Looking Back

Of whirlwinds and waterspouts


Whenever I watch TV weather reports that cite Pagasa or the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, I remember Fr. Federico Faura (1840-1897), founder of the Manila Observatory. Extant photographs of this thin, stern Jesuit provide us with a face to connect with “Padre Faura,” the busy Ermita street. Faura is in my notes because he predicted Rizal’s end as accurately as he did typhoons.

A Faura barometer picked up from an Ermita antique shop hangs on my wall to remind me of Manila Observatory Director Fr. Victor Badillo, who showed me how it worked by watching the needle as we went up and down an elevator. An asteroid, 4866 Badillo (1988 VB3), is named after Father Badillo.

The Manila Observatory in the Ateneo campus, with its state-of-the-art equipment and telescopes today, traces its beginnings to an abandoned pigeon house on the roof-deck of the Ateneo Municipal in Intramuros in 1865. The founder of what was to become the observatory was not Faura but the Jesuit scholastic Francisco Colina, who spent his free time taking notes on the weather from home-made equipment described by historian Fr. Horacio de la Costa thus: A hygrometer to measure moisture in the environment or humidity was a home-made “tiny contraption consisting principally of hair”; to measure temperature there was “a household thermometer doing its best to look scientific”; a barometer to measure atmospheric pressure consisted of “a glass siphon filled with an oily liquid of sickly hue”; and finally an anemometer to measure wind speed and direction was “a rag fluttering from a length of twine.”

Faura made the first accurate storm warnings in 1879; in 1880 he started taking notes on earthquakes too. Historically the Observatorio Meteorológico del Ateneo Municipal de Manila, the official weather agency for the Spanish Philippines, became the Observatorio Meteorológico de Manila. The name of the agency was translated from the original Spanish during the American period to become the Manila Observatory. Today it is simply  “MO” and it has taken a supporting role to Pagasa. I am told that the MO archives have a lot of historical material, mainly reports on weather and earthquakes, and these are now open to interested researchers. You can even download samples from their website like a yellowed typescript on the “The whirlwind of Manila on June 13, 1926.” This reads as follows:

“The storm that visited a section of the Walled City on Sunday morning, June 13, 1926 at about 4.55 a.m. may be considered a whirlwind or moving vortex of exceedingly small diameter. All the evidence that could be gathered seems to indicate that the whirlwind came from a point close to the entrance of the Pasig River, with feeble intensity. It crossed the southern sector of Fort Santiago, and turning to the S[south]E[east] while passing between the Ayuntamiento and Santo Tomas University, it swept over the block bounded by the Solana and Magallanes streets.

“The winds from the northwest blew the galvanized iron of the N[orth]E and SE corners of the patio of the Oriente Hotel. One of the plates was thrown with great impetus against the wires of the Meralco and gave rise to the glaring light reported by Patrolman Larew. The light moving at high speed was not the storm, nor any missile from the clouds. The motion of the cone of light was not through Calle Real and nor by jumps from house to house, but only a gliding motion along the wire until blocked by the lightning arrestor.

“The southeast wind of the vortex struck the roof of Palma de Mallorca tearing off several sheets of galvanized iron from the northwestern sector of the patio. The wind was blowing then with great fury. One iron sheet was thrown with such force that it was imbedded in a stone wall. A gust of wind entered a room from Calle Real with such pressure that a heavy door and its jamb were forcibly separated from the framework of the building and thrown several yards away.”

Another report concerns two waterspouts spotted over Manila Bay on July 29, 1941:

“1.25 p.m. (non-standard time). On the Azotea, the Fathers called my attention to the two waterspouts over Manila Bay. No. 1 was in line with Dakota street gate, entrance to Ateneo. No. 2 was in line with Zobel’s house, i.e., the end of Padre Faura street. Each waterspout was thick, hanging from the cloud, but neither was long enough to reach the water. Both were straight, but No. 1 began to curve slightly just before I left the Azotea. I watched them for about one minute.

“1.27 p.m. approximately on the Central Tower. No. 1 was curved and thicker. It was shaded, that is, the edges were darker than the center as though it were hollow. No. 2 was curved, not very much thicker, apparently, and almost uniform in color—no shading. The base of each waterspout could be seen, that is, the spray on the water surface. No. 2 was nearer the shore line. Both were inside the breakwater. Both were moving rather rapidly in a generally northeasterly direction. No. 2 was threatening Pier 7…”

Waterspouts and whirlwinds can be caught on a cell phone camera and loaded on YouTube today, but nothing can replace the records in the Manila Observatory waiting for a historian to tell the story of the Philippines through its weather and earthquakes.

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  • WeAry_Bat

    Those phenomena are certainly quite interesting. I read about a watespout happening somewhere in the Visayas but I can’t remember any of ‘Waterspouts and whirlwinds’ in Manila. Oh, to maintain a political satire, though there are some blasts of air somewhere in Batasan hills.

    But there was phenomena this summer of hail occuring in Quezon City. And was it last year that hail happened somewhere in Visayas islands too.

    • Pepe Alas

      A waterspout over Manila Bay was already captured in video. Check it out in YouTube.

      • WeAry_Bat

        Thanks Pepe! Long time no see. Humirit ka na rin sa pork issue, never too late for that.

  • Vm

    i’ve seen very small whirlwhinds several times. the last one this year 2013, summer, in front of my local SM mall. Maybe 2 stories high

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