Typhoon and hurricane storm surge disasters are unacceptable

November 12, 2013

In this aerial photo taken on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, and released by the Philippine Air Force, a boat is seen washed inland from a massive storm surge caused by Typhoon Haiyan, in the city of Tacloban, central Philippines. (AP Photo/Philippines Air Force)

When hurricanes and typhoons crash ashore, their winds shove inland a wall of water, sometimes 10 to 20 feet or higher depending on the strength of the storm, its size, and shape of the coastline.

You can’t stop the surge and you can’t contain it. Your only course of action is to get out of the way.

Consider this anecdote from storm chaser Josh Morgerman, describing the devastating 13 foot surge in Tacloban during super typhoon Haiyan:

….at the height of the storm, the bay rose up like a tsunami, swallowing the downtown area. . . .

Our hotel flooded so fast that guests in first-floor rooms were caught off guard. Their doors were wedged shut by rapidly rising water, turning their rooms into death traps. In a panic, these guests resorted to smashing open their courtyard-facing windows with whatever they could get their hands on — a heavy lamp, for example — and screaming for help. (via BuzzFeed)

By far, storm surge is the leading cause of death in tropical cyclones around the world. People die because they can’t, don’t or won’t move to somewhere safe.  With the lead time for incoming storms now at least one to two days (if not longer) in most cases, this state of affairs is unacceptable.

Every nation that is vulnerable to landfalling tropical cyclones (i.e. hurricanes and typhoons) has a responsibility to:

1) Educate its people about the dangers of storm surge

2) Effectively relay timely, accurate storm forecasts, including understandable and place-specific storm surge information

3) Designate safe shelter- that can withstand category 5 winds – outside of the surge (inundation) zone

Nations may also choose to build dikes, levees, and sea walls to deal with the problem.

Of course, these measures are easier said than done and are highly dependent on a given country’s government and its resources.

Related: What a deadly typhoon in the Philippines can tell us about climate adaptation

Even in the U.S., in which the Federal and state and local government have worked hand-in-hand (in some cases more successfully than others) to meet the above responsibilities, storm surge deaths were unacceptably high in Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

Three of the challenges we face in the U.S. are effectively 1) reaching vulnerable groups, 2)  communicating the threat and 3) motivating vulnerable groups to act on available information.

Following Sandy, in its post storm review, the National Weather Service stressed the need to develop “explicit storm surge graphics and high-resolution mapping tools” and “adopt a unified format and language for products describing impacts from storm surge.”  It also emphasized the need to broaden its expertise in the social science to better understand how people make decisions and more effectively encourage action.

Related: National Hurricane Center gives storm surge modeling a major boost

In poor countries, the challenges governments face – with far fewer resources and less political stability – are considerably more daunting.  Given widespread poverty, flimsy infrastructure and – in many cases – much higher population densities, more people are at risk. Vulnerable groups have far less access to modern technology for learning about storm surge hazards and receiving storm information. And, finally, fewer well-built structures are available for sheltering those at risk. (Not to mention, some people may refuse to leave their homes for fear of looting after the storm).

Related: Why the Philippines wasn’t ready for typhoon Haiyan | Experts: Man, nature share typhoon tragedy blame | Surviving typhoons will require smarter building — and a cultural shift

Nevertheless, Bangladesh  – which has the world’s most disastrous storm surge history – offers an example of a partially successful response effort in the developing world.  Consider this anecdote, from Peter Webster – a scientist at Georgia Tech who worked on a storm surge and flood warning system in Bangladesh – about the effective measures he helped implement (from a 2008 Capital Weather Gang post):

In 1971 the Bohar Tropical Cyclone took 300,000+ lives principally drowned by storm surge. In 1991, about 100,000 were lost in similar circumstances. An almost identical storm to the 1971 [one] landed last November [2007] and about 10,000 were lost. Why this decrease in death rate with very similar storms? Bangladesh tried, with international help, to do something about it. Along the coast, cyclone shelters were built and sea walls (rather mounds) were erected and earth mounds were constructed. People had somewhere to go if they could be warned…

How is the danger ([of a] flood or tropical cyclone) communicated? There was essentially no communication in 1971 and by radio in 1991. This latter improvement has the flaw that someone has to be at a radio receiver and somehow this message has to be communicated down to the household. No easy job. BUT, in the event of the 2007 storm (Sidr) and the floods of last year, communication was swift all the way to the villager. This was accomplished by the development of cell phone networks.

Webster recommended poor countries take the following steps to improve their ability to prepare for and respond to weather disasters:

The first thing is national and governmental commitment as has happened in Bangladesh. The second is the willingness to accept that there is a need for outside help. The third is to realize that each country has special vulnerabilities and that there are solutions for each. The fourth is to develop a communications network to transmit in an efficient manner state-of-the-art forecasts to where they can be used.

In the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines has a responsibility to take a critical look at why so many of its people perished and what it can do to prevent this kind of disaster from repeating considering the swarm of storms that strike that nation every year.   Other countries prone to storm surge disasters must also learn from the experience of Haiyan and  take action.

Finally, the international community should waste no time in assisting the Philippines or any other nation in need of confronting storm surge problems assuming they will cooperatively and constructively accept the help.

Given modern weather forecast technology, no nation in the world any longer has the excuse “we didn’t see this coming” when a storm surge disaster strikes. Storm surge deaths are entirely preventable.  It’s past time nations and the global community make them stop.

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.
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