THE PHILIPPINES is beginning to count the costs of the devastation caused by Category 4 Typhoon “Yolanda”—so far, nearly 6,000 people have died and 11.2 million people have been affected by the worst storm ever to hit the country. Damage to infrastructure and agriculture in seven regions has been placed at P35.2 billion. Could the residents of Leyte, Samar and other areas have prepared enough?

There was in fact no shortage of warning. Before the typhoon hit, the Department of Science and Technology's Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards (Project NOAH) warned several coastal communities of the possibility of three- to six-meter high “storm surges.”

Project NOAH predicted a wave height of 3.9 meters in Palawan, 4.5 meters in Tacloban, and 5.3 meters in Eastern Samar.

But the term “storm surge,” while commonly used overseas, was not familiar at the very least to residents of Tacloban, the peninsula that serves as the capital of Leyte province. The highly urbanized city became a wasteland as Yolanda, known internationally as “Haiyan” bore down on the Visayas.

According to the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa), a storm surge is an abnormal and temporary rise in water levels along a shore due to a tropical cyclone. A storm surge is typically caused by low pressure, high winds and high waves. The surge has the capability to cause catastrophic flooding on low-lying areas along the coast.

Tacloban mayor Alfred Romualdez, himself at the coast when Yolanda struck, said in several media interviews that storm surges should have been described as tsunami-like, which could have forced residents to flee to much higher ground.

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Pagasa has yet to determine the actual height of the storm surges that hit the Visayas.

Gov’t overwhelmed

According to the Australian Journal of Emergency Management, the highest storm surge recorded in history was caused by tropical cyclone Mahina in 1899, at Bathurst Bay, Australia. Reports said the surge was estimated to be 13 meters high.

After visiting Tacloban City, United Nations Humanitarian chief Valerie Amos noted the area still lacked medical facilities, food, clean water, and basic sanitation.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin admitted the government was unprepared for the strongest typhoon this year. "It [Yolanda] was too strong, signal number four. It appears that it was the strongest in the world. Any country that will be hit by it would experience the same," Gazmin was quoted as saying by the Philippine Star.

There would have been fewer casualties had the people in hazardous areas been transferred before the typhoon hit.

However, Amos commended the Philippine government on “their relief efforts so far, [despite being] under extremely challenging circumstances.”

For the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s Leonor Loor, criticisms especially from foreigners were quite unfair.

“You won’t be able to please everyone,” she said in an interview. “We lack the appropriate facilities compared with the facilities abroad.”

There was already a team arranged to for relief operations even before the typhoon struck, but the destruction caused by Yolanda was too much, paralyzing government activity, Loor said.

“Areas that had suffered more damage and a higher death rate were because they were inaccessible to the government,” Loor said.

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Gazmin, head of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), said it was important that the public learn terms like “storm surge” and “tsunami” to make sure preparations are adequate.

In retrospect

As early as Nov. 1, PAGASA spotted a low-pressure area above the Caroline Group of Islands, which turned into a tropical depression the next day.

On Nov. 5, weather forecasters predicted a super typhoon would enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility, and advised residents in the Visayas to prepare.

PAGASA raised storm signals in about 40 areas of the country on Nov. 7, with 10 areas placed under Signal No. 4 including Leyte, Samar, and Capiz.

Forecasts showed that Yolanda would bring intense rainfall, flashfloods, landslides, and storm surges in coastal areas.

Typhoon Yolanda first made landfall on Guiuan, Eastern Samar on Nov. 8. The tropical storm carried maximum sustained winds of 215 kilometers per hour (kph) near the center and gustiness of up to 250 kph, according to Pagasa’s severe weather bulletin. One of the most powerful typhoons recorded in history, super typhoon Yolanda forced President Benigno S. Aquino III to declare a state of national calamity.

Aside from the more than 5,000 dead, 26,233 were injured and 1,779 people remain missing, according to the latest NDRRMC report. More than a million homes were destroyed and areas in five regions still do not have power supply.

The work of rebuilding Tacloban and other devastated areas will be staggering.

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