01 November 2012

Between Sandy and Pinoy Storms

I was riveted to CNN the other day just after Hurricane Sandy made landfall somewhere over New Jersey in the United States East Coast. Just as with Katrina a few years back, there was a certain fascination in how the most powerful nation in the world braced itself and attempted to cope with something that we who live along typhoon alley know comes dime-a-dozen in the Philippines.

Sandy, as everyone who watches the news knows, has been called anything from the ‘Superstorm’ to the cheekier ‘Frankenstorm.’ First of all, the expanse of it was frightening – more than 1,500 kilometres in circulation or three times the size of tropical storm Ofel which ravaged the Philippines just a few days back.

As it approached the United States East Coast, Sandy’s peak winds would have brought no more than Signal Number One or Two in PAGASA’s Typhoon Warning System. However, the conditions were right as Sandy approached to make weathermen brand it as the perfect storm.


The light rail systems in the United States are also dependent on electricity, which explains the horrendous queues shown by CNN of people lining up for bus rides. In the Philippines, there are no light rail systems outside of Metro Manila. Thus, we do not even know how much we have to thank the jeepney for its ubiquity.
Like other Atlantic tropical storms, Sandy was spawned in the warm waters of the Caribbean. Initially, it was similar to other tropical disturbances which brew in the Western Pacific and then spin along on their way to the Philippines, Taiwan or Japan. These weather disturbances get their energy from the warm waters of the sea and lose steam when over land.

In Sandy’s case, however, as it moved inland of the United States East Coast, it started to merge with a frontal system emanating from the Northeast – cold winds being blown along what is known as the Jet Stream.

Rather than dissipate or lose steam as it traversed land, therefore, Sandy instead became an extratropical system. As opposed to tropical systems which use warm air from the oceans to thrive, an extratropical system uses cold winds for fuel and is able to sustain itself over land.

That was why, while certain parts of the East Coast were reeling from the winds and storm surge brought along by Sandy as it moved inland, other parts were experiencing blizzard conditions.

Storms the size of Sandy have been seen in the Philippines; but the chances of tropical systems becoming extratropical while still in the PAR, if not entirely impossible, are slim. This is because the Philippines is well within the tropical zone and reasonably close to the Equator.

As Sandy howled over the East Coast, CNN’s reporters bravely gave running updates on its impact to a worldwide audience.

Noticeable was the absence of people on the flooded streets, in stark contrast to scenes beamed to audiences by local news programs when covering storms in the Philippines. I understand that citizens were encouraged to evacuate and the few who remained, as they themselves said in interviews with CNN, preferred to sit the storm through.

In the Philippines, while many have learned their lessons from Ondoy and now heed calls for evacuation, to just as many sitting a storm through is the preferred option and evacuation the last resort.

First of all, storms and typhoons are so common since the Philippines is right along typhoon alley; and sitting these storms out and hoping for the best is the way of life. Once the storm has passed, everyone comes out to do running repairs and sweep away debris.

Also – and this is just my personal theory – people are wary of leaving their homes for fear that others may take advantage of their absence. Strange as it may sound, but it does appear sometimes as though we Filipinos are more afraid of robbers than we are of typhoons.

Going back to the absence of people on the streets as Sandy came in, apart from the evacuation, it has to be pointed out that it must have been extremely cold; and to hang out on the streets would have been suicidal.

On the other hand, there were people happily following soldiers staging coup d’etats during Cory Aquino’s administration totally oblivious to flying bullets. Who really knows what Filipinos will do under the same circumstances?

I was also curious about a fire in New Jersey that was started when a transformer allegedly exploded. If the power was on, then that would have been another point of difference because here in the Philippines, power is cut as a matter of course when the winds start to get really nasty.

As Sandy departed, it left behind blackouts and disrupted transport systems – not to mention deaths and homes destroyed. The matter of deaths and destruction is a given whenever nasty storms blow through.

Blackouts are completely unremarkable in the Philippines after storms. They are just expected; and we all find our own ways to amuse ourselves while ‘waiting for the light.’

In the East Coast, however, these blackouts may be much more problematical. For one thing, American economics to a great extent is card-based; and the blackout means disruption to the banking and charging systems. In contrast, the man on the street in the Philippines to a great extent still relies on cash.

The light rail systems in the United States are also dependent on electricity, which explains the horrendous queues shown by CNN of people lining up for bus rides. In the Philippines, there are no light rail systems outside of Metro Manila. Thus, we do not even know how much we have to thank the jeepney for its ubiquity.

People in the East Coast will survive, of course; notwithstanding the fact that a 91-year old woman in Jersey said on CNN that she had never seen anything quite like Sandy in all of her life. People, after all, are nothing if not resilient.

Sandy will probably be remembered in the East Coast not only because storms like it are extremely rare but also because it has disrupted the amenities that people who live in the United States take for granted.

In the Philippines, not only are these amenities so much more scaled down – if at all, because there are none in many communities – but we also cannot allow our minds to dwell on any storm knowing as we all do that there will another one coming soon as things happen naturally along typhoon alley.

Besides, there are still the tons of garbage to scoop up from Manila bay to think about…

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