My Philippines typhoon fury


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 .

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Phillipines, Typhoon Haiyan



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Existing comments

After reading your article I just wanted to make things better for you and your people. So sorry Fatima.
Pam | 11 November 2013

Such a powerful and deeply affecting piece, Fatima. I cried at your reference to Philippines kids now being afraid of the rain. I will try to help this piece become more widely known on social media. It should bring the real hurt of climate change home to us all.
Tony Kevin | 11 November 2013

Thank you Fatima for moving article. See also: and:'s-wisdom.htm
John Wotherspoon | 11 November 2013

Headline "I have gotten" what are you doing to the English Language
james kane | 12 November 2013

Of course I am deeply sorry for the plight of people of the Philippines but these are dramatic events so that to pin them to a world crisis termed 'Climate Change' is understandable but not necessarily correct. The climate of the world and some particular areas is continually changing in the same way that evolution continues. We exist contemporarily and cannot truly see more than a couple of lifetimes ahead in reality. History alone will prove the event.
Tony Knight | 12 November 2013

Thanks for this moving reminder of the terrible cost in human suffering in the Phillipines. In responding to those who try to ignore climate change by claiming each event is part of weather variability, Kevin Trenberth's way of relating all weather to climate change is good. Another approach is to say that each experience of a greater storm, earlier bushfire or more frequent extreme weather events makes it easier to imagine where a warmer world is heading.
George Emeleus | 12 November 2013

" 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." I suppose some people find "fury" is the correct response to anyone who dares to disagree with them. Contributes more heat than light but.
Fr John Fleming | 12 November 2013

our family lives in CDO and lived through Sendong. It took many weeks for the shock to wear off, and even now, it's hard to forget. in 2009, we lived through 3 floods, then Sendong in 2011, and now one typhoon after another, with Zoraida about to hit us...
walter p komarnicki | 12 November 2013

Thank you for this very personal account of this event - I was horrified by the scale of the destruction in pictures, but it was the fear of rain that truly brought it home: living in the tropics, rain has always been such a pleasant memory. I am sorry it is now causing fear. In response to those who think we should ignore climate change because it is either normal or about two different sides (of equal weight), the fury expressed by the author is natural: debates about semantics mask a refusal to change our behaviours, and respond to this global issue. And once again, it is those without a voice or resources who must bear the brunt of the inaction. Frustration, anger, sadness: fury!
Name | 12 November 2013

Thank you for this courageous remarkable writing. I fear for my grandchildren every single day. What awaits them? How dare deniers hold back climate action. It's criminal
Lyn Bender | 12 November 2013

James Kane, if that remark is the best you could think of far better if you had kept it to yourself. In fact, "gotten" as the past participle of "to get" is grammatically correct and was used in all parts of the English speaking world until some 300 years ago. It is a mere accident of history that it has fallen out of use in some countries where English is spoken but not in others. Your little corner of the world is not the only place where English is used so please think before you post comments such as this. To answer your question, what Fatima is doing to (with) the English language is eloquently and movingly asking us feel compassion for the people presently suffering as a result of this horrendous event.
Paul | 12 November 2013

Despite its undoubted disastrous effects, there is still uncertainty about the intensity of Typhoon Haiyan: was it a Cat 4 or 5? That will probably take some time to answer. That aside, the Accumulated Cyclone Energy for the North Pacific (which includes the Philippines) is just below average this year to date, even after Haiyan/Yolanda. And typhoon landfall frequency for the Philippines has shown no significant trend over the last century. Add to this, there is the just released IPCC AR5 Summary, which finds that there is "low confidence" that there has been an increase in intense tropical cyclone activity globally over the last century, (and, happily, "low confidence" of any increased activity projected for the early 21st century). Since there undoubtedly has been some warming over the last century, this IPCC finding appears, to this non-climatologist, difficult to reconcile with Kevin Trenberth's cited remark.
HH | 12 November 2013

Thanks for a well argued and passionate piece. The issue of increased 'intensity and frequency' of severe weather events needs sober examination without people being accused of insensitivity, as with the recent fires in the Blue Mtns. You're too kind in suggesting that sceptics 'refute' anything. Refutation requires sound argument, backed by evidence; what the 'sceptics' do is reject evidence-based models, projections and conclusions 'outright'.
Myrna | 12 November 2013

Thanks Fatima for this piece. You have permitted us to enter a world of meaning an deep personal experience which cannot be critiqued, dissected or analysed precisely because of this. Hugh Henry, no doubt your experience of getting those kiddies out of the public educational environment and getting them into the safe atmosphere of home schooling works for you. They will thrive on the politically driven spin you offer at every opportunity. I'm sure the 10,000 dead are a lot wiser for your input.
David Timbs | 12 November 2013

We aint seen nothin' yet. Humanity is sleep walking to its doom. How bad does it have to get before we wake up? Humans are very good at reacting appropriately to sudden emergencies. When confronted by the slowly evolving catastrophe of anthropogenically forced climate change most of us just don't seem to get it at the gut level. To appreciate the full horror of what we're doing to bring on the next great extinction event one has to have the courage to face the facts. Then we must take emergency action, using all the resources at our disposal, no matter how difficult. If we can't we are all stuffed, starting with those least able to defend themselves.
Phil Gorman | 12 November 2013

It is sad that people who believe that humans cause climate change have to treat those who do not believe that humans control the climate, in an angry way and using names like denier, skeptic and try to silence them. It is the same sort of attack that was used in Naxi Germany and the Soviet Union and it is now being use in Communist Korea and Communist Vietnam. In a Democracy every one has the right to epress his/her view without being silenced.
Ron Cini | 12 November 2013

HH, honesty without compassion at a time like this is brutality.
AURELIUS | 13 November 2013

Dear Fatima, thank you for reminding us... why can't we take these people in for a year or so, how can we watch as more die?How do we expect these poor children,people to survive?Really!What does it take for Abbott to find his conscience?There are hard working Phillipinos in Australia, willing to give anything to get a chance to rise above poverty.Now is a time to embrace them. Also,I am confused again, yesterday, I heard Scott Morrison spokesman say "We will exchange asylum seekers for refugees???? what?is this game????
Catherine | 13 November 2013

Faith is the virtue whereby we believe something to be spin because David Timbs has said so.
HH | 13 November 2013

Most people in Australia cannot imagine the stress and anxiety of the Filipino people caused by the destruction of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Australia is fortunate that we have never experienced a serious natural disaster; floods, bushfires, cyclones and earthquakes in Australia have been fairly minor compared to Typhoon Haiyan, Typhoon Sandy and the 2004 Tsunami. We need to be generous in supporting the Filipino people in this time of need. The Australian government response of $10 million is meagre and pathetic. People who do not believe that these storms are becoming more frequent and violent because of industrialisation are living in 'noddy land'. This industrialisation has resulted in increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which is causing the artic ice to melt and warm the oceans.
Mark Doyle | 14 November 2013

Fatima, we used part of your article for our community prayer last night. We are in solidarity with our sisters in Manila who are dafe but involved as best they can be with helping those so greatly in need. please keep writing!
Maryrose | 14 November 2013

Phil Gorman wrote: "Humanity is sleep walking to its doom...When confronted by the slowly evolving catastrophe of anthropogenically forced climate change ..." Back in the 1980s fractal maths - chaos theory - was illustrated by the example of the movement of a butterfly's wings leading to a storm at the other side of the planet. My fear is that far from being a "slowly evolving catastrophe", we will see a so far unknown tipping point reached that could result in a sudden drastic change in climate/temperature leading to mass species extinction. It worries me that people worried that action on climate change will be bad for their financial situation do not want to seriously consider that we may have no future economy because the planet has fried. The usual excuse is that it makes no difference what Australia does if the highly populated nations do nothing. But if no-one shows any leadership, we will get nowhere. Australia as one of the richest nations on earth has a moral obligation to show leadership.
Name | 14 November 2013

Fatima are you “sweary” and furious at the IPCC (see AR5 Summary) whose report basically agrees with the skeptics that there is "low confidence" that there has been an increase in intense tropical cyclone activity globally over the last century, or are you just reserving your fury for skeptics?
Michael D | 20 November 2013


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