Why ‘Yolanda’ was so deadly
When Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan) struck on Nov. 8, 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 per hour at first landfall, Yolanda was the strongest ever to hit land at the time.
Typhoons more commonly reach peak velocity while still traveling over oceans.
The powerful front drove a giant wall of seawater called a storm surge, estimated to be 7.5 meters high, into coastal areas like Tacloban, a city of 240,000 people.
Overall, Yolanda 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 Yolanda’s path—are more exposed.
Much of Tacloban sits less than 5 m 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 hit in 1887, more than a century before Yolanda.
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 P100 a day, the people in Yolanda’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.
Yolanda 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 began in 2006, had flagged most of the areas that were prone to the impacts of natural disasters.
But 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 the island of Samar where Yolanda 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 said.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.