We are in the Goldilocks zone for typhoons

This type of hurricane is a very strong tempest, so many and so strong hitting these islands that neither Virgil nor Ovid nor any other poet I have read can describe its destructive power. These occur very often and we suffer so much, that even after experiencing them, it is difficult to believe these can happen.—F. I. Alzina, a Jesuit missionary in Philippines, 1668

IT HAS been our nightmare since our nation emerged. Out of the 192 countries in the world, ours has the dubious distinction of being the nation worst hit by typhoons. I do not refer just to the frequency of typhoons per year, or the destruction wrought by a one typhoon in a particular year.

A recent study constructed a sophisticated economic model that incorporated such factors as damage wrought, number of people affected, number of years in which storms occurred, and other qualitative factors to produce a “storm index,” a precise measure of a country’s “victimization” by typhoons for the years between 1970 and 2002 (“Coping With Disaster: The Impact of Hurricanes on International Financial Flows, 1970-2002”). The Philippines came out with the highest mean storm index of 0.0370, followed by the Dominican Republic (0.0205), Jamaica, Haiti and Madagascar. Our country is the most cursed by typhoons.

Other measures, not specifically on the impact of typhoons but on overall climatic disasters, put our country in the top ranks. The Climate Risk Index ranks our country 8th most affected by “extreme weather changes” for the period 1990 to 2008.

This study however pointed out that two countries ranked high only because of exceptional catastrophes. For instance, Myanmar ranked No. 2, but more than 95 percent of the damage and fatalities occurred in 2008 from cyclone “Nargis.” On the other hand, the Philippines’ vulnerability was more, well, long-term—say, pathological.

The term “Goldilocks zone” (i.e., the soup being “not too cold, not too hot”) refers to the very, very precise conditions that made life on Earth possible. Let me use it in a negative way to emphasize how only the most sadistic of gods could have put the Philippines right in the place where typhoons are an annual nightmare.

The archipelago is in a tropical zone facing the vast Pacific Ocean, where cyclones are generated as the warm surface temperature causes moist air to rise, with the water condensing at the higher, cooler altitudes. Typhoons cannot form over waters less than 26°C. The so-called “Coriolis effect,” or the deflective impact of the Earth’s rotation on moving bodies, initiates and maintains a typhoon’s rotation, which magnifies wind speeds to
destructive power. If the Philippines were just located several degrees lower or nearer the equator where the Coriolis effect is weaker, we wouldn’t—like Indonesia and even the southern Mindanao region—be hit by the destructive typhoons of Luzon and the Visayas.

And finally, together with Japan’s Kyushu and Shikoku islands, our most populated and biggest island Luzon is the first land mass to be hit by typhoons generated in the Pacific Ocean. The Sierra Madre mountain range is too low to form a wall to weaken the typhoons rushing from the Pacific. Look at a map or check out the so-called typhoon tracks for two decades made by meteorologists: our country is smack on the path of the hundreds of typhoons generated in the Pacific, at the rate of about 20 typhoons per year.

No wonder, our collective consciousness is marked by the typhoons we have experienced. Etched in the minds of each generation of Filipinos is a particular powerful typhoon. My first trauma in life occurred in the 1960s when Typhoon “Lucille” made Retiro Street in Quezon City a gushing river, flooding the first floor of our two-story apartment. “Yoling” in 1970 brought so much suffering to the poorest—convincing many students of that time (including myself) to embrace revolution. My wife still vividly recalls that the roof of their house was blown away by that supertyphoon so that she could see the sky, just like in the movie “Twister.” In 1995, “Rosing” created so much flooding in Manila that people for months still talked about how they survived the night on their cars. “Ondoy” is now the unforgettable nightmare for this generation of Filipinos.

Many nations were defined by how they heroically responded to a crisis that threatened to overwhelm them. Less dramatic, but equally important, are the cases when they were defined by how they dealt with their unlucky geography. For instance, the Netherlands, with 70 percent of its land either below or barely a meter above sea-level, created an awesome system of dikes. Japan’s strength is partly due to the national will it learned to forge to deal with earthquakes, which had devastated many of its cities in the 20th century.

The typhoon terror occurred again last week with “Basyang.” Tragic it was, and untimely, as it occurred just as a new government was being ushered in. It may have been fortuitous too: a message that the new era President Aquino wants to create should be marked by a national effort to finally deal with this centuries-old curse.

I would like to offer a concrete proposal: Enact a law mandating Pagcor and the PCSO to set aside, say, 20 percent of their income to a fund that will help build institutions and agencies that can predict the path and strength of typhoons; create the vast, strong infrastructure (hundreds of huge water-pumping stations?) that can prevent and contain floods; and provide the necessary equipment for rescue operations (hundreds of amphibian trucks? Typhoon and flood shelters?)

A law is needed, as we tend to forget everything unpleasant as we enter the Christmas months.

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer