Haiyan and the vocabulary of a warmer World 

Survivors move past the damage caused by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban city, Leyte province in central Philippines on Monday, November 11, 2013. Typhoon-ravaged Philippine islands faced an unimaginably huge relief effort, as bloated bodies lay uncollect
Survivors move past the damage caused by Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban city, Leyte province in central Philippines on Monday, November 11, 2013. Typhoon-ravaged Philippine islands faced an unimaginably huge relief effort, as bloated bodies lay uncollected and uncounted in the streets and survivors plead for food, water and medicine. -- PHOTO: AP
Residents watch as others throw goods from a warehouse in Guiuan, Eastern Samar province, central Philippines on Monday, November 11, 2013, after typhoon Haiyan devastated the town. -- PHOTO: AP
Residents watch as others throw goods from a warehouse in Guiuan, Eastern Samar province, central Philippines on Monday, November 11, 2013, after typhoon Haiyan devastated the town. -- PHOTO: AP
A surivor walks among the debris of houses destroyed by Super Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban in the eastern Philippine island of Leyte on November 11, 2013. The United States, Australia and the United Nations mobilised emergency aid to the Philippines as
A surivor walks among the debris of houses destroyed by Super Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban in the eastern Philippine island of Leyte on November 11, 2013. The United States, Australia and the United Nations mobilised emergency aid to the Philippines as the scale of the devastation unleashed by Haiyan emerged on November 11. -- PHOTO: AFP  

ABOUT a year ago, as leaders, negotiators and scientists gathered in Doha for a United Nations climate change conference, typhoon Bopha struck the Philippines, killing more than 500 people and leaving many thousands homeless. It was the strongest typhoon that year. 

When the UN climate change conference opened in Warsaw on Monday, the Philippines had, just three days earlier, been struck by another typhoon. Haiyan is one of the most powerful typhoons on record – and left at least 10,000 people dead, according to Filipino officials.

One aspect emerging from the rubble of Tacloban, the provincial city of Leyte island hardest hit by the typhoon – called Yolanda by locals – was the lack of preparedness for a storm of such a scale and intensity.

Part of the vocabulary of climate change talks are new buzzwords like “adaptation” and “resilience”.  US President Barack Obama’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience launched in November last year defines resilience as “the ability to anticipate, prepare for, and adapt to changing conditions and withstand, respond to, and recover rapidly from disruptions”.

The people of Tacloban are used to typhoons. So when the warning came that a big one was on its way, they made the usual preparations. Homes near the sea were evacuated. Those in solid houses some distance from the beach just stocked up on supplies – batteries, candles, canned food – and made sure doors and windows were secure. As they had done before, they would ride this one out.

The Tan family live in a solidly built house midway between the airport and the town. Two rivers run quite close by and the sea is a couple of kilometres away, but in their concrete house they felt safe.

It was one thing when their roof got torn off in the pre-dawn darkness by the howling 300km wind. But when water started gushing into their house from all sides, it was something the Tans had never quite experienced.

As the water forced its way into the single-storey house and rose to the height of the doorways inside, the family of five, including Rosario and Nestor Tan, both in their 80s, and four of their teenage grandchildren, managed to climb a ladder up to the ceiling beams. They spent two hours on the beams exposed to the rain and shivering in the raging wind.

And unlike many other people in the city that morning, they survived.

What was different about this typhoon was its size and power – and the storm surge it generated. Anecdotes from survivors show that despite official warnings, many did not grasp how dangerous the typhoon would be.

“It seems nobody really knew what a storm surge meant; even the local government. The problem is the warnings did not explain the terminology,” said the Tans’ daughter Cecilia Tan Mercado, a senior officer with the Multilateral Fund of the Montreal Protocol in Canada. Ms Mercado was in close touch with her parents until all power in Tacloban failed – and they had told her they were well prepared.

“We are used to typhoons, and people close to the water evacuate. But if you are further away in a concrete house, you don’t bother,” she said.

Storm surges accounted for the loss of thousands of lives in New Orleans (Hurricane Katrina, 2005) and Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta (Cyclone Nargis, 2008). The US National Hurricane Centre defines a storm surge as “produced by water being pushed toward the shore by the force of the winds moving cyclonically around the storm”.

The storm surge propelled by the vast spinning winds of Typhoon Haiyan – perhaps the most powerful storm ever recorded – pushed up waves of water in quick succession, producing an overwhelming, grinding tsunami-like effect. Thousands have been killed, and those who survived are stunned at the scale of the damage.

Secretary to the Cabinet Rene Almendras told reporters at a news conference on Monday: “The situation is bad, the devastation has been significant. In some cases the devastation has been total.’’

Grim lessons will be drawn from Typhoon Haiyan. One of them will be how to effectively communicate the true nature of events like typhoons to vulnerable populations, before the storms hit. Adaptation and resilience are critical especially when, as population and economic activities grow, more people and more economic assets are located in vulnerable areas. 

Many scientists are convinced that warmer seas contributed to the size and speed of Typhoon Haiyan.

Mr Naderev Saño, the Philippines’ head of delegation at Warsaw, wrote in a comment in The Guardian newspaper on Monday: “Science tells us that simply, climate change will mean more intense tropical storms. As the Earth warms up, so do the oceans.

“The energy that is stored in the waters off the Philippines will increase the intensity of typhoons and the trend we now see is that more destructive storms will be the new norm.”

In its fifth working report released in Warsaw on Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said: “It is virtually certain that the upper ocean (0-700m) warmed from 1971 to 2010.”

The global ocean will continue to warm during the 21st century, it added. Meanwhile from 1901 to 2010, the global mean sea level has risen by 19cm.

The report also said: “Limits to resilience are faced when thresholds or tipping points associated with social and/or natural systems are exceeded, posing severe challenges for adaptation.”

Typhoon Haiyan seemed to fit right into that. If ever there is a Category 6 (the highest now is Cat 5) for storms, Haiyan would probably be the first to fall into the category, wrote Mr Saño.  While there was a lot of information on the size of Typhoon Haiyan and where it was heading, its sheer scale was beyond both the experience and the worst expectations of the people.

Typhoon Haiyan has been a tragic – and expensive – lesson for resilience and adaptation in a warming world. 

nirmal@sph.com.sg