DEVASTATED: A family stays in a makeshift shelter next to the remains of houses destroyed during the onslaught of Typhoon Hagupit in San Julian, eastern Samar, in central Philippines on December 9. Philippine emergency workers were struggling on Tuesday to reach coastal villages on an island hardest hit by a typhoon where thousands of homes have been wrecked by powerful winds and a storm surge. Nearly 13,000 houses were crushed and more than 22,300 damaged on the eastern island of Samar, where Typhoon Hagupit made landfall.
Picture by REUTERS/Erik De Castro
By Steff Gaulter
On November 7, the Philippines commemorated the first anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan, and now, just one month later, the same region is being pounded again.
Typhoon Haiyan was the strongest typhoon on record to make landfall and it caused major devastation when it hit the central parts of the country in November 2013. With sustained winds of over 305 kph (190 mph) the storm killed over 7,300 people and destroyed over a million homes.
The latest storm, named Hagupit by the international community and Ruby in the Philippines, was almost as powerful as Typhoon Haiyan as it bore down on the islands. Two days before the storm made landfall, the winds were raging at strengths of 280 kph (175 mph). Like Haiyan, this meant the storm was the equivalent of a category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale which is used to rate the strength of hurricanes. This is the most powerful category that there is.
However, there was one very large difference between Haiyan and Hagupit, and that was the confidence in the forecast. Different countries have slightly different models for forecasting the weather. Ideally, these separate models would all give a similar forecast track and intensity of a storm, and then forecasters can confidently advise where and when the storm will make landfall.
Last year, the separate models gave a similar forecast for Typhoon Haiyan, and this forecast remained consistent for several days. This ensured that at least five days before impact, forecasters were able to give an accurate picture of how bad the storm would be and exactly which areas would be hit worst.
This year, however, the different forecasts for Typhoon Hagupit were anything but consistent. If you plotted them all on the same map, it began to look rather like spaghetti. This is a forecasters worst nightmare, because it then makes it impossible to piece together accurately a detailed forecast.
The uncertainty was due to the weak forces in the atmosphere which were steering the system. There was no strong wind which would force the typhoon in a certain direction, so the different weather models forecast a wide variety of paths for the system. As you can imagine, for those in the Philippines, this made preparing for the storm incredibly difficult. No one particular location could be pin-pointed as the anticipated point of impact. Instead people in southeastern Luzon and the island of Samar were told to prepare for the worst.
After the horrors of Typhoon Haiyan last year, most people didn’t need to be given too much encouragement to prepare. People gratefully flocked to evacuation centres, and simply waited to see where Typhoon Hagupit would make landfall. However, it wasn’t the wind or the rain that caused most of the damage when Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the country last year.
The winds were incredibly powerful and the rain caused widespread flooding, but the major problems caused by Haiyan were due to the storm surge. A typhoon this powerful will always push vast amounts of water ahead of it, but in this case, the geography of the area conspired to make the storm surge far larger than it might have been.
The water which was forced ahead of Haiyan was funnelled up San Pedro Bay. This is the cone shaped body of water which separates the islands of Leyte and Samar. At the neck of the bay is the city of Tacloban and as the water poured into the bay, the sea level rose. This triggered a storm surge of over six metres. Inevitably, the water in the bay overflowed, creating a powerful surge of water similar to a tsunami. Trees were snapped in half, cars were tossed around like toys and homes along the shore pushed hundreds of metres inland. It is estimated that ninety percent of the city of Tacloban was destroyed by the storm.
Although the recent storm, Typhoon Hagupit, created a storm surge, it was nowhere near as large or destructive as that triggered by Typhoon Haiyan. Thankfully the geography of the region didn’t funnel the water to a point and trigger greater problems. The winds of the storm were also less than feared, because the storm weakened considerably before making landfall. Instead of slamming into the country as the equivalent of a powerful category 5 hurricane, Hagupit had weakened to the equivalent of a category 3 storm. Whilst such a storm is still very powerful and can cause major damage, it is certainly not as destructive as a category 5 storm.
The major problem caused by Typhoon Hagupit was the amount of rain, and this was exacerbated by the speed at which the storm was travelling. With Hagupit creeping west at only 13 kph (8mph), the storm spent a prolonged period over the country. Approximately 50 km (30 miles) south of where the storm made landfall, the city of Borongan reported an eye-watering 396mm (15.6 inches) of rain in just 24 hours. This is Borongan’s entire month’s worth of rain in just one day. As you can imagine, the flooding was extensive and widespread.
As the storm headed across the Philippine islands it began to weaken, and the locals began to breathe a sigh of relief: the storm had been far less devastating than Typhoon Haiyan. However, it’s important that the locals aren’t lulled into a false sense of security. Due to the precarious position of the country, there will be many more major storms in the future, and next time geography may not be on their side.
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