Why did so many people not evacuate ahead of Haiyan?

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Days prior to landfall, extreme emphasis was put on the danger posed to the Philippines from Super Typhoon Haiyan. Everyone all around the world was talking about it, and the Philippine government began taking their precautions two days prior to its arrival.

The Philippine Area of Responsibility typically sees around 20 tropical cyclones per year, 6-9 of which generally make landfall in the Philippines, so they are no stranger to natures fury. However, no tropical cyclone of this size and strength had ever affected the Philippines before in recorded history. Meteorologists, news agencies, and the local government all stressed that this would be among the most powerful storm on record.

Before the storm made landfall, President Benigno S. Aquino III warned that the nation faced a calamity. Authorities had evacuated more than 800,000 people prior to its arrival, but as is always the case, people chose to stay behind as opposed to evacuating. Unfortunately, in this case, it appears thousands of people chose to stay behind, and it cost many of them their lives.

So what possible reason was there for people to not evacuate? Yes, the Philippines are made up of islands, but most of the islands rise a significant distance above sea level. This would suggest that there was no excuse for people to not evacuate to higher ground. The hardest hit city – Tacloban – sits at sea level and should have been entirely evacuated. This is especially true considering Tacloban City sits back in a bay of sorts and the Typhoon would funnel all the water right to the city. According to local residents, they were expecting a storm surge of 6-7 meters, or 20-23 feet. Peter Harwood left this comment on a story on Accuweather.com.

I am in the path of the eye of the storm and we expecting 6-7 meter storm surge but we are below ground level. We are 50 meters from ocean and there is no high ground to run to. If it true the evacuation centers will be under water also. Thanks for your prayers

First off, I hope you are alright, Peter, and if you happen to read this, please send me a message letting me know you made it out safely!

As Peter mentioned, evacuation centers could be underwater with a storm surge of that size. If that is true and there really were evacuation centers less than 25 or so feet above sea level, they should never have made those shelters. It has already been reported by multiple news agencies that many people (number unknown) died even in evacuation centers. Some deaths were due to buildings collapsing, while others were overtaken by storm surge.

It is unfortunate, but understandable that buildings in a fairly impoverished country could not stand up to such strong winds for a sustained period of time. There is, however, absolutely no reason that evacuation centers should have been overtaken by the storm surge. This was either an extremely poor decision on part of the local officials, or they had absolutely no other choice, which I find hard to believe. They could have set up additional shelters on the other side of the island that was clearly not going to see much in the way of storm surge. This would have at least eliminated one significant danger.

“Elderly people told CNN’s Ivan Watson they preferred to stay put and wait it out rather than risk evacuating.” I am not really sure why anyone would have this mentality, especially with all the dire predictions of what was coming. As for a majority of the rest of the people that stayed behind, some said they were worried about looters after the storm and some underestimated the risk.

What really gets me is that it appears so many people were not expecting such a high storm surge and that some said they didn’t even really know what a storm surge was! Take this for instance, from CNN¬†interviewing a local:

If we’d have been warned about a tsunami we’d have known not to be in the coastal area. But the fact they warned of a ‘storm surge’ … we frankly didn’t know what that was. We didn’t know how deadly that was.

To me, that is shocking that someone who lives in a place that sees upwards of 6-9 tropical cyclones per year “didn’t know what that [storm surge] was”. Perhaps this is an extremely isolated incidence – at least I sure hope it was. Regardless, it appears that there were somehow communication issues regarding just how destructive Haiyan would be. Clearly something needs to be done about this, but I will leave that up to those who devote their life to figuring out just this sort of problem.

Mass evacuations are always a huge logistical headache, but there was obviously something else that should have been done in the Philippines. There are clearly fewer areas for people to evacuate to in a country comprised of islands, so what else could have been done to prepare for Haiyan?

- For starters, everyone should have evacuated the city of Tacloban, no exceptions. How you implement this, however, is an entirely different matter.

- More shelters should have been set up on the west side of the island as opposed to the east side where they could have practically eliminated the storm surge threat.

- People should have used common sense, but I guess there is really nothing you can do about this.

What are your thoughts on this topic? What else could/should have been done to better prepare for Super Typhoon Haiyan?

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