A heart-pounding inside look at Super Typhoon Haiyan

Two hours of pure terror in about 10 minutes. That might be the best way to describe video recently released by iCyclone’s Josh Morgerman. It’s also much more than that. A compelling human element emerges, one in which survival becomes a way of life.

Take a look for yourself, and keep on reading for more detail on what it was like to ride out one of the biggest storms to make landfall in recorded history.


Video via iCyclone.com.

As a weather geek, I’ve watched a lot of chase video over the years. I’ve also witnessed violent skies up close. Without exaggeration, iCyclone’s tale of Haiyan is among the best. Some of the highest winds ever captured on camera, drama building to a frightening crescendo, and a humbling look at the total devastation a Category 5 tropical cyclone can bring.

Once the craziness of Josh’s chase and the return voyage began to diminish, I decided I should pester him — a longtime friend — with a bunch of questions about his adventure.

The questions below act as background to the progression of the video and the chase. They help explain what drove Josh to place himself in Haiyan’s path, and they provide insight to the emotional toll such an event can have on those who witness it.

This was your first year chasing in the Western Pacific. What drove you that direction?

Tracks of all West Pacific typhoons during the 2013 season. (Brian McNoldy)

Tracks of all West Pacific typhoons during the 2013 season. (Brian McNoldy)

Josh Morgerman: An unbelievably slow tropical-cyclone season around North America. I chase in the Atlantic and the Eastern Pacific—and usually if one is slow, the other is active. This year, we saw a peculiar lack of decent cyclones in both basins.

I’d never found the idea of chasing in the Western Pacific appealing. The cyclones there are high-quality, but it’s tough chase turf—lots of widely-spaced islands, lots of mountains… just really complicated.

Related: 2013 Atlantic hurricane season wrap-up: least active in 30 years

But I was itching to chase—just dying to get out there with my equipment and hit a cyclone or two. So, out of sheer desperation, I flew across the Pacific to team up with fellow chasers James Reynolds and Mark Thomas.

It turned out to be my busiest chase season ever! Haiyan was actually my fourth typhoon in a month—and I got into the inner cores of all four. I didn’t expect the Western Pacific to be that fertile.

How long did you have to get settled before the storm arrived? Did your preparations change at all once you were on the ground?

Nov. 7 stopover in Palo, just south of Tacloban City. This location was deemed unsafe. (iCyclone Facebook)

Nov. 7 stopover in Palo, just south of Tacloban City. This location was deemed unsafe. (iCyclone Facebook)

JM: We arrived in Tacloban City the afternoon before the typhoon hit.

At that point, we knew the center was probably going to cross the coast a little south of the city. I desperately wanted to get in the eye. Top tropical scientists were making jaw-dropping estimates of Haiyan’s central pressure—some saying it was maybe below 870 mb!—and I craved ground truth. I wanted to get in that eye and measure it myself with a properly-calibrated instrument. I wanted this even more than video footage.

But when we did a recon mission down the coast, we just didn’t feel the towns were quite solid enough for riding out a nuclear-grade Cat 5. I’m an aggressive chaser—I usually just go for it—but I’m not crazy.

Related: While most run from the storm, iCyclone seeks out its core

So we decided to ride it out in the city. While the eye did pass a couple of miles south of us, as we expected, the city was squarely in the violent north eyewall and got absolutely pounded—so we experienced Haiyan’s intense inner core.

In your video, it appears that around 6:45 a.m. was when things started to rock, and winds continued to rage at their worst through at least 7:30 a.m. as the water disaster took over. The surge was perhaps the true beast, but there are few videos of winds as strong as seen in yours. How long did the strongest winds last, and what would you estimate wind speeds to be?

Winds near a crescendo as Super Typhoon Haiyan approaches Tacloban City on the morning of Nov. 8. (iCyclone's Haiyan documentary)

Winds near a crescendo as Super Typhoon Haiyan approaches Tacloban City on the morning of Nov. 8. (iCyclone’s Haiyan documentary)

JM: Yep, that’s when it started to really hit—about 6:45 a.m.

The really interesting thing about this typhoon is that it didn’t last long. Contrary to news reports, the cyclone was not large—it was quite small—and it moved fast, so really destructive winds and tides only lashed the city for about two hours. That’s really quick! I’ve been in large, slow-moving storms—like Hurricane Ike in Texas and Hurricane Isaac in Louisiana—that took 12-24 hours to pass. Not Haiyan. It was like a tornado passing through—just in and out.

And that’s exactly what made Haiyan such an awesome meteorological spectacle. The fact that it devastated this large population center in only two hours is a testament to its incredible ferocity.

The northern eyewall hitting Tacloban City as Haiyan comes ashore just south of there. (iCyclone Facebook)

The northern eyewall hitting Tacloban City as Haiyan comes ashore just south of there. (iCyclone Facebook)

The eyewall swept into the city at about 6:47 a.m., and I’d say the most violent winds happened around 7:10 to 7:30 a.m.—as you noted, based on the video time-stamp. During this time, it was like downtown was engulfed in a tornado. The clip at 7:25 a.m. has a particularly tornado-like quality. Everything just kind of turned white, and it sounded like a train going by. The flying debris was frightening—pieces of roof from other buildings rocketing through the air and slamming into ours at high speed. The hotel was really solid—made of thick concrete—but many windows exploded, doors blew off, and large parts of the roof came off.

Re: wind speeds at our exact location in the city… It’s hard to say. Very few people are qualified to make estimates—I’m not one of them!—and I tend to be very conservative with mine. We were in Haiyan’s eyewall; however, I believe the actual RMW (radius of maximum winds) passed just a hair to our south—by maybe a mile or two. Also keep in mind that we were in an urban area, a couple of blocks from the water, so buildings were blocking the wind a little.

All that having been said, I’d say winds at our location were well over 100 knots (115 mph)—well over—with much higher gusts. I believe we had Cat-4 conditions right in downtown.

One interesting detail you’ll notice in my video is the trees. Before the cyclone, they’re full and green. Immediately afterward, all trees across the city are completely, 100% stripped of foliage—just these bare sticks—and some are even missing bark. It takes extremely high winds to do that.

Roughly 8 minutes into the video, 7:50 a.m. or so, you begin to note that storm surge is overtaking the hotel and then you disappear into the darkness. At that moment, were you confident in your decision-making beforehand? What was going through your head?

 Disappearing into the darkness as screams emerge from the ground floor that's taking on water. (iCyclone.com's Super Typhoon Haiyan documentary)

Disappearing into the darkness as screams emerge from the ground floor that’s taking on water. (iCyclone’s Haiyan Documentary)

JM: We were frankly shocked when we saw the water rising. It was about 7:45 a.m. and the wind was not quite as violent as earlier, so we could actually see—and the street was a river! It makes sense that the water came up after the center passed to our south, because the wind had shifted and was at that point funneling water up into the little bay east of downtown.

I say we were shocked because USGS data indicated our hotel was 26 feet above sea level—so we just didn’t expect storm surge to be a factor there. Yet our hotel flooded to a depth of about 4 feet—suggesting the surge was a whopping 30 feet! (Even if the USGS data are off by, say, 10 feet, that’s still a massive, 20-foot surge.)

Related: Data report on Super Typhoon Haiyan from iCyclone

Given that Haiyan was a small, fast-moving cyclone, I find this incredible. I believe the shape of the coastline—with the city on a tiny, narrow bay—and the direction of the wind perfectly conspired to augment the surge. The result was a sudden, tsunami-like rise in the water that quickly swept across the city, causing mass casualties.

I say “sudden” because everyone I talked to afterward—survivors, news reporters, etc.—all remarked on how fast it came up. Everyone was surprised.

You’ve previously said you don’t think about it when it comes to jumping into water to save people, but you must know you are putting yourself in more danger by doing so. Did you feel scared?

Josh Morgerman helps someone staying at the hotel escape from the rising waters. (iCyclone.com’s Super Typhoon Haiyan documentary)

Josh Morgerman helps someone staying at the hotel escape from the rising waters. (iCyclone’s Haiyan documentary)

JM: Yes—yes, I did. The situation by that point felt completely out of control and my mind was racing.

The water was coming up fast—flooding into the lobby, knocking over furniture. People scrambled to the second floor. Folks in the first-floor rooms couldn’t open their doors as the water rose—so they were stuck in these death traps. They were smashing their windows and literally screaming for help across the courtyard—which was now a rising river. I was carrying an hysterical child to the second floor when Mark jumped into the water to help the trapped people—and he ripped his leg open on submerged debris. His injury was sickening to look at—it made me weak.

Related: How a Catastrophe Unfolded (Wall Street Journal)

The water was dark and dirty and just scary-looking. But those people screaming for help in the windows… I felt like I was about to watch them die in front of me. And I knew I’d hate myself forever if they died and I didn’t try to save them. So I just jumped in. We pulled several people—an elderly woman, a disabled girl, a mom, and others—out through broken windows and ferried them to the lobby on mattresses, and James helped pull them up onto the stairs.

As it turns out, the water never got much higher than about 4 feet—so probably those people would have lived, even if we didn’t rescue them. But at the time, we didn’t know that—the water was just coming up and we didn’t know when it would stop.

How soon did you truly know much of Tacloban City had been destroyed? Was that first look from the roof of your hotel enough? Or did it take walking around at street level? 

Total devastation is seen in Tacloban City after Haiyan passed. (iCyclone.com’s Super Typhoon Haiyan documentary)

Total devastation is seen in Tacloban City after Haiyan passed. (iCyclone’s Haiyan documentary)

JM: When the cyclone started to pass and we went up to the roof, I saw confirmation that the city had been raked by really extreme winds. Trees all across the city had been totally stripped bare—like what you see after tornadoes—and lots of roofs had been ripped off. But it was still rainy and foggy, so it was hard to see everything.

When I walked a couple of blocks toward the waterfront, that’s when I saw the unbelievable destruction. Cars had been tossed around like toys. A neighborhood where I’d been walking just hours before was completely gone—just a huge field of rubble. I couldn’t even figure out where the streets had been. It was like a nuke had been dropped. (You see these neighborhoods near the end of my video.)

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

Interestingly… I’m more traumatized now than I was then. I think at the time, it was a defense mechanism to not react emotionally to the aftermath. I saw flattened neighborhoods, dead bodies, children in squalor, blocks burning, a city spiraling out of control—and Mark had a serious injury that was obviously becoming infected. In the face of all that, I think I just kind of shut my emotions off and stayed cool and focused on one thing: how we were going to get out of there. Mark and James were similarly stoic—I think we had an unspoken agreement not to freak out. If I let myself feel anything, I was going to panic—so I just stayed cold and mechanical.

Safely at home in Southern California, now it’s all hitting me and I have periods when I get very, very upset about it—about what I saw. I get especially upset when I see pictures of injured children.

Did the complete devastation make you wonder if you’re as well prepared for the aftermath as you clearly were for the storm itself? You think you would have fared well if you had not gotten out so quick?

James Reynolds (left) and Josh Morgerman (right) on a c-130 departing Tacloban City. (Photo by Mark Thomas)

James Reynolds (left) and Josh Morgerman (right) on a C-130 departing Tacloban City. (Photo by Mark Thomas)

JM: We prepared well. First off, as smashed up as our building was, it was a good choice—it survived. And we had probably a week’s supply of food and water in our room. The day after the storm passed, we started to ration it—just in case we’d be there for an extended period. We’re three healthy, strong men, so we would have been fine—except for one thing: Mark’s injury.

That was the big problem. Although a first-aid expert in the hotel had done a good job dressing it, it was a dirty wound and it was becoming infected—so we felt an urgent need to get Mark back home to proper medical care. The hospitals in Tacloban were overflowing with the critically injured, and despite the prodding of a doctor who we’d helped save, Mark refused medical treatment because he didn’t want to “cut the line” in front of the locals.

Related: Typhoon Haiyan, before and after images

It’s good that we got out when we did, because when Mark got back home to Taipei, his situation was grim. The doctors felt he might have lost his leg if he’d gone another two days without proper care. Fortunately, he’s now doing better and should make a full recovery—although it’s a slow process and he faces more surgeries.

Chasing a Cat 5 in a developing country is not for the faint of heart.

One last thing: the stricken region needs help. They need money. So I just want to personally ask your readers to donate to relief agencies that are focused on the Haiyan/Yolanda recovery. It’s a massive effort—one that’s well beyond the scope of local resources. We can really make a difference.

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