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Best of 2013: My Philippines typhoon fury

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Astronaut Karen L. Nyberg posted a photo on Twitter from the International Space station of Typhoon Haiyan on 9 NovI was in Cagayan de Oro in the southern island of Mindanao, Philippines on 16 December 2011. All that Friday and through the night, rain poured. Later we were told that over a 24-hour period, rainfall at Lumbia (a weather bureau station) exceeded its monthly average by 60 per cent. This coincided with a 1.2m high tide late that night. But our sense of severe tropical storm Washi (local name Sendong) preceded these meteorological figures.

We felt the pall the following morning before we even saw the river. My prevailing memory is of mud: on the streets, on people with shock-hardened faces. When I did finally see the river, I felt weak in the bones. It had become a monstrous, brown slurry, with barely recognisable traces of dwellings left on its banks. My dad drove us through hard-hit areas, some of which saw floodwaters rise to as much three metres in an hour. In the deepest night, some people simply ran out of time. I called my family several times after we arrived in Australia.

Normality was long in returning to Cagayan de Oro, with clean water being scarce and power down in several areas. It took a while for students to go back to school. My mum said that, even a couple months after, children would whimper at the sound of rain. Literally. That pierced. I have childhood memories of playing in the rain. In the tropics, the rain falls warm and soft. We would muck around, wet as fish, laughing into the sky to catch the drops. But in the wake of Washi, what once filled me with joy instead fills children with fear.

I spent two-thirds of my life in the Philippines and recall no storms or typhoons ever having the sort of impact that Washi had on Mindanao. When I wrote about it at the time, I pointed to human factors such as over-mining and logging, inadequate infrastructure, poor risk management and disaster preparation, incompetence and culpability. Certainly when Bopha hit the Davao region, hard lessons had been learned from Washi, which probably helped mitigate casualties.

But the truth is that whatever adaptive measures may be taken, the intensity and frequency of typhoons have worsened. This is not debatable. This is reality. Excluding super typhoon Haiyan (which made landfall in the Visayas on Friday), five of the 10 deadliest cyclones in the Philippines occurred in the past decade: Winnie in 2004, Durian in 2006, Fengshen in 2008, Washi in 2011 and Bopha in 2012.

Even if we concede that increased population accounts for such fatalities, the scale of destruction — damaged or destroyed infrastructure, services and agriculture — remains alarming. Six of the 10 costliest typhoons in the Philippines, typically in hundreds of millions of dollars, also occurred in the past decade (Fengshen in 2008, Parma and Ketsana in 2009, Megi in 2010, Nesat in 2011 and Bopha in 2012). Notice the yearly succession. Then think about the fact that Washi, Bopha and Haiyan also broke local and international records within a year of each other.

It was hard for me not to completely bawl when I saw the satellite images of Haiyan (local name Yolanda) as it bore down upon the central islands. Every indicator showed that it was a behemoth. According to Eric Holthaus (Quartz), one real-time estimate of Haiyan's intensity maxed out — ticked slightly above — the Dvorak scale (which measures strength using satellite imagery).

I may have gotten extremely sweary on social media. Part of it was due to gut-deep fear for people to whom I am personally connected, but also generally for a country that runs in my veins. The other part of it was fury — a useless one, ultimately — that the growing reality of extreme weather events is still being characterised as normal or natural by climate change sceptics who have the luxury of speculating and refuting links outright.

They hide behind the word 'cause' (as in 'climate change did not cause these bushfires/hurricanes') which gives away an unscientific understanding of risk. As Kevin Trenberth at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (US) says: 'The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.'

It infuriates me when people (politicians, pundits, quasi-scientists) reckon that it is business as usual around here. Or that it is part of some 'cycle' which is the lot of people who contribute least to climate change and are least equipped to deal with extreme events, to endure.

The narrative out of Haiyan — as it ever is in Philippine disasters — will be one of Filipino resilience, which is not untrue. But as stories and images emerge out of places like Leyte and Cebu, my despondence intersects with rage. I realise now that whenever I have referred to island-nations such as the Maldives but not the Philippines when it comes to climate change, I was suppressing very personal anxieties.


Fatima Measham headshotFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator who contributes regularly to Eureka Street. Her work has also appeared in The Drum, ABC Religion & Ethics, and National Times. This article is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on her blog . This article was first published on 11 November 2013.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Phillipines, Typhoon Haiyan



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2012 No. of Tropical Depressions: 35 No. of Storms: 14 No. of typhoons: 25 No. of super typhoons: 5 2013 No. of Tropical Depressions: 52 No. of Storms: 31 No. of typhoons: 13 No. of super typhoons: 5 (Source: Wikipedia) Will anyone care to declare as "settled science" what's happening with Philippines typhoons?

HH | 20 January 2014  

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