In Typhoon-Heavy Western Pacific, Preparation Can Only Go So Far

Super Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines, destroying whole towns, killing thousands and displacing more than 600,000 people — and it raises questions about emergency policies and realities in Pacific coastal nations.

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As we mentioned earlier, the Philippines is no stranger to big storms. When it comes to typhoons, it's much like Tornado Alley in the American Midwest. Over the past 60 years, the region has seen an average of almost 20 typhoons a year.

As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, the country is nonetheless hard-pressed to prepare for something as big as this.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Typhoon Haiyan is likely to be the deadliest storm ever in a country that's long been beset by bad weather. Since 1951, the biggest death tolls from the five worst typhoons ranged from 1,000 fatalities to 5,000. The number of dead from Haiyan is thought to be nearer 10,000. And even though the government had days of warning, a storm with maximum winds of 230 miles an hour is going to cause havoc.

As in most typhoons and hurricanes, the deadliest part was the water. Tacloban City is on the coast of the island of Leyte. Storm surge expert Carl Drews, at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, has in fact studied that very coastline.

CARL DREWS: The worst surge happened in Tacloban City, the end of a gulf where the gulf narrows. And so, that is about the worst path and the worst place for surges right there.

JOYCE: Water piles up along shallow coastlines in a storm. In this case the surge was funneled toward shore, as happened with Katrina in New Orleans and Sandy in New York. To make matters worse, sea level in the region has been rising fast over the past few decades.

William Sweet is an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He says the rate of rise in that area is four to five times the world average. That's because, for decades, trade winds and currents have been pushing water across the ocean toward the Western Pacific.

WILLIAM SWEET: You raise the elevation of the ocean and the surge is more readily able to come ashore.

JOYCE: Reports form the Philippines say storm surge in some places was as high as 15 feet. As for the storm itself, Sweet says it's in the category of a once-in-a- century event. The region gets a lot of big typhoons because, he says, there's a lot of warm water there. Heat from the ocean is the fuel for typhoons.

SWEET: The Western Pacific warm pool has some of the warmest waters on the Earth. This has a tremendous reservoir to feed these super typhoons.

JOYCE: But what's rare is when one scores a direct hit on a heavily-populated area. And the Philippines is a country with many vulnerable coastal cities.

Thorkil Aarup is a scientist with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission in Paris, which monitors storms and storm preparedness worldwide.

THORKIL AARUP: Where the typhoon hit it was relatively low ground. It was difficult to evacuate to places where you had safe cover.

JOYCE: Governments in the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions have been strengthening their system of tide gauges and evacuation plans since the 2004 tsunami in Indian Ocean. The tsunami killed some 230,000 people around the Indian Ocean but it stimulated efforts worldwide to prepare for ocean-related disasters. However, spending scarce resources on an unlikely event is a tough political call, especially in poor countries like the Philippines.

AARUP: Where is the limit that you can prepare for? And what amount of resources can you devote to this? It's a very difficult thing to plan for and it requires much long-term planning.

JOYCE: And ultimately, says NOAA's William Sweet, a super storm can upend even the best-laid plans.

SWEET: Whether you're prepared or not, the magnitude of these types of storms will swamp any defense that you may actually have in store.

JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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