Science communication failure and political failure contributed to Haiyan's death toll

By Guest Author 27/11/2013

by George Jones

I watched the TV news from the island of Mandanao, south of typhoon Haiyan’s path through the Philippines for several days before landfall.  The local name was Yolanda, and it featured on every newscast, amidst items about a high level corruption investigation involving hundreds of millions of dollars, and anticipation about how Miss Philippines would rate in the Miss Universe contest.

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 10.22.23 AMMost of the news was in Tagalog, but I gained sufficient knowledge about each item to understand, from the occasional English words used.  A few details were forthcoming from my hosts.

The information relating to Yolanda was provided by the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, professionally laid out, with a tracking map with predictions of the future track and intensity.  The English words “refuge” and “storm surge” were used in every newscast.  It was stated that it was category 5, and as I knew the details about Hurricane Katrina, which ended up category 3 when it hit the shore, but with a storm surge generated when it was a 5, then I was concerned for the safety of the inhabitants, especially those on Leyte Island, the first landfall.  But I assumed that everything was in hand, with such warnings over several days.

Instead of flying north to Manila, I chose to take a bus, and to see for myself aspects of the country, and especially the damaged areas.   I was surprised that the bus service was operating.  It is 1500 km, with two ferry crossings. It is meant to take 38 hours, but in the event it took 70 hours.   The route was through Leyte Island, and we were in Tacloban around the middle of the day, five days after the typhoon, before most of the assistance arrived.

I observed increasing wind damage as we drove north up Leyte Island.  Large numbers of coconuts on the ground, broken trees, especially banana, and the occasional large tree blown over.  This was south of the point where the typhoon came ashore, driven by off-shore winds, as the typhoon rotates counter-clockwise.

Then a dramatic change as we came to the point where the storm surge came through, driven by onshore winds.  There were large areas of damage, attributable to both wind and water.  Almost all the power poles were down, and very large areas of devastation, metres deep, covering tens of square kilometres.   In that mess were upended and broken trucks, cars, roofing material, building material, the shells of houses.  A boy was using a mangled piece of roofing material as a sun-hat.   Washing was drying on the downed power lines and fences.

I talked to several people so have a few anecdotal stories from fellow-travellers.   It became very evident that the locals did not know what a storm surge was.   In fact one woman was interviewed on TV and said in English that if somebody had said tsunami, she would have behaved very differently.

Most of the population uses Tagalog as a common language among the hundreds of native languages, with a little English understood in the provinces.  It is very different in the tourist areas and big cities, where most can speak English.

The provinces are also where most of the poor live, who cannot get a good education, and do not own TVs.  Some own cellphones, so at a guess there are more cellphones in Tacloban than TVs.

Unemployment is very high, and there are many poorly constructed houses, shacks or hovels along the roadway.

A couple of weeks before there were elections for the lowest level of administration, the barangays, followed by accusations of many corrupt practices, including vote-buying.  Corruption is endemic at all levels of administration, so money often does not get to a proposed project, but is syphoned off beforehand.

The comment was made to me that Leyte Island and the islands to its west were typhoon alley, so they know how to handle them, and were surprised by this one, because they did not know it was going to be so big.

But the information was there, just not interpreted by the population.   I know what I would have advised.  Go for the higher ground in the forests on the hills behind, taking some head protection, try not to be under a coconut tree, and wait it out.  It is a journey of no more that two kilometres.  The wind would blow and drop coconuts and branches on the ground, but there would be no water except heavy rain. It would be an uncomfortable night, but safe.  This could have been the situation on all the islands in the typhoon’s path – I only saw one of them.

I expected that the President and everybody at every level of government, including the newly-elected barangay officials would make sure that this would happen.  I do not know what actually happened, and await with interest any reports.

But I do know that there was a massive science communication failure, that resulted in several thousand unnecessary deaths.  If the system had been working, there may have been only a few deaths, by falling coconuts or trees.  And none killed by a wall of water and flotsam many metres deep sweeping through the low-lying coastal areas.

Oh, well, there are too many people on this Earth.  Maybe Death is preferable to War, Pestilence and Famine, the other three horses of the Apocalypse.

But is seems a great pity that it happened this way, when it was preventable.  I cried when I realised that.  I was in the city of Tacloban, where I thought “There could be a thousand bodies under that mess!”.

 George Jones is a Companion of the Royal Society of New Zealand, retired scientist and adventurer.