A history of storms: 1890s newspaper reveals devastating Leyte typhoon

“TYPHOON AND TIDAL WAVE IN THE PHILIPPINES – 7,000 LIVES LOST”

This is not a headline about the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), but a story from way back; from an Australian broadsheet dated January 12,1898.

The information was documented by mail and dispatches on board a steamboat called Gaelic which “contain details of the fearful destruction wrought in the Philippine Islands.”

The news story went on to detail: “It is estimated that 400 Europeans and 6000 natives lost their lives, many being drowned by the rush of water, while others were killed by the violence of the wind. Several towns have been swept or blown away.”

The typhoon (also called a “huricane” later in the piece) that first struck and devastated a place called the Bay of Santa Paula was reportedly responsible for the onslaught in Leyte.

“The [hurricane] reached Leyte on October 12 [1897], and striking Tacloban, the capital, with terrific force, reduced it to ruins in less than half an hour. The bodies of 120 Europeans have been recovered from the fallen buildings. Four hundred natives were buried in the ruins,” the report said.

A town called Hermin was “swept away by flood” rendering 5,000 inhabitants missing. A small station called Weera, near Loog, was also reported gone. Only three houses were reported to be left standing in Loog itself.

“Thousands of natives are roaming about the devastated province seeking food and medical attendance. In many cases the corpses were mutilated as though they had fallen in battle, and the expressions of their faces were most agonising.”

15,000 reported killed in 1912

Fourteen years later, in 1912, another typhoon that hit Visayas probably killed and wounded 15,000 people, a report from the American newspaper the Washington Herald said.

“The typhoon swept the Visayas and and is said to have practically destroyed Tacloban, the capital of Leyte, and to have wrought enormous damage and loss of life at Capiz, the capital of the province of Capiz,” the report said.

“No figures of the dead or injured were given, but it was stated that probably half the population of the two cities had been lost.”

Tacloban at that time reportedly had a population of 12,000, while Capiz had over 20,000.

A dispatch from the governor general of the Philippines then brought the first news of the catastrophe. The report said that “he was rushing a shipload of food, clothing and all available medical supplies to Tacloban.”

Like Yolanda, this storm also severed all methods of communication in Tacloban.

“All telegraphic communication has been destroyed, and it is impossible to get other than vague reports of the extent of the disaaster. That Tacloban has suffered an enormous loss of life is believed to be certain,” the report said.

Red Cross reportedly "prepared to rush a relief fund to the governor general" after the dispatch. The Washington office also contacted the United States insular government in the Philippines asking how great their need was.

Storm science, 100 years later

A century later, Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), dubbed the strongest typhoon in the world in 2013, ravaged Tacloban.

New technologies, disaster risk reduction plans, and early warning systems unknown to 19th century Philippines have since been developed and used to alleviate and predict the effects of storms and other natural diasters.

The country's official weather authority, Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), warned citizens of possible storm surges that could reach up to seven meters high before Yolanda even hit the country. They issued Public Storm Warning Signals of up to Signal Number 4 in some areas, including Eastern Samar and Leyte.

Forced evacuation procedures ensued in Bohol, Romblon, and some parts of Leyte, including Tacloban, even before Yolanda made landfall.

The Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (PDRRMC) team in Leyte were reportedly ready to help the residents should they need rescue.

Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Mar Roxas and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin arrived in Tacloban Airport the day before Yolanda made landfall to supervise preparations in Leyte. Yet the 600-kilometer typhoon still overwhelmed the country.

The aftermath

A week after Yolanda's onslaught, all eyes and ears of the local and international press remain on the Philippines, monitoring developments, or the lack thereof, in Typhoon Yolanda's aftermath.

“The Philippines, no stranger to natural disasters, was unprepared for Yolanda's fury,” a Reuters report said.

“The aid, when it came, was slow. Foreign aid agencies said relief resources were stretched thin after a big earthquake in central Bohol province last month and displacement caused by fighting with rebels in the country's south, complicating efforts to get supplies in place before the storm struck,” the report added.

President Benigno Aquino III however maintained that the government's preparations had been effective, saying "the death toll might have been higher had it not been for the evacuation of people and the readying of relief supplies."

"But, of course, nobody imagined the magnitude that this super typhoon brought on us," President Aquino told Reuters.

Shortcomings

According to a Reuters report, there were people who did not heed the warnings raised by local

authorities and regularly broadcast on TV and other media.

"It appears local government units failed to mobilize officials for forced evacuations to higher and safer ground, out of the way of strong winds, storm surges and widespread flooding," Doracie Zoleta-Nantes, an expert on disasters at the Australian National University in Canberra, told Reuters.

Zoleta-Nantes, a Philippines native, said despite those disasters and efforts to strengthen disaster management since 2010, "the Philippine government continues a reactive approach to disasters.”

Meantime, Lucille Sering, secretary of the government's Climate Change Commission told Reuters that: “Now, looking back, the preparations were not enough, especially in Tacloban. What we did not prepare for was the breakdown in local functions."

Malacañang admitted on Thursday that they have had some shortcomings in preparations for Yolanda.

“Hindi po natin itinatanggi na maaaring nagkaroon ng mga pagkukulang. Pero iyon po ay bunga na rin ng mga severe constraints," Presidential Communications Operations Office head Herminio "Sonny" Coloma Jr. said during a press conference. "At dahil po nakakapulot tayo ng mga mahahalagang aral, gagamitin po natin ang aral na napulot natin para mas maging mahusay po ang ating pagtugon sa susunod na pagkakataon," he said.

Lead Convenor of the Disaster Risk Reduction Network Philipppines (DRRNetPhils) Adelina Sevilla Alvarez said that Typhoon Yolanda might be a sign to look back into the DRRM plans and assess how they were employed locally.

“Akala namin very successful na tayo sa ating preparedness. Maybe its is the time to look back and find out (kung pwede) bang magdagdag (ng efforts),” Sevilla Alvarez said in a press conference, Thursday.

In a report by Raffy Tima, some of the international relief and rescue experts expressed that delays in the deployment of relief goods and rescue are common to severely damaged areas such as Tacloban. After the calamitous earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, it took two weeks before the relief distribution was put into place.

“This is not a normal situation. This is a really big disaster. (Trying) to organize everything, that is the problem. (It's) very hard. The roads are blocked. We have the airport but it's not that big. So (limited) relief goods (are) received in the airport,” said Yvan Somers of the European Union.

A history of typhoons

Many devastating typhoons have affected the Philippines in the last 20 years, and the deadly hurricane of 1898 that devastated Leyte is only one of the front page reminders that these furious storms have long ago wreaked havoc on the country and still continue to do so.

Take Tropical Storm Uring that hit the Philippines in November 1991. It reportedly left 5,101 casualties, the highest number out of all recorded typhoon disasters in the last few decades.

Typhoon Undang (Agnes) that hit the country in 1984, brought about a storm surge in Basey, Samar, and killed a total of 895 people. Typhoon Reming (Durian), reportedly the strongest typhoon to ever hit the Philippines in the last few decades (maximum gustiness of 320 kph), led to 709 deaths and P10.89 billion worth of damage in 2006. Lastly, in 2012, Typhoon Pablo (Bopha), the strongest storm to hit Mindanao, cost P36.949 billion in damage.

“Ang mga tao madaling makalimot. Nagkaroon na tayo ng Frank, nagkaroon na tayo ng Reming, ng Sendong, ng Pablo. Last year lang yung Pablo, pero nakalimutan na natin,” PAGASA assistant weather services chief Monteverde said in a press conference, Thursday.

History and natural disasters repeat themselves. The only thing that hopefully changes is our level of technological adaptability, enabling us to better prepare, soften their damage, and deal with their fury overall.

— KDM, GMA News

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