Thursday, November 1, 2012

What the PHL can learn from the US' 'Frankenstorm' experience

As "Post-tropical" storm Sandy makes its way out of the United States, leaving a trail of havoc in its wake, one might well ask: what can a typhoon-prone country like the Philippines learn from this "frankenstorm"? According to The Guardian, when Sandy slammed into the the US east coast, it wreaked havoc on a number of densely-populated areas, including New York City and New Jersey. Even before it reached the US, it already left a path of destruction in Haiti, where it killed 69 people —to say nothing of property damage. Sandy's superpowers Even though Sandy was just a Category 1 cyclone on the Saffir-Smithsons Wind Scale —which goes all the way up to Category 5— it seemed much, much worse. Meteorologists and disaster experts believe this is because of five key factors: "Perfect storm": Sandy is a "rare hybrid" superstorm, according to US meteorologists. During its transition from Hurricane to Post-tropical Cyclone, Sandy met a cold front, which boosted its strength just before making landfall in New Jersey. Range: Sandy's diameter was bigger than a usual storm's: "1,500 kilometres if measured by the extent of damaging-force winds," according to The Globe and Mail. This enabled it to affect some of the most densely-populated cities in the US. "We’re looking at impact of greater than 50 to 60 million people," NOAA environmental prediction head Louis Uccellini told Time. In New York, "the subway is flooded and will take 4-5 days at least to return on line, officials advised. Eighty homes burned down in coastal Queens. Power may not return to lower Manhattan until the end of the weekend, Con Edison announced. Seven tunnels under the East River are flooded. Commuter rail is out. The airports were closed. Bus service was partial. Schools remain closed Wednesday." High tide: Sandy hit during a full moon, bringing in more flood than usual. Storm surge: Heavy precipitation, coupled with huge storm surges, brought severe damage to coastal cities. Time reported that NOAA placed Sandy's surge threat at 5.7 out of 6 —greater than any storm monitored between 1969 and 2005, even beating Hurricane Katrina. Snow: Sandy even caused blizzards in some high areas, particularly in the Appalachian Mountains. The Christian Science Monitor reported that Webster Springs in West Virginia received 17 inches of snow on Oct. 30 (Tuesday). Live Science also reported snow storms in Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, Maryland and North Carolina. PHL vs Sandy? Luckily for the Philippines, the chances of having something like Sandy are slim. GMA's weather consultant Karen Cardenas posted on her Facebook account: "Not much chance of that because it needs a confluence of a cold air from the west (jetstream), plus the warm air, plus extreme moisture. And it gets stronger as it goes extra-tropical. Since we're in the tropics (latitude just above the equator) it is highly unlikely. Possible, maybe. But very very slim chance." Meanwhile, Project NOAH director Dr. Mahar Lagmay told GMA News Online in a phone interview that Sandy is a very big cyclone and that it would be difficult for the Philippines to cope with such a phenomenon. But Lagmay added that we have been experiencing massive typhoons of our own, such as the recent Tropical Storm Ofel (Son-Tih), and 1979's Super Typhoon Warling (Tip). "Si Ofel, sinalanta 'yung Mindanao, tapos yung Visayas, tapos yung Luzon. Malaki rin iyon," said Lagmay. Talking about Supertyphoon Warling —which had a diameter greater than Sandy's, equivalent to about half the land area of the entire United States— Lagmay said: "If we've managed that before, we can survive it." Lessons learned Lagmay tweeted his experience in the United States during Hurricane Irene: I was in New York during Hurricane Irene in August 2011. Grabe sila mag-prepare sa bagyo, parang may parating na Tsunami. — Mahar Lagmay (@nababaha) October 29, 2012 In a phone interview, Lagmay said that he noticed that the updates were being posted almost every hour and the media advisories helped people to prepare. "Talagang bugbog sila sa information... Lahat ng media sa mga states, pati advisories from government," said Lagmay. "Malaki ang preparation and all are working together... Even the president was there to check about what's happening," he added. GMA resident meteorologist Nathaniel "Mang Tani" Cruz said that the level of preparedness for a disaster is different in the United States. "Two or three days pa lang bago mag-landfall, nag-evacuate na sila. Proactive sila," said Mang Tani. Mang Tani also said that, because the country is used to an average of 20 cyclones per year, Filipinos usually assume that we are always prepared. Lagmay said, "We're trying to apply that sa Project NOAH. Gumagamit tayo ng different media platforms to inform people. There's always a visual interpretation of what's happening." However, Lagmay emphasized that Project NOAH is still in the process of "enhancing services to mitigate effectively hazards." He said that when representatives from the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) visited them, Project NOAH was identified as "one of the better examples of best practices in disaster risk management in Asia and the Pacific." Resources = preparedness Mang Tani also said that the US has ample resources to prepare its people for catastrophes. Lagmay commended the US government for its accurate maps, numeric models and timely forecasts during hurricanes. "They are using the best technologies available... Scientists and media are working together. Talagang informed ang mga tao," said Lagmay. But Lagmay also said that Filipinos have to improve the way we disseminate information. "Dapat ang advisories hanggang barangay level. We see that in some areas pero hindi sa lahat," said Lagmay. Mang Tani pointed out that there is no perfect system to prepare for a disaster, noting that Hurricane Katrina still managed to cause severe damage in the United States. "A powerful nation is no match sa fury ng nature," Mang Tani concluded. — TJD