Monday, November 11, 2013

"The Water Was as High as a Coconut Tree"

Details are emerging about the devastating storm surge generated by Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The images and videos streaming in from the provinces of Samar and Leyte in the Eastern Visayas are truly horrific.

Tropical Cyclone Haiyan (Yolanda) produced a catastrophic storm surge that leveled much of Tacloban, the capital of Leyte Province. 
Image: Bullit Marquez/ AP

A quick recap on the storm:

Super Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippine provinces of Samar and Leyte on Friday, November 8, 2013, with catastrophic wind speeds and a massive storm surge. The cyclone made landfall near the city of Guiuan with an estimated wind speed of 195 MPH.

According to Jeff Masters’ Weather Underground Blog, such intense winds are the strongest in modern history as a tropical cyclone made landfall (Masters 2013). The former record was held my Hurricane Camille, which struck the Mississippi Coast in the U.S. back in 1969. His page ranks the cyclones with the highest sustained wind speeds, and reveals that three of five strongest storms at landfall hit the Philippines. Super Typhoons Zeb and Megi, which struck in 1998 and 2010, respectively, and produced sustained wind speeds of 180 MPH at landfall, and are tied for 4th place on the list.

Super Typhoon Haiyan generated winds of approximately 195MPH at landfall, breaking a world record. These winds generated a massive storm surge that leveled much of Tacolban, in Leyte Province. 
Image: Buzz Feed News

Although the wind damage is extraordinary, eyewitnesses are reporting that a massive, quick-moving storm surge was responsible for much of the devastation. Tacloban City, the provincial capital of Leyte Province, appears to be ground zero for this storm surge catastrophe.

Haiyan's storm surge moved rapidly, tearing through much of Tacloban City in Leyte Province. 
Image: News Breaker; AFP/ Getty Images

Here’s what we know about the surge:

  • ·      The height of the storm surge was extraordinary. Soon after the surge event, CNN was reporting surge height as high as the second story on buildings (CNN, 2013).

  • ·      Others used landmarks as a measuring stick for surge height. Sandy Torotoro, a 44-year old pedicab driver, stated, “The water was as high as a coconut tree,” (Philstar, 2013). Some of the most riveting photos from Tacloban City show entire neighborhoods demolished, with just a few coconut trees remaining upright.

  • ·     The surge came in very quickly. Some described it as a wall of water, and many were apparently surprised by the swift-moving surge. Philstar provides one eyewitness account of a local resident who was swept away by the surge. “One Tacloban resident said he and others took refuge inside a parked jeepney to protect themselves from the storm, but the vehicle was swept away by a surging wall of water.” (Philstar, 2013)

  • ·      The surge was high enough to float large ships and tankers, and deposit them in neighborhoods of Tacloban City. Such images resemble the destruction wrought by catastrophic tsunamis, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, or the 2011 Japan Tsunami.
Haiyan's storm surge was high and powerful enough to float ocean-going tankers and deposit them inland. 
Image: Aaron Favila/ AP.

As more photographs and video become available from the impacted area, the maximum height of this storm surge should become more evident. At the moment it appears that Haiyan’s storm surge height may rival the 7.3-meter (24 foot) surge that struck the Philippine provinces of Samar and Leyte in 1897. That storm surge drowned 1,300 people, as it produced the highest surge in the modern history of the Philippines and all of East Asia.

Haiyan's storm surge deposited this ship in a Tacloban neighborhood. 
Image: Aaron Favila/ AP

Although Haiyan’s storm surge may be comparable to the 1897 storm, the death toll will certainly be much higher. Many media sources are now indicating that 10,000 people may have died in Tacloban City alone, and thousands are still missing.

CNN, 2013:

Philstar, 2013:

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