Typhoon Haiyan: Worse than hell.

LONG accustomed to fearsome storms, floods and earthquakes, Filipinos are usually stoical in the face of natural disasters. Yet the sheer magnitude of the super-typhoon that ripped through the middle of the archipelago on November 8th was unprecedented, with sustained winds of 250 kilometres per hour (160mph). The scale of the damage left in its wake was shocking. President Benigno Aquino declared the devastation a “national calamity”.

Some towns hit by the storm may never wholly recover. For now, questions are being asked about whether the country could have been better prepared, as well as what might be done to mitigate the impact of severe storms that whip in—recently, with greater frequency—off the Pacific Ocean. Many Filipinos note that this storm hit just as the latest round of UN-sponsored climate-change talks was getting under way in Warsaw in Poland. Their government insists that man-made climate change is heightening the risk of typhoons, but scientists are not so sure.

Some of the regions hit by Typhoon Haiyan, or Yolanda as it was called in the Philippines, are remote. Almost a week after it struck, a proper assessment of the damage is still being pieced together. The government says that more than 2,300 people have been killed. The figure will rise as more bodies are recovered in the worst-hit places, such as Tacloban on the island of Leyte. The government says about 7m people were affected by Haiyan; the UN says as many as 11m. About 600,000 have been made homeless.

Early estimates of the economic cost are about $15 billion. This relatively low figure reflects the fact that Haiyan laid waste to some of the poorest regions of the country. Their backwardness also helps account for the slowness of the rescue effort in many places. Roads and airports were hardly first-class before; now Haiyan has destroyed much of the infrastructure. Aid is being flown in quite easily to the well-developed tourist hub of Cebu. But UN agencies and NGOs are struggling to shift desperately needed food and medicines on to places where they are really needed.

Villagers made homeless by the disaster line the main coastal highway that twists and turns from Cebu towards Daanbantayan, at the far northern end of Cebu island. Amid the devastation of felled trees, flattened crops, toppled power lines and houses blown away, children hold up crudely written cardboard signs: “Please Help”, “We Need Food”.

At the town hall in Daanbantayan, the mayor, Augusto Corro, says that relief is arriving for the stricken people but that it is “not enough”. All the area’s 86,000 inhabitants have been affected by the disaster, he says, and need food, water, shelter and medicine. More than nine-tenths of homes there have been damaged or destroyed. The typhoon killed nine people in Daanbantayan and injured 50 others.

A relief operation has seen the authorities distribute rice, bottled water and canned foods. But Margie Flores arrived at Daanbantayan’s town hall early on the morning of November 13th to find she was too late. All the food had gone. “We are very hungry,” she says. In Malingin, on the fringes of Daanbantayan, a lorry arrives with relief supplies. Villagers jostle for plastic bags of rice and bottled water. An official, Francisco Rosalejos, says there is enough to feed 500 people, which is only half the local population. Most, he explains, are farmers. If the weather holds out, and farmers can get hold of seed, then they can quickly replant their flattened fields. If not, Mr Rosalejos does not know how the villagers will carry on.

In Tacloban, across the strait from Cebu, the situation is more desperate. Haiyan flattened nearly the whole town of several hundred thousand people; one aid worker described it as “worse than hell”. Five days after the typhoon, there is still little in the way of food and clean water, and few medical supplies are coming in. As a consequence, thousands have been trooping to the wrecked airport outside the city in the hope of getting out. Day after day, most are disappointed. Meanwhile, the risks rise of typhoid, cholera and hepatitis breaking out, thanks to an absence of sanitation or clean water. Bodies are rotting in the streets, and the hospitals have been all but wrecked. The survivors’ misery is compounded by yet more rain from the next in a train of tropical depressions.

Survivors also fear looters and criminals, some of whom are reported to have broken out of jail. In many places law and order broke down after Haiyan struck. Police forces and local-government officials suffered in the typhoon as much as anyone else. In Palo in Leyte province, only 34 of 983 local policemen are reported to have shown up for duty after the storm. There are reports of food convoys and warehouses being sacked by armed gangs—as well as by desperately hungry people. More police and troops are flying in.

Amid the carnage, questions have been raised as to why a part of the world so prone to terrible storms could have suffered so much. Surely the authorities could have done better, especially with nearly two days’ notice of a spectacular storm on its way?

Comparisons are being made with Vietnam, where Haiyan swept after it had finished with the Philippines. In Vietnam Haiyan did far less damage than predicted. Some 14 people were killed, but all of them during the course of storm preparations. One pre-storm assessment said that the typhoon would affect 6.5m of Vietnam’s 90m people.

Certainly, it had weakened as it churned through the South China Sea. But good preparations were also important. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies praised the Vietnamese government’s evacuation of nearly 800,000 people from coastal provinces. The UN also pointed out that the prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, who seems personally to have overseen the preparations for Haiyan, wisely declared the highest level of alert, while mobilising senior officials to help with the response to the disaster.

Yet some authorities in the Philippines deserve praise, too, for their immediate reaction to the storm warnings. About 1m people were evacuated, usually to buildings that were considered to be safe. The trouble was that the typhoon’s sheer force overwhelmed any preparations. Take Tacloban, where thousands got to a big indoor stadium, considered to be stormproof. Sure enough, the specially reinforced roof stayed on. But people were killed instead by a 5-metre (16-foot) high surge of water which flooded the structure. In Tacloban the storm surge was like a tsunami. Nobody seems to have foreseen that it could do so much damage.

When Haiyan landed at Guiuan, gusts hit 315kph, which some consider to be the highest ever recorded. Little may have survived in Guiuan, still largely inaccessible.

If no one had really prepared for this scale of natural assault, many experts think more will come in future. The Western Pacific has the highest frequency of tropical cyclones north of the equator. The Asian Development Bank, for one, thinks that, whereas the average number of tropical cyclones a year has not risen significantly when measured over several decades, the severity of individual events has been increasing because of rising sea and air temperatures. Sea levels in the region have also been rising. For cities such as Manila, the capital of the Philippines, the risks are grave, since the city is also sinking because of the extraction of groundwater and the weight of foundations. It all increases the risk of lethal flooding.

The rickety, decentralised and often corrupt Philippine political system does not help, either. Vietnam’s Communist government is often chided for its tight repression and the absence of democracy. But when a storm hits, top-heavy bureaucracies, with help from the armed forces, can successfully get coastal communities out of harm’s way. In the Philippines, an archipelago spread out over 7,100 islands, the central government’s writ rarely extends very far. Indeed, it breaks down almost completely in the southern region of Mindanao, where Muslim insurgents have been in open revolt for decades (although peace negotiations are now under way). Well-meaning plans drawn up at the centre are often ignored, and local corruption also takes its slice of centrally allocated funds. Many doubt whether all the aid about to flood in from overseas will reach the people who most need help. The question is whether Filipinos will accept the political way of doing things once the worst of Haiyan’s consequences are past, or start to ask more of the politicians in charge.

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