An 'overwhelmed' Philippines grapples with loss, rebuilding

Correction appended.

Towns in the central part of the Philippines are in ruins as disaster relief workers now conclude that billions of dollars will be needed to aid communities devastated by the deadly Super Typhoon Haiyan.

More than 9 million people are affected and fatalities are in the thousands, according to the Philippine government's latest estimates. The daunting efforts to assess the needs of the hardest-hit areas of Eastern Samar province and the surrounding islands began as the world woke up to aerial photographs of devastated communities on the Saturday after Haiyan unleashed maximum sustained winds of 195 mph and record storm surges that swept away thousands of homes.

A senior official said as many as 10,000 people may have died in the city of Tacloban alone, which has a population of 220,000. Confirmed reports of deaths are slowly trickling in as communication and electrical lines remain disrupted in various islands.

"We are a low-lying and developing country, meaning that the chances for us to have the infrastructure to cope with sudden climate change impacts is going to cost us much more because we first have to deal with issues like poverty," said Chris Ng, the climate change and renewable energy program coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund for Nature-Philippines.

But a solution for one city is not necessarily a solution for another.

"With climate change in the Philippines, you have to take a bottom-up approach, because the problems in a city like Manila are not going to be the same with the problems in Davao, Bohol or Tacloban, the hardest-hit area by the typhoon so far," added Ng.

Residents were spared from the typhoon's wrath west of Tacloban on Bohol, an island rocked by a magnitude-7.2 earthquake that left 222 people dead last month. Hundreds of families still reeling from the disaster packed their belongings and dismantled their temporary shelters to transfer to evacuation centers after the government issued the highest warning for the typhoon.

For the evacuated, lives spared but much lost


"The greatest effect has been disruption on people who have already been displaced several weeks ago and lost their homes," said Paul Thomas, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on the island.

"It's been disruptive for the people here, but it could have been worse," Thomas said.

The city center of Cebu experienced heavy rain and flooding but was also largely spared from Haiyan's destruction on neighboring islands.

"We had to run and go to the stores," said Jeric Prospero, who was stranded in Cebu while on a business trip as hundreds of flights were canceled in anticipation of the typhoon.

"People's grocery carts were full of bread, lots of canned goods and noodles. All of the ATMs in the mall were out of cash," he added.

Power outages blanketed the central Philippines shortly after the typhoon made landfall.

Uprooted trees and rooftops were scattered on the street, Mae Katherine Hiponia, a resident of Cebu, told ClimateWire after the storm went westbound Friday morning.

In Tacloban, there was no place to escape the floods. Powerful winds ripped apart structures where hundreds of people sought shelter.

Did climate change cause Haiyan?

A global risk analytics company ranks the capital city of Manila second in its index of cities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Climate scientists are still debating the effect of climate change on typhoons and hurricanes. Many models predict such storms may become less frequent overall but more intense.

Yet climate-induced or not, the casualties from Haiyan were mainly caused by fierce storm surge inundating the low-lying islands. The waters surrounding more than 7,000 islands of the Philippines is experiencing one of the fastest rates of sea-level rise in the world.

According to Hal Needham, a research climatologist and storm surge specialist at Louisiana State University, the Philippines has historically had the largest storm surges in East Asia.

The configuration of the Philippines' coasts can lead to extremely large storm surges in certain areas, he said.

"Because there are many inlets and bays, the shape and size and geometry of the coastline will often funnel storm surge in," Needham said

This was the case in Tacloban, an area where storm surge water levels reached to the second story on some buildings, disaster relief assessments reported.

Not 'practical' to rank storms

According to Needham, strong winds funneled the storm surge up San Pedro and San Pablo Bay, where the shape of the bay heightened the storm surge levels as it hit Tacloban.

Meteorologist Brian McNoldy of the University of Miami, who studies tropical cyclones, said Haiyan was certainly among the most intense tropical cyclones on record.

McNoldy said while the super typhoon reached a strength few storms do, it is a mistake to say Haiyan was the biggest or the most intense storm on record.

This is because of issues with how such storms are measured now, from satellites, and how they have been measured historically.

"It's really just not a practical thing to be able to tweak out an absolute ranking. We just don't have the records to do it," he said.

Haiyan did reach 8.0, the highest ranking on the Dvorak scale, which measures storm intensity, said McNoldy.

"There have been storms in the past that have reached that, but it's a pretty elite club, which means it is about as perfectly formed a storm as a tropical cyclone can be," he said.

The temperature of ocean water may also contribute to a typhoon's intensity.

"In theory, we'd see typhoons get stronger because of perfect conditions due to a warmer ocean," said Jeff Masters, chief meteorologist of Weather Underground.

U.S. offers $20M aid package

The extent of damage due to Haiyan is being met with a flood of international aid. But disaster risk experts warned that the massive scale of relief efforts should not repeat mistakes made during the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, when rivalry among international aid groups flared and management of funds failed to focus on long-term rebuilding, Agence France-Presse reported.

International organizations and governments are quickly pouring aid relief into the region. The United Kingdom pledged $10 million in emergency aid. In Washington, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the USS George Washington and other Navy ships to assist in relief response in the region, while the U.S. Agency for International Development announced yesterday a $20 million package in humanitarian assistance.

Emergency food aid, medical supplies and hygiene kits will be deployed to disaster-affected areas.

"The vulnerability will stay," Antonio La Viña, formerly a senior official at the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources and currently dean of the Ateneo School of Government, told ClimateWire from Manila yesterday.

"These are islands populated for hundreds of years. It's not very easy to move people out. Where do you move them if you have to move them?" he said.

La Viña is part of the Philippine delegation now in Warsaw, Poland, for international climate talks at the 19th session of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, where a personal and impassioned speech from the Philippines' climate change commissioner brought home the continuing devastation from the typhoon (see related story).

"Adaptation has always been about making yourself less vulnerable and reducing the risks to these disasters. The challenge is that it's not easy to predict. Even the most prepared government will have been completely overwhelmed by this," said La Viña. "The stake in the discussion is even higher now."

Reporter Stephanie Paige Ogburn contributed.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Haiyan was one of the largest tropical cyclones on record.

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