Storm surge: Lost in translation and interpretation

The coast of Eastern Samar after Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the province, bringing with it strong winds, heavy rain and storm surge. Photo by: Conrad Navidad / IOM / CC BY-NC-ND

When Super Typhoon Haiyan was about to make landfall a week ago in the Philippines, it brought not only strong winds and heavy rain — but also a wall of seawater that crashed inland, leaving barely any structure standing in the storm’s path.

This is what meteorologists define as a “storm surge,” though many survivors now call it a tsunami. Though similar, both weather phenomena are different in origin and scope, but experts suggest the public lacked a clear understanding of the terminology, and that may have led to more deaths in Tacloban, the “ground zero” of the catastrophe.

According to one government weather expert, the problem was not improper information but how the information was translated, explained and disseminated to the population, and the fact that the typhoon simply was too strong to prepare for.

“I don’t think there was lack of information and update from the government, it’s just that down to the grassroots level, they don’t know what a storm surge really is,” Oscar Lizardo, chief science research specialist for weather and disasters at the Philippine Department of Science and Technology, told Devex. “If there was a problem, it’s the lack of understanding of the definition and effects of a storm surge. I agree that there was a proper warning, but it’s on how these information and data were interpreted and used.”

Storm surge vs. tsunami

A large portion of the affected population, especially in the areas of Tacloban and Palo in the province of Leyte, didn’t expect tsunami-like waves crashing on their homes during the height of the storm.

There were no tsunami warnings, so they only expected strong winds and heavy rains, and the effects of the super typhoon caught them by surprise.

But what really is a storm surge and how is it different from a tsunami?

Vicente Manalo, a senior official at national weather bureau PAGASA, explained a storm surge is a massive tidal wave caused by extremely strong winds. It occurs when a very strong typhoon is expected to cross the coast, and the gustiness of the wind push huge volumes of water toward the shoreline.

Tsunamis, on the other hand, have their origin in underwater earthquakes.

Lack of understanding

Weather updates were given regularly before and during the onslaught of Haiyan, including the possibility of storm surges and the expected magnitude of these. But despite the warnings, the devastating effects of the storm surge caught almost everyone off guard, according to the country’s disaster risk management agency.

“All the advisories were given and released. We asked people to stay in their homes because of the strong winds, without realizing that [the typhoon would cause] a storm surge [of a] scale which we didn’t expect,” explained National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council spokesperson Reynaldo Balido “The effects was really unexpected and unprecedented.”

Lack of sufficient knowledge and understanding of what a storm surge implies and the strength of the typhoon were evident in those victims who refused to leave their properties prior to Haiyan’s landfall, said an aid worker on the ground, now in Cebu but just back from Tacloban.

“People know that [Haiyan] was really strong, but we have to think that these people live in small and isolated communities. Their grasp of what a storm surge means is limited,” noted World Vision local communications officer Cecil Laguardia said. “People here are used to storms but not of this magnitude.”

Pete Troilo, Devex director of global advisory and analysis and also on the ground in Cebu to monitor the relief efforts, noted victims expressed frustration over the fact they were not aware of the potential consequences of a storm surge.

“Storm impacts aren’t easy to predict, but if authorities had told the people to plan for a wall of water crashing into the city streets, they would have better understood the gravity of the situation and more lives could have been saved,” he explained.

Message didn’t reach the people

Storm surges are a common occurrence during the rainy season (June-December) in the Philippines. Just two years ago, 20-foot high waves in Manila Bay submerged entire low-lying areas of the capital, but casualties remained low due to successful preventive measures.

But a devastation of the scale of Haiyan may finally open up the eyes of Filipinos to how disaster risk preparation and management should be conducted in the future, both in disseminating information to far-flung areas and translating and interpreting the messages right, especially at the local level.

“From what happened, the knowledge of what a storm surge really is did not trickle down to the communities in the remote areas,” said Lizardo. “I guess the information [we released] was either not studied well or was not shared.”

The communication process starts with PAGASA, which gives a warning to the NDRRMC, which in turn releases a national statement on what to expect from a storm. The information goes from national to regional, provincial, municipal, and all the way down to the barangay (village) level.

Balido admitted that preparation on the ground was only projected up to the scale of public storm signal warning No. 4, although according to Rey Gozon, regional disaster management OIC, the government did everything it could to alert, warn and even evacuate people. The typhoon however surpassed public storm signal warning No. 5 so its intensity was “overwhelming.”

What it comes down to, argued Lizardo, is letting each person, from the capital to the most far-flung communities in the Philippines, to be weather conscious and knowledgeable with the local governments capably taking the lead.

“Where we lack effort is in letting people understand storm surges. The local governments should be knowledgeable of it and be capable of responding to any situation. It’s part of their responsibilities.”

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.

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