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Column: Katrina times three hit Philippines

In our archipelago of 7,100 islands, the sea is considered a friend, a source of livelihood, and almost always a joy to behold. Filipinos' love of sun and sea is something residents of Florida understand.

With its eastern seaboard facing the Pacific, the Philippines serves as a welcome mat for most of the tropical cyclones that sweep across East Asia. But being visited by about two dozen typhoons every year has instilled in Filipinos a serenity in facing nature's fury. During powerful typhoons, it's not unusual to see children frolicking in the giant waves lashing the shore.

So when weather experts sounded the highest alert for an approaching monster howler with the international name Haiyan, flights were canceled, classes were suspended and some people along its direct path sought shelter in evacuation centers. Others, however, preferred to sit out the storm in the comfort of their homes, even if the structures sat close to the sea.

This attitude must have been particularly strong in Tacloban, one of the most prosperous and competitive cities in the Philippines, and the capital of the province where Imelda Marcos was born.

Named after a traditional bamboo device for trapping crabs and shrimp, Tacloban faces a secluded bay, which made it an ideal entry point for Japanese occupation forces in the province during World War II. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, fulfilling a promise to return to the Philippines, also picked the city for the start of the country's liberation by Allied forces.

Amateur video footage taken as Haiyan made landfall in Tacloban in the morning of Nov. 8 showed men milling around the grounds of a public school facing the bay, unmindful of the blowing wind.

Some of the men watched as the sea swelled and a solid wave topped with thick white foam rolled rapidly toward land. In seconds, the water smashed against a concrete wall lining the shore. The wall collapsed and the sea roared in but dissipated as it neared the school. Finally, the men in the school moved away.

Elsewhere in the city, residents speak of walls of water surging up to 35 feet and pounding concrete buildings with explosive power. An air force officer, preparing his men for rescue operations at their headquarters, found himself suddenly inundated by seawater. He survived by punching a hole in the ceiling and clambering onto the roof, moments before the building collapsed and was swept away, along with his men. The officer managed to grab a piece of wood and hang on to it as he was pulled to the open sea, but his men remain missing.

So are entire police forces, and entire villages in several areas of the Visayas, in the central Philippines. The scariest thing about the first images that came out of Tacloban, after the howler we named Yolanda had moved on to Vietnam, was that there were hardly any human beings that could be seen moving around in the flattened wasteland that was once a bustling city.

There were also no images of people mourning their dead — a sad indication that only a few survived to do the mourning.

Weather experts attributed the apocalyptic devastation to a storm surge. The first time we encountered the term was in 2011, when the waves rose up to 20 feet during a storm in Manila Bay and crashed ashore, destroying one of the most popular restaurants in a five-star hotel and inundating the U.S. Embassy in Manila.

Experts explained that a storm surge was what hit New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. This time in Tacloban, 360 miles southeast of Manila, we were told that Yolanda packed 3½ times the power of Katrina.

The phenomenon reminds us of the walls of water that roar inland during a tsunami. Unlike in a tsunami, however, the sea does not significantly recede before or after hitting land in a storm surge, which is driven by swirling winds. In the case of Yolanda, reputed to be the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall, the wind raced at a deadly 195 mph.

Yolanda's gale-force winds lashed Manila, but the nation's capital was spared the worst. We watched as images of the devastation trickled out of Tacloban and other areas.

With telecommunications down and roads, bridges, airport and ports severely damaged, Tacloban was cut off from the world. Five days after the typhoon struck, bodies still littered the streets, and a stampede in a government warehouse outside the city left eight people dead.

Unable to receive immediate relief or even bury the dead, survivors are looting or trying to flee the city. They will never look at the sea in the same way again.

Ana Marie Pamintuan is executive editor of the Philippine Star in Manila. In 2007 she spent several weeks in the United States under the auspices of the International Center for Journalists and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, including time in the Tampa Bay Times newsroom. She wrote this exclusively for the Times.

Column: Katrina times three hit Philippines 11/14/13 [Last modified: Thursday, November 14, 2013 6:09pm]
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