‘We should’ve said, expect a tsunami’

Natashya Gutierrez

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Would more lives have been saved?

UNPRECEDENTED. Residents of Leyte and Samar have never before experienced a storm surge, catching them completely off-guard. Photo by EPA/Francis Malasig

MANILA, Philippines – What if the government warned against a tsunami? Would more lives have been saved?

Nearly a week since Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) ravaged central Philippines, the Palace admitted there are lessons to be learned – specifically lessons that could have saved more lives.

On Thursday, November 14, Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Secretary Sonny Coloma insisted the government had sufficiently prepared for Yolanda, but perhaps could’ve communicated the danger better.

“Even if those living in Leyte and Samar have experience with typhoons, this was really the first time they experienced a storm surge which could’ve been explained as a tsunami. That could be one lesson – [we could’ve said] tsunami-like effect,” he said.

Mayor Alfred Romualdez of Tacloban City in Leyte – which sustained the most damage from the typhoon – agreed.

In an earlier interview with CNN, Romualdez, who almost died in the typhoon after his home was battered by waves which he said was 10-15 feet tall, said phrasing the warning as a tsunami could have meant more survivors.

“We’ve done drills on tsunami. And when we do (tsunami) drills, almost 80% of them really get out. Storm surge, they don’t understand,” he told CNN.

The fact that Romualdez too had sought refuge in his family resort right by the ocean, showed he himself did not anticipate the power of the storm surge – explaining why many in his city of Tacloban were also caught off guard.

While families living in coastal areas of Tacloban were relocated to evacuation centers, buildings that housed evacuees were also battered by waves, taking lives.


Despite this, Coloma denied that the government had not expected the severity of the storm surge, insisting “the government anticipated all possible scenarios.”

“In terms of preparation, in terms of emergency alert, we can say we have done everything we should have done and everything expected of the government,” he said.

On Thursday, November 7, a day before Yolanda made landfall in the Philippines, President Benigno Aquino III delivered a national address on primetime television to warn Filipinos of the impending storm that he said was expected to hit Samar and Leyte, before traversing to Masbate, Cebu, Panay, Romblon, Mindoro and Palawan.

Aquino also said “storm surges are expected in Ormoc, Ginayangan Ragay Gulf in Albay, and Lamon Bay in Atimonan,” adding “waves in these areas may reach five to six meters.”

While there was no mention of storm surges hitting Tacloban in his speech, the government’s Project NOAH (Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards) had listed Tacloban as the third area with the highest predicted storm surge. Project NOAH was extremely accurate in its listed localities facing the most danger.

The response of the government to address the damage however has been less precise.

Scenes of desperate and starving survivors days after the disaster triggered criticism from international news agencies and organizations, which questioned the government’s slow and disorganized relief distribution to survivors. (READ: Palace aware of slow relief: ‘We’re moving’)

It wasn’t until Wednesday, November 13, or 5 days since the storm, that the government set up relief hubs in the affected region. On that day, the Palace still could not give a specific timeline as to when all hit areas would be reached.

On Friday, November 8, the world’s strongest typhoon battered the Philippines’ Visayas region leaving massive damage and almost 2,500 dead at its wake. The government has been forced to reprogram funds after Yolanda, and said it can tap up to P28.64 billion worth of funds for relief efforts. – Rappler.com

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.