Science Interviews

Interview

Tue, 19th Nov 2013

The impact of Typhoon Haiyan

Hans Graf, University of Cambridge, Carla Medrano, Helen Richards, Plan UK

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Last week the Philippines were hit by Typhoon Haiyan, which affected over 11 million Typhoon Haiyanpeople and displaced more than 600,000. But what exactly is a typhoon and was there any warning of this extreme storm? Matt Burnett spoke to Professor Hans Graf from the Atmospheric Sciences department at Cambridge University...

Hans - Well, a typhoon is a huge whirlwind that develops over warm waters. The threshold would be about 28 degrees. These typhoons start from a very small tropical depression, a low pressure system and if they reach warm waters, they can attract more energy from the warm water by water vapour evaporation then intensify, and finally turn into a very strong system. Another condition that has to be met is that there are no strong shear winds in the atmosphere. Only under these conditions, very warm water and no shear winds in the atmosphere, extremely strong storms can develop.

Matt - So basically, itís a small storm that just picks up more and more energy from the hot surface water in the sea and as long as itís not blown apart by strong winds, that's when it can develop into a typhoon. What are the conditions when this typhoon hits land?

Hans - Well, it depends on the strength of the typhoon. We have wind speeds observed up to more than 300km/hr. So, that's extreme wind speeds. Most of the very strong typhoons have wind speeds between 180 and 240 or so, but there is a number of those which we call the super storms, super typhoons which exceed these 240km/hr wind speeds.

Matt - So, there seems to have been an increase in the number and severity of these super typhoons in the Philippines area. What are some of the factors that could be contributing to this?

Hans - Well, there could be two factors. One would be the increase in sea surface temperature and we have observed indeed since the mid of 1980s, an increase in sea surface temperatures over the Indian Ocean which then spread over the Western Pacific. It arrived in the Western Pacific about in the mid Ď90s. That is exactly when we started to see more of those very strong typhoons.

Matt - With this most recent storm in the Philippines, how much notice did meteorologists get and are there any things that we can do better in the future to better prepare for these kind of storms?

Hans - Well actually, the preparation for this recent storm was very good. We can't do anything about the pathway of this storm, but the forecasts are indeed very good. The area that was hit was exactly forecasted and even the wind speeds were nearly forecasted. The forecast did not just go to 300 km an hour, but 280 or so were forecasted. So, people were prepared. The problem is that the structures, so the housings are so light-built because people are poor. So, they can't sustain these strong winds. The only thing you could do is give the people better means to have stronger houses.

So people did have warning of the typhoon but the storm, and the storm-surge - the rush of water brought in from the sea - was too strong for the shelters. One resident from Mindanao, the second largest and most southerly island of the Philippines, spoke to Chris Smith about her experiences...

Carla - I'm Carla Medrano from the Philippines here in Mindanao. We know this was coming. We had warnings. We knew of the Tsunami in Japan, but then a storm surge, we never experienced it here in the Philippines.

Chris - So, just talk us through what it was like when the weather came? What was the storm actually like? What were people doing? What were they saying?

Carla - Well, some of the people in the low lands were already in the evacuation centres. Unfortunately, these are not strong buildings. The storm was very terrible. Like the storm would suck the sea up and then throw it back at the village or the city.

Chris - How long did it go on for?

Carla - Some would recount that it was 1 Ĺ hours, some of them 2 hours.

Chris - So, it was fast and furious. It didnít go on for a long time, but when it was there, it was incredibly powerful.

Carla - Yes. They would describe it as being inside a washing machine. It was so terrible. Even strong buildings are hit. Itís very hard to imagine.

Chris - And so, what is the scene on the ground now? What does it actually look like out there?

Carla - Well, the city smells so awful because there are so many dead people all over the place. Like they're asking for body bags and the authorities are asking them to bury them even if itís not so deep because they also fear for the health of the people who survived.

Chris - What about supply of basic things like food and drink?

Carla - Tacloban City Ė there's an outpour of help really of basic necessities like food and water, and even clothing, but then in the remote areas, I think they're starting slowly to come in. In the local news last night, I can still hear people asking for help because food has not reached them.

Chris - Are people able to find out what's happened to loved ones and things like that?

Carla - There is one place where the signal is very strong. That's where everybody goes. The government just provides them with cell phones so that they can contact.

Chris - So, what do you need people to do? What's really needed now to try and help people?

Carla - In our part, we are volunteering for segregation of goods and what everybody wants is, all the help should be given to Tacloban. We are thankful to the United Nations, to foreign countries for helping and even prayers will really help us.

Thanks to Carla Medrano for sharing her story. Matt and Chris were joined by Helen Richards from Plan UK, one of the aid agencies involved with the relief effort in the Philippines

Matt - Helen, what is Plan UK?

Helen - Plan UK is a global charity. We work in 50 countries around the world, doing both kind of long term development work and also emergency relief.

Matt - So, you guys are involved in this current Philippines disaster relief effort. As we heard from Carla, all of the communications have been destroyed and a lot of the road networks and things like that are damaged. How do you first of all get the aid in? And secondly, how do you know where to deliver it? How do you know where these displaced people Ė the ones who are most in need, where they're situated?

Helen - Absolutely, itís a challenging logistical environment. The Philippines is composed of thousands of small islands and as you say, infrastructure has been severely damaged with roads, bridges impassable. So, a lot of agencies like Plan have been working in the Philippines for a long time, for Plan over 50 years. So, we have good links with communities where weíre working, good links with local authorities, municipalities. Itís about using those networks as much as possible to get information on areas that have been most affected. Given the challenging logistical environment, itís also about exploring as many different ways as possible to get aid to affected areas. So, planes, helicopters, boats, trucks or a combination of any of them.

Matt - So, there are obviously lots of health concerns. We heard from Carla that there are still corpses in the streets and obviously, thereíll be water everywhere and sewage systems will have been damaged or overflowing. How afraid are you of disease spread, things like cholera and other waterborne diseases?

Helen - In the aftermath of any crisis like this, the spread of infectious diseases is a huge concern. So, at the moment, the absolute priority is food and access to clean water and shelter. So, water purification tablets, access to drinking water, I mean it's a huge priority of agencies on the ground.

Matt -   So, if listeners want to contribute to the relief effort in the Philippines, how can they best get involved?

Helen - So, weíre encouraging people to donate to the DEC which is the Disasters and Emergencies Committee and that brings together the 14 leading UK aid agencies. If you donate money to the DEC, that money will get to people affected on the ground.

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