Typhoon Washi

Terrible tragedy has struck the Philippines.

Typhoon Washi hit Mindanao this week. As of this writing, the death toll stands at over 1000. An equal number have gone missing. So far we know that 10,000 homes have been damaged and a third of a million people affected.

[“affected” – what a tame word to describe death, injuries from which there will be no full recovery, pain over the loss of loved ones, destruction of home, the collapse of a struggling small business or the termination of that desperately needed job, disruption that will drag on relentlessly for months… a third of a million people “affected.” In honor to those in pain today, let us not gloss over the word.]

The disaster contains a bit of every lesson we’ve learned about hazards over hundreds of thousands of years of human experience.

Hazards are no respecters of dates. Never mind that it’s Christmas week. These events occur on nature’s schedule, not ours. On this date in the last century, a 1953 lahar took out a railroad bridge in Tangiwai, New Zealand, killing 153 on the train that came through a few minutes later and plunged into the Whangaehu River below. In 1974, Cyclone Tracy struck and devastated Darwin, Australia, Compact, only a category 3, Tracy killed only 73 people, but destroyed 70% of Darwin’s housing stock, and inflicted property losses of over $700M…quite a bit more in today’s terms. 40,000 of Darwin’s 47,000 people were left homeless. 30,000 had to be evacuated. Many left for other cities across Australia and never returned (sound familiar?).

[Think of the December 26, 2004 Indonesian earthquake and tsunami. In that part of the world maybe December 25 and adjacent days are not so significant, you say? But recall that this earthquake and tsunami was Sweden’s greatest natural disaster ever, killing over 500 who were in that part of the world on holiday. Let’s try to get our arms around this. In that catastrophe, half as many Swedes died as have died from Typhoon Washi, while the number of people “affected” by Washi is comparable to the number who died across southeastAsia on that fateful day.]

If we prepare with a sense of urgency for the extreme events that lie in our future…proper land use for new construction, and an eye to reducing our exposure in existing, dangerous land use, where we’ve built in floodplains and on unstable hillsides; investments in warning systems, and public education…then well and good. But when we allow our preparations to slow because of budget concerns, or other distractions, then devastating surprise will continue to punctuate our future.   

In poorer countries, people die. In those earlier Christmas Eve statistics, did we notice that stunningly few people lost their lives in the Australian and New Zealand events? But in the Philippines, a 1000 people have lost their lives out of a population (just) under 100 million. Extrapolate to the United States. That would be as if 6000 people, not 1800, had died in Katrina. And in countries, rich or poor, it’s the poorer people who disproportionately take the hit. Disadvantaged prior to the disaster? You’ll be more so afterward.

Many people lost their lives in landslides. Reading this blog? You and I have options. We can live in the safer areas – out of the floodplain, off the unstable slopes and hillsides of the local terrain, distant from earthquake fault zones. Furthermore, we have the education and the time to learn where these danger spots lie. The poor all over the world, whether they find themselves in the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, or in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, or in Mindanao, are forced to live on “the land we’ve left” – the undesirable or dangerous land in a given area. Often that means unstable hillsides, or land straddling a fault, or too close to that stream bed that periodically breaks loose from the confines of its banks. And often the poor are fatally unaware they’ve taken on this additional risk. [And just maybe…if you and I have the knowledge and the means to minimize such risks to ourselves and our families, perhaps we also have a responsibility to do more to protect others not so fortunate. For many of you, this is precisely your life’s work. Good on you!]

Many lost their lives at night. They were sleeping, or trying to, when the slopes gave way and the rivers burst their banks. Getting warnings that last mile is most difficult under these circumstances. Those in the state’s emergency services knew people were in trouble but lacked the means to communicate the risk.

The risk of disease lies ahead. As the poor stream to crowded shelters, with potable water and other supplies at a premium, there are enough who are sick that the spread of disease looms, threatening to add further to the toll.

Aid agencies are asking for donations. The United Nations itself has already requested $30M from donors for drinking water and sanitation help. This combination of disaster and significant date usually augurs well for financial aid.

To repeat: the disaster contains a bit of every lesson we’ve learned about hazards over hundreds of thousands of years of human experience.

Hold on…“learned?”

Not really! Arguably, we haven’t learned any of these lessons, as in: taken them to heart. We’ve developed some head knowledge, but we’re perpetuating risky behavior. We’re failing to build resilience. When it comes to disasters, we need to learn much more from experience, and put our knowledge into practice. We’re doing this in every walk of life BUT natural disasters.

“So, Bill,” you say, “not exactly the greatest note to end on in this holiday season.”

You’re right! So how about this quote from Robert Louis Stephenson: Our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits.” 

Or…click here.


[this post was edited slightly on Decmber 25, to correct several factual errors in the earlier version. I regret the mistakes and apologize to readers.]

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