Two deadly storms, half a world apart

Times Colonist - - Front Page - SETH BORENSTEIN

WASH­ING­TON — Na­ture ex­presses its fury in sundry ways. Two deadly storms — Hur­ri­cane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut — roared ashore on the same day, half a world apart, but the way they spread dev­as­ta­tion was as dif­fer­ent as wa­ter and wind.

Storms in the western Pa­cific gen­er­ally hit with much higher winds, and the peo­ple who live in their way are of­ten poorer and more vul­ner­a­ble, Prince­ton Univer­sity hur­ri­cane and cli­mate sci­en­tist Gabriel Vec­chi said Satur­day. That will likely de­ter­mine the type of de­struc­tion.

Mangkhut made land­fall, Fri­day on the north­east­ern tip of Lu­zon is­land in the Philip­pines with top-of-the-scale Cat­e­gory 5 winds of 265 kilo­me­tres an hour. Florence had weak­ened to a Cat­e­gory 1 storm with 145 km/h winds by the time it ar­rived at North Carolina’s coast.

Yet a day af­ter land­fall the faster-mov­ing Mangkhut was back out over open wa­ter — weak­ened, but headed across the South China Sea to­ward China. Florence, mean­while, was still plod­ding across South Carolina at a pace slower than most peo­ple walk. By Satur­day, it had al­ready dumped more than 75 cen­time­tres of rain, a record for North Carolina — about 20 cen­time­tres more than Vic­to­ria’s an­nual rain­fall.

Ex­perts say Mangkhut might well end up be­ing the dead­lier storm. As of Satur­day af­ter­noon, the death count in the Philip­pines was a bit higher, although still far be­low that of other storms that have hit the dis­as­ter-prone is­land na­tion. And with Mangkhu headed for the densely pop­u­lated south­east coast of China, it was likely to cause more death and de­struc­tion.

But Florence’s in­sured dam­age to­tal will even­tu­ally be higher, Ernst Rauch, head of cli­mate re­search for the world’s largest rein­surer Mu­nich Re, told Ger­man me­dia.

That’s be­cause of a com­bi­na­tion of ge­og­ra­phy, cli­matic con­di­tions and hu­man fac­tors.

The western Pa­cific has 2 1⁄2 times more storms that reach the min­i­mum hur­ri­cane strength of 120 km/h. It has 3 1⁄2 times more storms that reach ma­jor hur­ri­cane strength of 179 km/h, and three times more ac­cu­mu­lated en­ergy out of those hur­ri­canes, an in­dex that mea­sures not just strength and num­ber of storms but how long they last, ac­cord­ing to more than 65 years of storm data .

So far this year there have been 23 named storms in the western Pa­cific and 10 in the At­lantic, both re­gions more than 30 per cent busier than av­er­age years. Hur­ri­canes and typhoons are the same type of storm; both are trop­i­cal cy­clones, but those that oc­cur in the Pa­cific west of the In­ter­na­tional Date Line are called typhoons.

The wa­ter in the western Pa­cific is warmer, and warm wa­ter fu­els storms. There are also only a few pieces of land to get in the way and weaken them, said Univer­sity of Mi­ami hur­ri­cane re­searcher Brian McNoldy.

“If we are ever go­ing to have a Cat­e­gory 6 (a spec­u­lated-on level that’s above cur­rent mea­sure­ment tools), the western Pa­cific is where it’s go­ing to be,” said me­te­o­rol­o­gist Ryan Maue of weath­er­mod­

The Philip­pines tends to get hit nearly ev­ery year, the Caroli­nas far less fre­quently though with lots of close calls, Maue said.

That shows an­other big dif­fer­ence in the storms. Mangkhut formed far­ther south and stayed south — over warmer wa­ter. Florence was out of the trop­ics when it hit land.

Be­cause of that, Florence was weak­ened by the dry air and up­per level winds of the higher lat­i­tudes. Not so the more southerly Mangkhut, which Maue said, “es­sen­tially had a per­fect en­vi­ron­ment to in­ten­sify to a Cat­e­gory 5 and stay there.”

“Mangkhut and Florence are cer­tainly dif­fer­ent an­i­mals,” said Colorado State Univer­sity hur­ri­cane re­searcher Phil Klotzbach. Be­cause Florence is mov­ing so slowly, he said, it will dump more rain than Mangkhut, which is named for the Thai word for the man­gos­teen fruit.

Both storms have lasted a long time, es­pe­cially Florence, which formed all the way over near Africa 15 days be­fore land­fall, McNoldy said.

Both storms cover a large area, but Mangkut still dwarfs Florence. Mangkhut’s trop­i­cal storm force winds stretched 525 km from the cen­tre, while Florence’s spread 315 km, Klotzbach said.

Eco­nom­ics also play a role in a storm’s im­pact. As a de­vel­op­ing coun­try, the Philip­pines is much poorer than the south­east­ern United States, which means houses tend to be less sturdy and first re­spon­ders less well equipped, among other fac­tors. This is one rea­son why, when dis­as­ter does strike, the ef­fects can be dev­as­tat­ing.

In 2013, one of the most pow­er­ful storms on record, Typhoon Haiyan, killed 7,300 peo­ple and dis­placed more than five mil­lion when it swept across the is­lands of the cen­tral Philip­pines.

Strad­dling the fa­mous Pa­cific Ring of Fire, the Philip­pines is also be­dev­iled by vol­ca­noes and earth­quakes, and while there are con­sid­er­able patches of poverty in North and South Carolina, it is not the same as the ru­ral area where Mangkhut hit.

Mu­nich Re’s Rauch said about 30 to 50 per cent of storm dam­age is usu­ally in­sured in the United States but of­ten less than 10 per cent in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, mean­ing nine-10ths of the peo­ple hit will end up shoul­der­ing a big­ger eco­nomic bur­den.

In the United States, “you can’t move houses, but peo­ple can move out of the way,” re­flect­ing mount­ing dam­ages from storms and of­ten lower losses in life, Vec­chi said.

As the world warms from the burn­ing of fos­sil fu­els, the globe will see both more ex­tremely in­tense storms like Mangkhut and wet­ter storms like Florence, Vec­chi said.

A res­i­dent walks be­side a top­pled bas­ket­ball back­stop af­ter Typhoon Mangkhut pum­melled the Philip­pine city of Tugue­garao.


Res­cue crews check a ve­hi­cle stranded by flood­wa­ters caused by the trop­i­cal storm Florence in New Bern, North Carolina.

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