Storm Surge: A misconception that can kill a thousand lives

Many typhoons had passed in the Philippines and mostly brought massive destruction. Last year, another destructive typhoon made its title as the “Philippines’ worst natural disaster”. Typhoon Yolanda, with its international name Haiyan, wiped out many areas particularly in Eastern Samar. Among these areas was Tacloban City in Leyte which experienced devastation due to the typhoon and a misconception.

According to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), there were about 6,200 deaths recorded after the casualties brought by typhoon Yolanda. Many of these deaths came from Tacloban City which was hardly hit and damaged by the typhoon. The government did not lack on giving early warnings to the local government. But some information were left misunderstood and even the mayor of Tacloban admitted his confusion.

“There was a difficulty in explaining to the public what a storm surge is. We were aware of the height, but not the strength,” Romualdez said. (Retrived from GMA News – Nation)

This misconception of storm surge, aside from typhoon Yolanda, is one of the factors that brought destruction to Tacloban City. Mayor Romualdez and the other local officials cannot explain what a storm surge is because they were used to tsunami warnings. This simple term, due to unfamiliarity, caused deaths to many Tacloban residents.

What is a storm surge? 

A storm surge is an abnormal rise of water generated by a storm, over and above the predicted astronomical tide. Karen Cardenas, a science writer of K’s weather, even described the storm surge as an abnormal rise of the water along the shore that builds up as a storm moves over water as a result of the high winds of the storm pushing on the ocean surface when the storm is near. It is simply huge massive waves brought about by a storm.

There are many factors that influence a storm surge. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), factors that contribute to the formation of storm surge are the following:

A diagram showing the factors that affect the formation of a storm surge

A diagram showing the factors that affect the formation of a storm surge

  • Central Pressure – A higher surge occurs in a lower pressure.
  • Storm Intensity – A higher surge is produced from strong winds.
  • Size – A higher surge occurs in a larger storm.
  • Storm Forward Speed – A faster storm produces a higher surge on an open coast.
  • Angle of Approach to Coast – A perpendicular direction moving towards the shore produces a higher storm surge.
  • Shape of the Coastline – Storm surge is higher in a concave coastline.
  • Width and Slope of the Ocean Bottom – Higher storm surge occurs with wide, gently sloping continental shelves.
  • Local Features – Storm surge is highly dependent on local features and barriers that will affect the flow of the water.

These factors could have affected the formation of the 5-meter storm surge that washed out the communities in Tacloban. It is not an ordinary wave because it can swallow a community like what happened to the Yolanda victims. Tacloban City Councilor Cristina Gonzalez-Romualdez, wife of the city mayor, was one of the victims of typhoon Yolanda and the unfamiliarity she had with the term ‘storm surge’.

“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. (Yates, 2013, When Words Save Lives: ‘Storm Tsunami’ vs. ‘Storm Surge’)

Storm Surge vs. Tsunami 

There is a big difference between a storm surge and a tsunami. Cardenas gave a simple but easy description of the two. “A storm surge is caused by a storm. A tsunami is caused by an earthquake.” 

A diagram showing the formation of a tsunami

A diagram showing the formation of a tsunami

She even added the factors which differentiate the two concepts. “The difference lies in the triggers, the frequency of occurrence, the ocean origin, the coastal reach, the hemispheric differences, the direction of energy propagation, advance warning time, travel times, forerunners, the number of waves, duration of waves, the type of waves and the physical processes involved in wave generation.” These ideas are two different phenomena which were interchangeably connected by the victims. They were warned of a storm surge and they thought that it was not destructive at all. And when it came, they perceived it as a tsunami because of the strength it performed. It simply shows that the people lacked knowledge about it and are used of tsunami warnings. Hence, who’s responsible for this?

In this case, the role of science communicators take place. They are the ones who simplify facts about science and technology to ordinary people. They make technical terms into easy ones without distorting the facts. For the Yolanda tragedy, particularly to the storm surge victims, they were informed and warned about the storm surge. But it wasn’t explained clearly what impact it can bring to their communities. Julia Jasmine Sta. Romana, a science journalist in GMA network, even admitted that indeed the media lacked on explaining about the storm surge. But overall, the media and even the government did their best to inform and warn the people regarding this concern.

“Truth is really important to us journalists and during Yolanda, I think we did our jobs the best we could. But again, if you look at human nature, facts alone can’t initiate action. You need an emotional trigger to push people to do something. The scale of destruction that was seen during Yolanda was something you would normally associate with a tsunami, but you couldn’t call it tsunami because that’s not it. And that’s the challenge for us journalists, we need to find ways to illustrate these concepts in a way that people can relate to without distorting facts.” – Julia Jasmine Sta. Romana

In conclusion, Typhoon Yolanda didn’t only bring destruction but even confusion to the minds of the people. And with a simple misunderstanding, a term has killed a thousand lives.

References links:

NOAA, 2008, Introduction to Storm Surge (http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/hurricane/resources/surge_intro.pdf )

NDRRMC, 2014, NDRRMC Update: Effects of Typhoon “Yolanda: (Haiyan) (http://www.ndrrmc.gov.ph/attachments/article/1125/Update%20Sitrep%20No.%20104%20Effects%20of%20TY%20YOLANDA.pdf )

Cardenas, K., 2014, Personal Communication

Sta.Romana, J., 2014, Personal Communication

– Shek

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