Friday, October 7, 2011

Manila hydrologists in the heat of battle (part 1)

Last week the 3rd costliest Typhoon in Filipino history struck and another was about to track over the same area of the Philippines. I stopped in at the national weather/flood headquarters in Manila to see how things were going and got a chance to see operational hydrologists at work.  

Of course, the first typhoon (Pedring, known internationally as Nesat) was all over the news. Water invaded parts of Metro Manila including the US embassy... 

US Embassy under water (Source)
Considering that Manila is so security conscious that even the local pharmacies have shotgun-wielding guards, just imagine the frenzy this must have caused. The TV had full-time live coverage including, among other things, waves crashing over the top of palm trees. 

This was on the two year anniversary of another legendary typhoon in 2009 (Ondoy aka Ketsana) that wrecked Manila. With 80% of the city under water, it was described as a "once-in-a-lifetime" flood, and there was some criticism that there wasn't enough warning). A couple days after the 2009 storm, another typhoon struck (Pepeng aka Parma). Despite Ondoy being seared into local memory, it was this second storm that holds the record for costliest typhoon in Filipino history. Manila was largely spared but the rest of the north island was totally creamed. 

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) makes weather, climate and river forecasts and follows current conditions. There are field offices that make forecasts in some places, but it's all funneled through the Manila (Quezon City) headquarters.

When I got to PAGASA's office, a large tree had been uprooted in their front yard. The forecasters would have had to pass by it on their way in and out of work.

The lobby of the headquarters was stuffed with lights, cameras, soundboards and rivers of thick black cables. Even though Pedring had come and gone, the media was making its own forecast by leaving the gear in place in case the next typhoon (Quiel, aka Nalgae) was going to be big news. The anchor men and women swept in and out of the scene whenever there were press conferences. The media technicians stayed around-the-clock, often nodding off in the plastic lawn chairs in the oppressive heat.

Or watching youtube videos
The contrast between awkward silent geeks attending on impossibly beautiful hosts felt like I was channeling a teenage dream.  

So, to recap, 2009, consecutive typhoons, both causing incredible damage. The first hit Manila and the second passed to the north. Then this year, consecutive typhoons, the first hitting Manila and the second was forecast to... to do what?

Before you say "pass to the north" consider that in 2010, Typhoon Basyang (Conson) was forecast to do just that and instead rolled through Manila by surprise. I plotted the forecast one day before landfall in 2010 compared to the actual storm track. There was a forecast range of possibilities, but the observed was outside even that.

What happened last year
The president gave PAGASA's chief a public tongue-lashing, then demoted him and eventually he resigned.

Tense enough yet?

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