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Waiting for Yolanda

/ 09:42 AM November 11, 2013

I woke up early Saturday morning listening to the international cable news channel CNN for updates about the movement and the swath of destruction left by Super Typhoon Yolanda. The international name given by the World Meteorological Organization to the most ferocious typhoon on record is Haiyan, the Chinese name for “petrel,” a type of seabird, according to CNN.

I was actually hitting the shift button to monitor at the same time the local situation because outside of Metro Cebu updates, there were no reports coming from Eastern Visayas and there were only scanty items from northern Cebu. The local news stations were awaiting reports from field men who relied on their own contacts but none came because communication facilities were down.

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By 9 in the morning, unconfirmed reports from Bantayan Island started to trickle in.

Ninety per cent of the island was practically flattened by Yolanda’s fury. Houses, schools, commercial buildings, piggeries, farms and infrastructure were destroyed. I hope local and national governments lose no time in bringing food, water, fuel, materials for shelter, clothing and electricity to these areas, otherwise, there will be looting and breakdown of peace and order like what is happening in Tacloban City.

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Thankfully, the destruction around the cities of Cebu, Mandaue, Lapulapu and Talisay, were manageable. Tens of thousands of people live in vulnerable areas around Metro Cebu and usually the challenge for many local government units is to get the cooperation of informal settlers to evacuate when calamities strike.

With Yolanda predicted to hit land in the early hours of Nov. 8, some still refused to leave their houses but many more paid attention to the weather warnings. “Makit-an ra na (You can recover that),” a news anchor commented by way of approving the decision of informal settlers to leave their belongings and go to the nearest evacuation centers.

I think people have learned valuable lessons from previous flooding and landslides brought by strong typhoons in previous years, like Reming in 2006, Ondoy in 2009 and Pablo in 2012.

The round-the-clock news updates that highlighted the strength of the typhoon by local, national and international news organizations saved the day for many people. Resourceful news outlets did not just rely on the state-run storm tracker Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration but also accessed the web sites of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization, Japan Meteorological Agency and the US Navy Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

These agencies warned that Yolanda will pack winds of up to 315 kilometers per hour and gusts of 380 kph, making it the strongest tropical cyclone ever to make landfall anywhere in the world in recorded history. When global weather trackers describe the typhoon in superlatives, one cannot take such warnings lightly without inviting disaster.

Hardest hit by Yolanda is Tacloban City where the death toll is estimated at not less than 1,200. This is just the human cost, which is expected to rise as more reports of destruction emerge. But whatever the number, property damage and business losses, the technology-generated storm warnings were there to make us prepare for the worst.

Generations ago, our grandparents used to predict the weather by the “smell” of the sea, which is said to emit a strong odor (langsa or langsi in the vernacular) when a storm or typhoon is forthcoming. Roosters crowing early in the evening are likewise portents of things to come according to the old folks. When temperature turns very humid that is also one unmistakable sign that a storm is coming according to my late parents, a practical indication that we reference even today.

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The storms and folksy warnings have in fact become part of our daily lives, but especially for people living in Samar and Leyte. I grew up listening to reports that these provinces, known as the Philippines’ typhoon belt, are battered by typhoons year in and year out.

Enduring at least eight typhoons per year had become almost predictable or even mundane for us Filipinos. Tropical cyclones are endemic to our country and have practically become part of our daily lives because life goes on even after a supertyphoon—until Yolanda came along.

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