes and opportunities are shared and perhaps the greatest reason in successful resilience.

The typhoon season was always an occasion to clamp down with the first signs of a change in local weather. The study of typhoons first became critical in the galleon trade of Hong Kong and Manila in the late 19th century. Manila Observatory was the first to map the atmospheric pressure variances at sea and land telling of coming typhoons and tracking them.

El Nino, another phenomenon of the Pacific has been around for some time and its role in drought development in different parts of the world (and more intense rain in others) highlights the importance of understanding how it develops and is compounded by climate change. We still need measurements and analyses of problem-solving science that advises political decision-making.

Father Pedro Walpole, SJ, is the Director of Research at the Institute of Environmental Science for Social Change in the Philippines and the Coordinator of Reconciliation with Creation for the Jesuit Conference Asia Pacific. He holds a doctorate in land use change from King’s College in London. He is a practitioner in sustainable environment and community land management in Southeast Asia.


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