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The Philippines typhoon disaster

By The Rainbow
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THE massive destruction of lives and property by a monster Typhoon Haiyan in the Tacloban city of the Philippines over the weekend shows the helplessness and vulnerability of man before the forces of nature despite the great advances in technology. While scientific and technological advancements have made it possible for man to forecast precisely the occurrence of natural phenomena like typhoons, the same technological developments have done little to protect man from the ravages of nature. Therefore, when faced with these ever-occurring natural disasters, man is left to his fate, resorting oftentimes to his Creator for succour. For as St. Maximos the Confessor rightly said, 'Unless the Lord comes to us, we are completely helpless'.

Typhoon Haiyan, a super Category 5 savage wind storm, gusting at over 200 mph, the worst to hit Philippines, swept through Tacloban city and neighbouring areas in the central areas of the country's archipelagoes. The enormous waves that hit on Saturday, November 9, reportedly caused sea waters to surge 20 feet high, leaving in its wake some 10,000 people dead in Tacloban city and elsewhere. Homes, schools, infrastructure and the city's airport were leveled. Reports say 70 - 80 per cent of the homes in Tacloban city were destroyed with hundreds of thousands of people rendered homeless. Tacloban is the provincial capital of Leyte with a population of 200,000 people. The scene in the city is that of total devastation with no food, water and electricity. Reports say as the city's authorities struggle to distribute relief materials, widespread looting was going on indicating poverty.

Elsewhere in the neigbouring Samar Island which was also badly hit with some 3000 people reported dead while another 2, 000 were missing. The disaster's full impact is still unfolding as the entire country has been left in a state of shock. The path of destruction of the storm leaves many areas inaccessible as roads and other routes are blocked by fallen trees and poles. It's a nightmare of a sort for the survivors who need urgent humanitarian assistance to face a most grueling experience.

So far, some countries have responded promptly to the Philippines' tragedy with aid. The United States, responding to a Philippines' government request reportedly sent the first batch of 80 marines from its base in Okinawa in Southern Japan to help the authorities with logistics. U.S. President Barack Obama had earlier issued a message, stating that he was 'deeply saddened by the loss of life and extensive damage', and extolled the 'incredible resiliency of the Philippine people'.

Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) has promised initial €3 million in aid while the British Prime Minister David Cameron announced £6 million in humanitarian assistance. Pope Francis has pleaded for more aid for the victims. What are needed most at this time are food, water, medication, clothing and shelter for the displaced as the weather swings into winter. Aid groups and more countries need to rally round to help Philippines at its most trying time.

The Philippines archipelago comprises 7,107 groups of islands out of which only about 2,000 are inhabited. The islands are clustered into three major groups namely: Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. The geographical location of Philippines 800 kilometres (500 miles) from the Asian mainland between Taiwan and Borneo right in the heart of the South China Sea exposes the country to fearsome typhoons. Philippines is said to be the most exposed country in the world to tropical storms.

Reports indicate that on annual basis, Philippines is hit by about 20 typhoons. The latest Typhoon Haiyan, reportedly, is the 25th to hit the country this year, meaning that the country is constantly in emergency. The storms headed towards northern Vietnam where it made landfall Sunday in several coastal provinces with winds gusting at 220 km/h (137 mph). The Central Hydro-Meteorological Forecasting in Bui Minh Tang said that may be the strongest storm to hit Vietnam this year. The frequency and magnitude of these disastrous storms would naturally put these countries constantly at alert. During the typhoon season in the Pacific, which is generally from May to October, a number of tropical storms form in the Western Pacific Ocean and swirl across the vast waters. Disaster occurs when the path of the storm falls onto inhabited coastal areas.

The result is that it is not only Philippines that suffers the trauma of savage ocean storms; practically, all the countries located within the Asian Pacific Rim are affected. China, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and all the countries in Southeast Asia are vulnerable. For instance, some of the deadliest typhoons on record in the region include Hong Kong typhoon in September 1937 that killed 11,000 people; Japan Typhoon Vera, September 1959 left 5,238 people dead; China Typhoon Nina in August, 1975 killed 229,000 people and caused the collapse of the Banqiao dam and Philippine Typhoon Thelma in November 1991 killed about 8,000 people. Is there no way these deaths could be reduced?

Given the frequency and regularity of these storms on the target countries, the question is why little has been done to build infrastructure that could withstand the storm impact. Looking at the extent of destruction in Tacloban city, the near total leveling of the affected areas along the path of Haiyan, it is confounding that such degree of devastation could occur in this 21st Century world. The damage is like a scene of a natural disaster in the 15th or 16th century or thereabout when humanity knew little or nothing about these storms and their impact.

The devastation in Tacloban city is a challenge to the Philippines to reform its architecture in view of the preponderance of monstrous typhoons in that country. Rather than wait until disaster strikes before aids begin to pour in, such aids should be given and used in disaster-free time to build stronger infrastructure. Protective dykes need to be erected along coastal waterfronts to reduce storm impact and protect people. The absence of coastal defence systems enabled monster storms to wreak havoc without hindrance.

The disaster in the Philippines is a wakeup call on the Nigerian authorities not to sit on the fence in matters relating to natural disasters. Scientists have predicted that climate change has the capacity to generate windstorms of high magnitudes that have never been experienced before. The onus is on the authorities to take proactive measures to stem the impacts of such disasters. The recent unprecedented overflow of the River Niger in 2012, that affected about 20 of the 36 states of the federation gives an insight into what could happen in the event of a climate change induced natural disaster. Deaths and destruction were huge. Ocean surges along Lagos coastal waters also indicate the potential of more violent events that could wreak havoc on Lagos and other coastal areas. As most of Nigeria's oil and gas facilities are located in the low-lying Niger Delta area, these need to be protected from the ravages of the blind forces of nature. No country is immune from natural disasters.

This article first appeared in THE GUARDIAN