Storm chasers

Watching CNN coverage of Supertyphoon “Haiyan” aka “Yolanda” was frustrating for expatriate Pinoys worrying about friends and relatives back home. The video clips were limited and repeated at every segment when CNN could’ve shared video from Philippine news organizations. I stayed up all night waiting for substantial news that would provide a sense of what was happening on the ground. Instead I heard voices (no video) of near-hysterical individuals who had been asked how they felt having endured the strongest typhoon on record.

Disaster makes for compelling “human interest” coverage, but some time should have been given to experts from Pagasa or the Manila Observatory to provide context and perspective on the supertyphoon based on previous experience and historical data. In times of crisis, news should generate more illumination than heat.

The Manila Observatory (MO) at Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City traces its beginnings to a pigeon coop in the Spanish-era Jesuit residence in Intramuros, where readings of temperature, wind direction and velocity, etc. during storms were taken. Much of these data have been preserved at the MO; some are available online at its interactive website. Padre Faura street in Ermita was named after Federico Faura, one of the earliest storm and earthquake chasers in the Philippines whose interest and zeal made the MO the official weather station of the Philippines from the 19th century until its successor institutions were developed into what we know as Pagasa today.

The MO website has articles from journals on typhoons in 1905 and 1882 that draw on the data from the Jesuits. What struck me was the 1905 article from the journal Nature, which is accompanied by a photograph of the ruins of the meteorological station in Legazpi after the storm passed. The text reads:

“The Bulletin of the Manila Observatory for September 1905, prepared under the direction of the Rev. J. Algue, S.J., affords a striking example of the way in which any abnormal features of the weather are completely masked in monthly, or even short, mean values. An inspection of the latter would lead to the conclusion that the month of September was quite normal notwithstanding the occurrence of the terrible typhoon on September 25-26 [1905] which was probably the most violent of any yet experienced, not even excepting that of November 5, 1882, the worst previously on record. We have a brief note of the storm soon after its occurrence taken from newspaper reports, but following further particulars from a discussion by the Rev. M.S. Mata, S.J., assistant director, may be of interest.

“The disturbance appears to have originated in long. 142 o E. and between lat. 11 o and 12 o N. on September 22 and its path over the Pacific was approximately from east to west; it reached the land on the evening of September 25, and swept across the archipelago in a south-easterly to north-westerly direction, reaching Hainan, in the China Sea, on the evening of September 28. The breadth of the storm was about 100 miles, the center passing about 24 miles south of Manila; the average velocity of translation was 13.5 miles an hour. The first indication of its approach at Manila was on the morning of September 25 when the barometer registered a notable fall of pressure. On the previous day the readings were very high; an anticyclone so well defined had rarely been observed over the Philippines. On the morning of September 26 (at which time telegraphic communication to the south-eastward was already interrupted) the fall became alarming, and continued until 2h. p.m., at which time the minimum (29-21 inches) was reached, the mercury having fallen about 0.7 inch since 9h p.m. of the previous evening; after a short pause the mercury rose again very rapidly. Between noon and 3h. p.m. the gusts of wind attained a rate of about 103 miles an hour. The rainfall in 24 hours amounted to 4 ¼ inches of which 2.3 inches fell between 3h and 5h p.m. after the passage of the vortex, the wind changing from east-north-east to south-east, with rapidly rising barometer.

“The s.s. Pathfinder was overtaken by the storm in San Bonifacio (lat. 12 o  10’ N, long 125 o  30’ E), and recorded some notable oscillations of the barometer: at 8h. on September 25 the reading was 29.78 inches, and the mercury fell rapidly until 7h. 37m p.m., when the minimum of 27.17 inches was registered. There was a comparative lull in the wind for three or four minutes, and then it blew more fiercely than ever, with a rapid change of direction from north-by-west to west, and drive the ship ashore; in a few minutes the wind shifted to south and by midnight the barometer had again risen to 29-61 inches. Immense damage was caused by sea and land, especially at the eastern stations. We reproduce an illustration of the destruction of the observatory at Legazpi (lat. 13 o 9’, long 123 o 45’); the sea which had not risen so high for thirty years rushed into the town with extraordinary force, some parts being submerged to a depth of 2 ½  feet to 5 feet. At many other places not a single building was left uninjured, and some of the largest trees, which had withstood all previous storms, were uprooted.”

There must be a weather expert out there who can weave a story out of technical data to help the public understand and cope with typhoons that ravage the country each year.

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