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A closer and deeper look at storm surges

What happened in Eastern Visayas and nearby areas calls for a closer and deeper look at storm surges. The number of fatalities, injured or missing, as well as the extent of damage to crops, property, and infrastructure, have raised many questions that must be resolved, if we are to prevent or at least minimize similar consequences of natural disasters in the future.

Senator Manny B. VillarThe Associated Press, in a report by Oliver Teves and Christopher Bodeen and published on November 11, said the government did not anticipate the six-meter storm surges that swept through Tacloban City. The report quoted weather.com meteorologist Nick Wiltgen, who pointed out that the storm surge alert issued by the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) before the typhoon hit was “buried in a single sentence near the very bottom of a very long bulletin that mostly focused on wind alerts.” And Wilgen emphasized, “If we as weather communicators want people to get the message about storm surge, we can’t bury the lead. It has to be a blaring, unmistakable headline.”

I found the observation true when I scanned online reports about the super- typhoon Yolanda. In one of the reports, most of the details were about the strength of the winds and the direction of Yolanda’s movement. At the bottom of the report, Project NOAH (Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards of the Department of Science and Technology) warned of dangerous storm surges of as high as five meters.

In the same AP report, Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras was quoted as saying: “I was talking to the people of Tacloban, They said ‘we were ready for the wind. We were not ready for the water’.” And he said that the government tried its best to warn everybody, but the typhoon, especially the storm surge, was “really just overwhelming.”

In our younger days we learned about the two weather seasons in the Philippines – the dry season, which just meant sunny and warm days; and the rainy season, which usually began in June, peaked in August, and was usually gone by November or December. Later in life we learned about flash floods, the La Niño and El Niño phenomena and tsunami, but storm surge did not become part of our weather language before Yolanda.

Actually, we have had very recent experiences with storm surges. However, given the measures put in place before the onslaught of Yolanda on November 8, and probably because of the relatively small damage caused by the previous storm surges, plus the fact that nobody died, we were not really prepared for the horrifying harm that Yolanda brought us.

In September, 2011, typhoon Pedring’s strong winds caused a storm surge that battered the seawall of Manila Bay and flooded Roxas Boulevard and nearby streets, including Ermita, Kalaw, Taft Avenue, Ayala Boulevard, and Mabini.

The storm surge also flooded the ground floor of the US Embassy, Sofitel Hotel, as well as portions of other reclaimed areas of the Manila Bay. The Philippine Red Cross evacuated some residents of Isla Putting Bato and Parola, Del Pan, and Binondo.

About a year later in 2012, Manila experienced its second storm surge, this time caused by typhoon Gener. Again, Roxas Boulevard and the bay walk disappeared under water, closing the boulevard and nearby roads to traffic.

In 2007, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) funded a study called “Hazard Mapping and Assessment for Effective Community-Based Disaster Risk Management,” which defined storm surge as the rise in sea level above the normal level reached during high tide. A storm surge is caused by a strong cyclone or typhoon, while a tsunami is caused by earthquakes.

One of the observations I heard in the aftermath of Yolanda was that many people who refused to leave their homes in the coastal areas on the typhoon’s path would have heeded the authorities’ warning if they used the terms tsunami or tidal wave, which are known to most Filipinos, instead of storm surge, which had remained a vague term until after the Yolanda tragedy.

We must accept that storm surges are here to stay, and we should anticipate more frequent storm surges, because the Philippines lies on the path of typhoons, which scientists expect to become stronger and more destructive because of climate change.

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