When super typhoon “Haiyan” (local name “Yolanda”) struck in 2013 it was the disaster-prone Philippines’ worst storm on record, with 7,350 people dead or missing.
Several factors caused the staggering death toll:
With gusts exceeding 305 kilometers (190 miles) per hour at first landfall, “Haiyan” was the strongest ever to hit land at the time. Typhoons more commonly reach peak velocity while still travelling over oceans.
The powerful front drove a giant wall of seawater called a storm surge, estimated to be 7.5 meters (24.6 feet) high, into coastal towns like Tacloban, a city of 240,000 people.
Overall, “Haiyan” tore across a group of islands with a combined area the size of Portugal.
The Philippines is the first major landmass on the Pacific Ocean’s typhoon belt. A wall of mountains on the coast of the main island of Luzon dampens some of the blows, but the smaller, flatter islands — such as those that lay in Haiyan’s path — are more exposed.
Much of Tacloban sits less than five meters above sea level. The town and others nearby were defenseless against the storm surge that funneled through a shallow bay sandwiched between Leyte and Samar islands.
Even though the hardest-hit areas received early warnings, the weather service and other officials later admitted that the victims were unfamiliar with the term “storm surge.”
The last deadly storm surge in Tacloban had hit in 1887, more than a century before “Haiyan.” In a country with scores of regional languages, the government also did not have local terms to be able to communicate the phenomenon to everyone.
After the disaster, the government agency worked with linguists to craft simpler meteorological terms to ensure the danger posed by typhoons, floods, landslides and other adverse events would be fully understood by all.
In a nation where one in five people earn less than two dollars a day, the people in “Haiyan’s” path stood out for their deep poverty. Many of the victims built their homes on the islands’ narrow coastal plains and lived off subsistence fishing and farming.
“Haiyan” destroyed or damaged 1.14 million houses, many of them made of cheap, flimsy materials that stood no chance against nature’s wrath.
Failure to evacuate
The national government, through a geohazard mapping program begun in 2006, had flagged most of the areas that were prone to the impacts of natural disasters.
However, local governments failed to evacuate many of the vulnerable population away from the danger zones, partly because they did not fully appreciate the threat and partly because they had not built enough shelters.
In the town of Hernani on Samar island, where “Haiyan” made the first of many landfalls, several families were wiped out by a storm surge when they left their flimsy shacks to ride out the storm at a low-lying school built along the coast, neighbors told.