Why so many people died from Haiyan and past southeast Asia typhoons

November 11, 2013

This aerial photo shows flattened houses in the city of Tacloban, Leyte province, in the central Philippines on November 11, 2013. TED ALJIBETED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

Super Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the central Philippines on November 7 as potentially the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded upon landfall with estimated sustained winds 195 mph hours before the storm blew ashore.

Most weather experts expected reports of horrific damage and high loss of life given the intensity of the storm and geography of the affected areas, but not many were prepared when Philippine officials estimated that as many as 10,000 people may have died in Tacloban City alone when Haiyan struck.

If this death toll estimate holds up, however, it wouldn’t even put Haiyan in the top 35 deadliest tropical cyclones on record.

The story behind the destructiveness of Haiyan rings true of most powerful cyclones that occur in this region of the world: 33 of the 35 deadliest tropical cyclones on record have occurred in southern or southeastern Asia – due to a confluence of meteorology, geography, population density, poverty and government.

In the case of Super Typhoon Haiyan, Tacloban city and its 220,000 inhabitants are located at the tip of a funnel-shaped bay in the Leyte Gulf. The center of Haiyan’s eye brushed just a few miles south of Tacloban, putting the city right in the strongest part of the storm’s right-front quadrant. This unfortunate location along Haiyan’s track led to Tacloban receiving the brunt of the storm’s Category 5-equivalent winds, destroying “up to 80%” of the city’s buildings.

Satellite image of super typhoon Haiyan's eye and the location of Tacloban city
Satellite image of super typhoon Haiyan’s eye and the location of Tacloban city

Adding insult to injury is the shape of the bay on which Tacloban sits. Haiyan’s storm surge was funneled into this bay and amplified, leading to a storm surge reaching 10 to 20 feet deep in spots. This combination of storm surge, high population density (clocking in at nearly 2,900/square mile), and the simple destruction of anything that couldn’t stand up to the winds accounts for the steep death toll estimates.

The deadliest tropical cyclone in recorded history is largely considered to be the Bhola Cyclone that struck Bangladesh on November 12, 1970, claiming between 300,000 and 500,000 lives. Six of the top ten deadliest tropical cyclones have occurred in Bangladesh, and the vast majority of the top 35 have occurred in the countries that lie along the Bay of Bengal.

Related: Inside the Burma Cyclone (Cyclone Nargis, 2008)

The cause of these staggering death tolls again comes down to both physical and human geography. Bangladesh is especially vulnerable to storm surge and flooding from heavy rainfall as the vast majority of the country lies along the Ganges River Delta, placing almost all of its 150 million citizens at or near sea level. When strong storms like 1970’s Bhola Cyclone or 1991’s Category-5 equivalent cyclone strikes Bangladesh (or any coastal area in the region), the result is catastrophic.

Related: Bangladesh’s Example for a Post-Nargis World

Massive loss of life is sometimes preventable, however, if local and national governments have the coordination and capability to perform mass evacuations like those typically seen in the United States when a major storm threatens. One excellent example of this was mid-October’s Cyclone Phailin, a 165 mph storm that was on track to cause certain destruction in a densely populated part of northeastern India. Due to a variety of reasons (including the mass evacuation of over 900,000 people), and despite the storm causing over half a billion U.S. dollars worth of damage, the storm only resulted in 44 deaths.

Mass evacuations of this sort are just not possible in some regions of the world, and this was certainly true of Tacloban and its surroundings. Many people in Tacloban were evacuated to sturdier buildings within the city itself, but due to the fact that the city lies on an island that is mostly mountainous, moving people out of the city and into other areas wasn’t possible. Also, some of the buildings where people were sheltered could not withstand the storm’s wrath and were destroyed.

“Sometimes, no matter how much and how carefully you prepare, the disaster is just too big,” Zhang Qiang, an expert on disaster mitigation at Beijing Normal University’s Institute for Social Development and Public Policy, told the Associated Press.

Video: The eyewall passing through Tacloban (iCyclone via YouTube)

In many parts of southeast Asia, poverty and flimsy infrastructure play an underlying and critical role in increasing the region’s vulnerability to typhoons.

The Associated Press notes:

Ranked the “world’s third highest disaster risk country” according to the United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Philippines will continue to face multiple and possibly simultaneously occurring emergencies because of its high incidence of poverty and exposure to natural hazards, Oxfam warned.

Not to be left out of the discussion in assessing this disaster’s toll is the efficacy of the political system in establishing sound preparation and response procedures. Despite the massive evacuation effort staged by the Philippine government, the Associated Press says it may not be optimally organized for reaching everyone in harm’s way:

[The Philippines] lacks a strong central government and provincial governors have virtual autonomy in dealing with local problems.

Contrast this with Vietnam, which sees about a dozen typhoons per year and is similarly poor and densely populated. But a centralized, Communist Party-led government broadcasts clear messages that cannot be ignored by the provinces.

While the deaths of thousands is a tragedy beyond words, the survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan are facing a massive humanitarian crisis as lack of shelter, food, clean water, and medical supplies makes life increasingly hard.

Video: Philippines survivors beg for food, water

Rescue efforts from around the world are on their way or already on the ground in the Philippines to help the survivors. Tens of millions of dollars are flowing into the country from foreign governments to help with the recovery and response. In addition to official government aid, charitable organizations like ShelterBox (which provides victims with durable tents and other supplies necessary for survival) and humanitarian organizations like the Philippine Red Cross and UNICEF are scrambling to help those affected and displaced by the storm.

Related: Extreme Weather of 2013 in Photos

(Jason Samenow contributed to this report.)

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Ian Livingston · November 11, 2013