Weather … or Not

By – Wayne Hill, RPCV, Micronesia

I’ve been following the weather reports on the Boston Globe web site recently to see how things are going in my home town. Not well, unless you think that two feet of snow is just as good as it gets. I don’t which is why, starting with Peace Corps Micronesia, my adult life has been spent in and around the  Pacific Basin. Sure, Japan has winter, but it’s not “New England winter.”  Otherwise, San Francisco’s once-in twenty-years snowfall is as far as I go. But just because there’s no snowfall, the tropics are no more free of tragic weather events than is Boston, just of a different sort.

Tacloban_Typhoon_Haiyan_2013-11-14

Debris lines the streets of Tacloban, Leyte island. This region was the worst affected by the typhoon, causing widespread damage and loss of life. Caritas is responding by distributing food, shelter, hygiene kits and cooking utensils. (Photo: Eoghan Rice – Trócaire / Caritas)

This past fall, the Philippines, where I now live with my common law spouse, Julius, suffered what some have said was the worst typhoon on record. Haiyan, locally named Yolanda, slammed into the city of Tacloban with incredible force, levelling almost everything in its path. If the storm had swung further south, we would have shared in the devastation, but luckily we had nothing more than a few hours of very heavy rain and virtually no wind.

The post-storm pictures from Tacloban brought back vivid memories of another typhoon named Jean which plowed into the island of Saipan on April 11, 1968, when I was a volunteer there. Typhoon Jean had sustained winds up to 175 MPH, we were told, and 75% of the buildings were seriously damaged. My own house was picked up off its foundation and dropped a few feet to the south, but when the storm had passed, my home was still a house.  My neighbors found only piles of rubble from which they had no choice but to build some kind of structure to live in for the time being.

We were very lucky because the US Navy from Guam flew to our rescue within a day and set of soup kitchens and tents for those with nowhere else to stay. My fellow volunteer Karen was preparing to marry her Saipanse fiance only two weeks after the typhoon hit, and the wedding went on as scheduled, but her family had to cancel their plans to attend and the blessed event was catered by uniformed Navy men.

With the schools all destroyed or greatly damaged, we were put to work assisting with the relief efforts and ended up much busier than our TESL duties had kept us. I remember how hot is was all that summer because no leaves were left on most of the trees and therefore, no shade to be found. That summer of 1968 was really busy and fulfilling, more so, I would say than teaching ESL, knowing that our work had such an immediate effect.  By September things on Saipan had returned to something like “normal,” back to teaching, and yes, welcoming in a brand new typhoon season.Typhoons come and typhoons go, but I’ll never forget Typhoon Jean!

In comparing Haiyan and Jean, Haiyan was somewhat stronger, but not a heck of a lot. Each storm approached its targeted island from the open Pacific to the east gaining strength every mile of the way, but Tacloban suffered thousands of deaths and Saipan one.  Why?  Well, it’s all because of a whim of geology.  The entire east side of Saipan is cliffs and rocky slopes and in 1968, everyone lived in the towns strung along the west coast, away from the brunt of the storm. There are also a whole network of caves built by the Japanese during World War II which serve as typhoon shelters. Tacloban, on the other hand, is on the east side of the island of Leyte, facing directly into the wind with no protection and the wind and waves came plowing in and destroyed the city and the lives of the people living there. If Saipan’s geology had been reversed, you might not be reading this, at least not written by me!

Wayne Hill can be contacted at waynzwhirld@aol.com

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