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When words save lives: "storm tsunami" vs. "storm surge"

Source: Plan International - Wed, 4 Dec 2013 08:52 AM
Author: Roger Yates
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Photo courtesy of Plan International.
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

While many towns in Eastern Samar were wiped out by Typhoon Haiyan’s winds and resulting storm surge, one remained standing. Balankayan town hall proudly declares, “Zero dead, zero missing, zero injured”. How did it manage to survive? Roger Yates, director of disaster risk management at children’s organisation Plan International, explains how it was down to semantics and being prepared.

Almost everyone in the world knows the Japanese word “tsunami”. They may not know, nor particularly care, that it is Japanese in origin, but it evokes images of giant tidal waves and bewildering destruction. More importantly, for the millions of people living in tsunami hotspots across the world, it provokes an instant reaction.

“Storm surge” does not.

As the death toll in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan - known in the Philippines as Yolanda - continues to climb past 5,700 and the cost of damage to more than $15 billion with some 13 million people affected, the questioning, soul-searching and finger-pointing has already begun.

Were people given enough warning? Did they know what was coming towards them? Could more lives have been saved?

Filipino-American environmental scientist Kelvin Rodolfo says many authorities were warned about the threat of a storm surge – but either did not heed it or did not understand the threat.

He has suggested there should be a Filipino term for “storm surge” as there is no such phrase that evokes the association or essential reaction of “tsunami”.

In English, the phrase (and meteorological phenomenon) of “storm surge” means little to most people. Tell them the water levels can reach rooftops, and it can punch a hole in a building as if it were paper, they will likely sit up and pay attention.

Tacloban City Councillor Cristina Gonzales-Romualdez – wife of the city’s Mayor Alfredo (and a former B-movie star) – almost died in the typhoon along with her children.

She told reporters it was “like something from a movie” – and dismissed using “storm surge”, saying it was insufficient. She likened it to a tsunami hitting her city.

“Even in science, we don’t even know that a tsunami can be caused by a storm. Did it ever happen in the past? We were warned about a storm surge but we were not warned about a tsunami,” she said.

Rodolfo, the scientist, disagrees with such officials, saying that telling people a tsunami was coming would only create unnecessary panic and even deaths. He says they need accurate information about what might happen.

Although the Philippines National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, with local authorities, pre-emptively and reactively evacuated some 800,000 to 1 million people across 22 provinces before the typhoon’s arrival, it was clearly still not enough.

Haiyan saw storm surge of five metres, not including tide levels, which were coupled with winds of up to 313 km per hour (with gusts of 378 kph) – a lethal combination when funnelled into places like Tacloban.

Whatever phrase was used to warn people, there have been successes.

In areas like Samar, my organisation, Plan International, worked with local authorities to drill people in evacuations. Many of them used escape routes to high ground (with concrete pathways and steps) and safety. They are labelled “Tsunami escape route”.

In every barangay (district), charts on the town council office walls tell the story. In Balankayan, Eastern Samar, the chart declares “zero dead, zero missing, zero injured” of its 10,226 population. Yet neighbouring towns saw scores killed when the wrong buildings were chosen as evacuation centres or people stayed put.

San Francisco island sits between hard-hit Cebu and Leyte. The award-winning disaster risk management (DRM) authority there evacuated all 48,000 residents without loss. It has also made sure children and youth are involved in disaster drills – essential as they are some of the most vulnerable and are often killed.

“Storm tsunami”, “super typhoon”, whatever. Personally, I don’t give a hoot what phrase is used as long as it has the desired effect of fear – and prompt, effective action.

Disaster risk management can and will save countless lives. A cyclone in 1999 in Odisha (formerly Orissa), India, killed some 10,000 people, but marked improvement in DRM meant Cyclone Phailin this year claimed just 60 lives.

I flew with Margareta Wahlström, the U.N.’s head of disaster risk reduction, over typhoon-affected areas in northern Cebu and stopped to speak with the mayors of Bantayan last month. She has said Haiyan is a “wake up call” for countries’ DRM work and must be scaled up. There is an opportunity for communities, businesses, schools and local leaders to reduce risks and improve clearer warnings. The reality is that many schools are used as evacuation centres, and a nationwide survey is now underway to assess the buildings’ strength.

The mayors we spoke to in Cebu were keen on getting powers for forced evacuation. But I pointed out that it is better that people evacuate because they understand the need, trust the warning, know the shelters are safe and can be assured their homes will not be looted while empty.

Investing in DRM saves many lives. The Philippines government will be criticised for not doing enough, running too erratic evacuations, and there will be political casualties. I don’t particularly care, but I do care about the number of casualties from the many typhoons that will and do hit this archipelago. They are not statistics, they are people, families, children and lives to be saved.

Roger Yates, director of disaster risk management at children’s organisation Plan International, is currently working on the response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Follow Plan on Twitter: @planglobal, @planemergencies.

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