Philippines Is Haunted by Chaos of Earlier Storm as Typhoon Mangkhut Hits

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SHANGHAI — As Typhoon Mangkhut starts to land its blow on the northern Philippines, the country’s leaders are haunted by the devastating experience of Typhoon Haiyan five years before, when a tsunami-like storm surge and gusts of extraordinary power overwhelmed the government and the military.

That storm left many lessons. Food and fresh water must be in position before a storm hits, as roads and airports may be closed for a week or more afterward because of fallen trees and other damage. Soldiers and police officers need to fan out to restore order as soon as the typhoon passes so civil society does not collapse in storm-ravaged areas. Evacuation centers need to be built on higher ground with stronger roofs.

Some of those lessons have already been followed ahead of Typhoon Mangkhut. The country has already mobilized the police and the military, which are rushing to prepare the country’s northeast corner for the typhoon.

Though almost as powerful as Typhoon Haiyan, Typhoon Mangkhut is expected to hit an area far less densely populated and, because of geography, much less vulnerable than Tacloban, the central Philippine city devastated by Typhoon Haiyan.

During Typhoon Haiyan, seawater up to 30 feet deep covered much of Tacloban within minutes, drowning more than 6,000 people. Evacuation centers lost their roofs to winds that were nearly double the speed and four times the force of those now lashing the Carolinas from Hurricane Florence. Thousands of bodies lined roadsides afterward, or lay clustered in homes and even lodged in bushes and trees.

Typhoon Haiyan destroyed so many homes across the central Philippines that it displaced nearly four million people. Many of the survivors, particularly in Tacloban, ran short of food, water and medicine almost immediately.

A long convoy of Red Cross trucks tried to reach the city ahead of the storm, but had to turn back when winds rose sooner than expected. When the convoy tried to make the trip after the storm, rioting mobs of hungry survivors stopped it and tried looting it. That prompted the convoy to turn back again, and prevented it from reaching the devastated city until days later.

The president at the time, Benigno S. Aquino III, issued strenuous warnings before the typhoon, which had some of the most powerful winds ever measured in a storm that made landfall in a populated area. But the airport and electricity grid were totally smashed by the storm, and the military and police officers who responded were overwhelmed.

More than wind speed and rain, it is geography that shapes human destiny during powerful typhoons and hurricanes. That lesson may be underlined again in the next several days as Hurricane Florence comes ashore in the Carolinas and Typhoon Mangkhut blasts past the Philippines and heads for southeastern China.

Low-lying, densely populated coastal areas are by far the most vulnerable during such storms, and can be particularly hard-hit in poor countries like the Philippines. And the human suffering can be magnified when civil society collapses and anarchy breaks out for an extended period after a storm, as happened after Typhoon Haiyan struck.

Survivors described frantic efforts to grab anything that floated as a storm surge covered the first floor of homes and washed through second-floor windows.

“Some of them were able to hold on, some were lucky and lived, but most did not,” Virginia Basinang, a retired teacher, recalled in an interview amid the wreckage soon after the skies cleared.

Typhoon Haiyan proved deadly mainly because it struck a funnel-shaped bay flanked by a city, Tacloban, which is barely above sea level and home to nearly 500,000 people.

The land there is so flat and low that Gen. Douglas MacArthur chose the area for his amphibious assault to begin the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese rule during World War II. After the war, the oceanfront American base evolved into a commercial airport that drew many other businesses and turned a quiet provincial town into a thriving city.

When Typhoon Haiyan hit, the sea rose as the winds forced a vast quantity of water into the bay. The storm surge then sluiced over the sides of the bay and rapidly inundated the area with water. An oceangoing freighter was driven far inland, crushing houses as its steel hull floated imperviously through ceilings and walls.

A satellite estimated Typhoon Haiyan’s wind speeds to be as high as 195 miles per hour, one of the highest ever recorded on Earth.

Estimates show that Typhoon Mangkhut may come close to Typhoon Haiyan in wind speed. But it is drawing close to a mountainous, much less densely inhabited shoreline of the northeastern Philippines. Powerful typhoons that have hit that area in the past have tended to cause far fewer deaths.

For survivors, Typhoon Haiyan was a terrifying experience. When the sea rose over much of Tacloban, huge waves sent floating cars crashing again and again into the drowned bodies that lined the outside walls of one school. That sent sprays of blood repeatedly across the school’s windows, terrorizing the children sheltering inside.

The civil disorder that followed that typhoon made the human suffering much worse. Wind and waves broke open three prisons, including one that housed maximum-security inmates. Criminals armed themselves and joined some of the many looting gangs that roamed the city for the next week, wearing bandannas across their faces to conceal their identities.

The Philippine military and the local governments were overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster and were unable to restore order. When the army loaded hundreds of bodies onto a convoy of trucks for burial in mass graves on the edge of the city, gunfire at the city limits forced the military column to turn back, and the bodies were unloaded again in front of City Hall in downtown Tacloban. Municipal officials later said that gunshots had been fired by homeowners who were trying to ward off looters, and were not a sign of sustained shooting or any attack by the area’s Marxist insurgency.

Gas station owners refused to unlock their pumps for a week after the storm, fearing that they would be looted immediately if they did so. That prompted United Nations officials to complain in the days immediately after the storm that they could not distribute supplies because vehicles brought in after the storm had no fuel.

Calm did not return until an American aircraft carrier, the George Washington, and its task force arrived offshore a week after the storm and began using helicopters to move soldiers and distribute supplies.

One of the broader public health lessons of Typhoon Haiyan was the importance of keeping the public’s tetanus injections up to date before a storm ever appears. Typhoon Haiyan tore apart many wood homes and scattered boards with protruding nails along practically every street.

The storm also decapitated practically all of the city’s palm trees, scattering a thick layer of fronds over every road and making it almost impossible afterward to discern where there were boards with nails scattered underneath.

After the first week, when a semblance of order was being restored, international aid organizations set up tents and began administering thousands of vaccines, giving first priority to the injured.

But by then, Tacloban hospitals had already begun admitting some tetanus victims, who lay doubled up in their beds. The disease causes months of agonizing and uncontrollable muscle spasms, and is almost impossible to treat once it takes hold.

Keith Bradsher is the Shanghai bureau chief for The New York Times, and previously was the Hong Kong bureau chief and Detroit bureau chief. He covered Typhoon Haiyan, living in Tacloban for the two weeks after the storm and returning three more times afterward to follow up. Follow Keith Bradsher on Twitter: @KeithBradsher.

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