Super Typhoon Haiyan Sweeps Across Philippines


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The residents of Philippines are no strangers to typhoons - After all, an average of 19 storms brush by each year with at least 6 or 7 making landfall. However, super-typhoon Haiyan or Yolanda as the locals are calling it, that landed around 4 am local time on Friday, November 8th, 2013, was no ordinary storm. With estimated sustained winds of 200 mph and gusts rising as high as 235 mph, experts believe that it may have been the biggest typhoon to ever make landfall.

To put it in perspective, it was 3.5 times more powerful than Hurricane Katrina the third strongest storm to hit the US mainland or as experts succinctly put it - as strong as a storm could theoretically get! While the winds were bad enough, what was devastating and totally unexpected was the storm surge that reached up to 20 feet high in some coastal cities.

Though the extent of the damage is still being assessed, one thing is for sure - The trail of devastation left by Haiyan is like none other experienced by this country before. As of today, about 1,800 people are believed to have lost their lives, and the number could rise as high as 5,000. An estimated 580,000 people have been displaced, about half of which are currently living in the over 900 evacuation centers set up by the government.

Amongst the worst hit is Tacloban the coastal capital of the Leyte Province, which was leveled by the surging waters leaving many of its 200,000 residents without homes, food or water. The city's only hospital is so cramped that doctors are unable to accept any more patients. Also devastated is Basey, a seaside town in Samar Province that lies across the bay from Tacloban, where 433 people are believed to have perished and many remain unaccounted for. These cities however are amongst the fortunate ones - That's because their residents have begun receiving aid in the form of food, water and even mobile hospitals, from countries all over the world.

Such is not the case for the 40,000 residents of Guiuan, which aerial surveys show has also been devastated by Haiyan. That's because the city is located in a remote region of the country, one which has been difficult to access because many roads remain blocked. Also, with the electricity out in most of the affected regions, aid workers can only operate during the day.

To make matters worse, a new tropical storm, Zoraida made landfall on Tuesday morning. Though not very strong, it managed to slow down rescue and aid missions because flights to the remote areas had to be suspended until the storm passed. The only silver lining was that the storm, which so far is estimated to have caused about $14 billion USD in damages, skirted past Manila, the country's main industrial and economic hub.

The good news is that storms of this strength are more the exception than the rule. According to scientists, ones with such intensity occur only about once in a decade and even better, make landfall maybe once every 100 years - Phew!

Typhoons? Hurricanes? Cyclones? - I am confused!

While called different names, they are all one and the same. In the Northern Hemisphere (north of the equator) they are called hurricanes or typhoons, while in the Southern Hemisphere (south of equator), they are called cyclones.

How Do They Form?

Typhoons/hurricanes/cyclones are large revolving tropical storms caused by winds blowing around a central area of low atmospheric pressure. They develop over warm waters, (that's why hurricanes in Florida always happen in the summer) because the warmth creates low-pressure air. The rapidly rising air becomes saturated with moisture and forms thunderclouds. Cool air fills up the empty space created by the warm air that has risen. Because the earth is constantly spinning on its axis, it causes the warm air to start rotating faster and faster and become bigger in diameter, often extending out thousands of kilometers. As it gains speed and strength it moves, and sometimes ends up hitting landmasses.

Why was Haiyan particularly deadly?

Experts believe that there were a number of factors that combined to make Haiyan or Yolanda, the perfect deadly storm. First was the fact that it skimmed across the Pacific so rapidly that it did not have time to suck in any cool air, which would have helped reduce its energy level and hence impact. Then there was its unusual path. With the high pressure to the north the storm happened to track further south, which is why it hit the central part of the country rather than the north that is subjected to most typhoon activity and whose residents know how to deal with such storms. To make matters worse, the naturally funnel shaped Tacloban Bay helped fuel the surge and turn into an almost 20-foot high wall of water, which experts believe is responsible for majority of the damage.


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