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Haiyan storm surges caught Philippines by surprise

By Oliver Teves

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Nov. 11 2013 2:26 p.m. MST

Carangan got hold of the boy and made it to the nearby village. After handing over the boy to a policeman he limped 7 kilometers (5 miles) to an army outpost.

The Philippines, which sees about 20 typhoons per year, is cursed by its geography. On a string of some 7,000 islands, there are only so many places to evacuate people to, unless they can be flown or ferried to the mainland.

The Philippines' disaster preparation and relief capacities are also hampered by political factors. It lacks a strong central government and provincial governors have virtual autonomy in dealing with local problems.

Contrast this with Vietnam, which sees about a dozen typhoons per year and is similarly poor and densely populated. But a centralized, Communist Party-led government broadcasts clear messages that cannot be ignored by the provinces. Also, because of a clearly defined land mass, unlike the archipelago of the Philippines, it is easy to evacuate people deep inland and to higher ground.

"This is not the time to judge," said Alemendras, the presidential aide. "The national government and the local government all need to work together not to criticize anyone or not to show that one is better than the other."

But even with adequate resources and a robust government authority, forces of nature and the unpredictability of people can scuttle even the best advance planning. The 2011 tsunami in Japan might have killed many more without in-place emergency response measures, but an inadequate response to the nuclear crisis that followed seriously compounded the disaster.

Nor are such catastrophes limited to poor countries like the Philippines. When Hurricane Katrina plowed ashore near New Orleans in 2005, more than 1,400 were killed, many of whom ignored orders to evacuate before it hit.

Gwendolyn Pang, the executive director of the Philippine Red Cross, said Haiyan was three times more powerful than Katrina.

She said there should be an educational campaign to explain to people the destructiveness of a storm surge, which is like a tsunami.

"We should really start understanding this and make it our way of life, part of our readiness and preparedness," she added

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Christopher Bodeen reported from Beijing. Associated Press reporters Jim Gomez in Tacloban and Teresa Cerojano in Manila contributed to this report.

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