Super typhoons don’t exactly sneak up on you. Their every wiggle is tracked by wide-eyed meteorologists who scramble to save lives. Supercomputers hum as they determine potential paths the juggernaut may take.
All of us on the small island of Panglao in the Visayas region of the Philippines knew Typhoon Haiyan was coming. We had days to prepare. What's worse, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake had hit the region two weeks earlier; some of the damaged structures in Bohol could already be toppled with a push. Alongside other travelers, I watched sunsets knowing all those brilliant hues of orange and pink on the horizon meant big trouble was coming.
What we didn’t know was, at the time, it would be the strongest tropical cyclone to be recorded at landfall. One-minute gusts were measured at 195 mph, and sustained winds were 145 mph. (That ominous record would later be broken when Hurricane Patricia hit Mexico in October 2015. Coincidentally, I was living at an off-grid location in the Yucatan and got to meet that one, too.) In nearby Tacloban, survivors reported watching cars bounce by like weightless tumbleweeds.
In 2016, a study of meteorological data revealed that warming seas have caused typhoons to grow 50 percent stronger in the past 40 years. Along the eastern edge of Asia, typhoons are an annual scourge. Known locally in the Philippines as Typhoon Yolanda, Typhoon Haiyan was the 13th named storm of the 2013 Pacific typhoon season, the deadliest since 1975.
When I opened my eyes on the morning of November 7, 2013, I knew the storm had reached the island, barely more than 18 square miles. The power was off, and my third-floor hotel room was vibrating. I could hear a whirling “white” noise, slightly muffled, coming from outside. When I opened the door to peek out, the wind jerked it from my grasp, and the roar intensified. The window at the far end of my hallway had been opened. Paper and other debris swirled surrealistically indoors. I joined the other guests huddled downstairs and watched as mature palm trees bent, fully horizontal. Miraculously, they remained rooted.
After the Storm
The next morning, the sky was a dreamy blue, and the air didn't stir. The contrast was unsettling; it felt like a trap of sorts meant to lure survivors outside. But an all-clear was given, and I emerged to gawk and gasp at the damage.
What we didn’t realize was that we would be stuck on a completely cut-off island for several days after the typhoon. Bridges were blocked or damaged. All available boats that hadn’t been moved or destroyed were diverted to carry casualties out and relief workers in.
I rented a scooter to survey the island and see if I could somehow help. When I saw the heavy wires to the mainland sagging in the water, it was evident that power wouldn’t be restored anytime soon. The steel towers had been twisted and contorted into giant, metallic spiders.
Living without electricity is inconvenient, but living without water is impossible. Taps produced only deep groans. With the exception of Singapore, tap water isn’t safe to drink in Southeast Asia, anyway, so bottled water is typically easy to find. Nice hotels will have water machines for guests. During my preparations, I grabbed a couple of three-gallon containers from the nearest minimart. In the days leading up to Typhoon Haiyan, I didn’t really see a lot of panic buying or hoarding. Afterwards, however, shelves became emptier.
Although finding safe water wasn’t a problem for us, safe food had to be sought out. With refrigeration down for a week, the stench of rotting food was prevalent. Without running water and working toilets, many people suffered from stomach problems. Dietary choices were limited. Fish wasn't available, so we mainly ate BBQ pork satay (skewers) because they were safe to eat when cooked over an open flame. We avoided poultry, but eggs were fair game. (Outside of Japan, eggs aren’t refrigerated in Asia because the protective coating on the shells isn’t destroyed by disinfecting cleaners.)
The typhoon pushed toward Vietnam and seemed to take all breezes with it. No fans turned in the suffocating air. Proper hygiene is essential for avoiding infections and dysentery in tropical settings, but maintaining hygiene became a challenge. Like the other trapped tourists, I began washing in the sea. Trips to the beach included a bar of soap and bottle of shampoo.
How to Prepare for a Typhoon
For those traveling to Japan, the Philippines, or the coast of South China during the fall, here's how you can prepare for a severe weather event.
Enroll in STEP
If you’re an American traveler and haven’t already, enroll in the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. Whether or not you can receive situation updates, at least the local consulate will know you’re in the area and can help you evacuate should the need arise. You should also write down your nearest embassy’s contact information.
Do what the local authorities tell you to do
Keep your luggage packed and your passport handy in case you need to evacuate with little notice. If you feel official guidance is lacking, look to the local residents. Typhoons are regular events for many of them. If they come across as nervous, you probably should be, too. I ended up on Panglao only because boats to Malapascua—my original destination—had stopped running. As seas grew rougher, the experienced captain made a gut call to stop boat service in lieu of official guidance. At the pier, I unwisely pushed him to reconsider, but he had survived decades of dancing with Mother Nature for a reason. The tourists who evacuated from Malapascua a few days later had to leave everything behind, and the island was destroyed soon after.
Move far away from the coastal area
When a typhoon is approaching, the safest place to be is inland and above sea level. Almost invariably, tidal surges and flooding cause the most fatalities during big weather events. Once the storm has arrived, hunker down in place and wait it out. I prudently abandoned my cute bamboo bungalow at a guesthouse near the beach and moved to a concrete hotel tower inland. The move was definitely a downgrade in view, but it was a big upgrade in survivability!
Contact your airline and your loved ones
Before losing communication, call your airline and tell them the situation. Do what you can to let loved ones know phone and internet connectivity will be lost and you’ll contact them as soon as possible. The worst part of the ordeal was not being able to let friends and family at home know I was safe after the typhoon. They had all seen images on the news of Typhoon Haiyan slamming into the region I was traveling. With cell towers twisted to heaps and all lines down, I had no means of communication. Meanwhile, the world watched the death toll climb.
Charge all your devices
Then resist the urge to use them other than for checking updates. I changed the settings on my phone to preserve battery power. It remained charged all week.
Get as much cash as you think you’ll need: ATM networks will inevitably be down for a while.
Fill your bathtub with water
You can use it for flushing the toilet later. Also, empty your hotel wastebaskets.
Don't linger in the area
After the storm, get out. I had some medical training from the army, so I reached out to different organizations about remaining in the Visayas to lend a hand. All told me the same thing: to leave the area as soon as I could. Aid organizations understandably don’t relish the idea of well-meaning tourists turning into relief workers. By remaining behind, you become a potential liability and another person who needs food, water, and shelter. When you can, leave the area entirely. In the case of Tacloban, one of the worst-hit places, widespread looting and even gunfights became issues until law enforcement could get in.
Panicking is never a good idea, but neither is downplaying the danger. We’re all subject to "normalcy bias," a cognitive bias that causes people to downplay the threat. In terms of survival, normalcy bias can cost valuable time better used for getting out of harm’s way.
I've now met two super typhoons on beaches and have no interest in a third! If while traveling in Asia you do accidentally find yourself in the path of severe weather, the best thing to do is go somewhere else. Don’t let normalcy bias cause you to hesitate. Listen to the locals, forfeit your reservations, and do what you need to do. Better yet, get yourself to the nearest urban hub and grab an inexpensive westward flight—maybe somewhere sunny like Thailand or Malaysia.