Before this year, the tropical paradise of Leyte Gulf, a triangular 80-mile long bay nestled between the southeastern Philippine islands of Leyte and Samar, was best known as the site of the largest naval engagement in history. For four days in late October 1944, the US and Japanese fleets split the air with the thunder of their shells and torpedoes and littered the shores with their wreckage. On October 20th, Gen. Douglas MacArthur made his dramatic, long-promised return to the Philippines, coming ashore with a landing party at Palo in northeastern Leyte, a site now commemorated with a famous memorial.
That memorial, like much of the rest of the coast of Leyte Gulf, now lies shattered; history, it now seems probable, is much more likely to remember the region for a different and greater tempest that split the air, a deadlier force that came ashore, in the early morning of Nov. 9, 2013. Supertyphoon Haiyan, stronger than any storm known to science, roared into Leyte Gulf that morning on the beginning of a 400-mile path of devastation it would carve through the central Philippines. The dazed disbelief of meteorologists looking at the data the night before was soon to be shared by victims, and then the watching world, as the skies cleared and revealed what the typhoon had left behind. Even in the westernmost islands along its path, where the storm’s ferocity had abated somewhat, devastation was extreme, with hundreds of thousands of homes damaged or destroyed, crops flattened, and coastal communities washed away. Further east, however, in Leyte and Samar, the destruction was hard to describe, much less comprehend. The force of the wind decapitated four hundred year-old structures, pulverized concrete walls, and leveled forests of the hardiest coconut palms; trees left standing, in many cases, were stripped of all branches, foliage, and even bark. Much deadlier was the force of the water, which rose meters in minutes, wiping clean everything in its path, drowning the young, the old, the sick and the healthy without discrimination.
In the face of such catastrophes, we are apt to detach, check out, unplug, mentally marginalizing the disaster as just another one of those tragedies that always seems to happen to poor, third-world nations. But for the Philippines, which weathers a dozen cyclones a year with surprising resiliency, this was not business as usual. The death toll, whenever it finishes climbing, seems sure to end far higher than any other natural disaster in this island nation that has become so familiar with them. Another response, of course, is to insert this tragedy, like so many others in recent years, into the climate change script, insisting that we are to blame for disasters like this, and superstorms like Haiyan will soon be “the new normal.” While well-intentioned, such causation claims are best avoided, as they have little scientific backing at present, and simply succeed in politicizing the tragedy, inviting incorrigible denialists to respond by using bogus statistics to claim that this was just an average storm and it’s all hype.
Events such as these, rather, invite us to reflect with humility on why it is, in this advanced age of science and technology, such disasters continue to claim lives by the thousands. For much of the past two centuries, our civilization bought into the scientist narrative that human mastery over nature was just around the bend, that the works of our hands could protect us against her onslaught, and that even those evils we could not prevent, we could successfully predict and escape as our knowledge grew ever more comprehensive. And indeed, over the decades, declining death tolls from natural disasters seemed for awhile to corroborate this narrative. Recent years, however, have dealt it some punishing blows. The 2004 and 2011 tsunamis were humbling, but then again, earthquakes have always been almost impossible to prevent; much more troubling was the failure of forecasting to prevent Katrina from becoming the deadliest storm to hit the US in 80 years, or the Joplin tornado from becoming the deadliest in 60 years, and now to prevent Haiyan from becoming the deadliest storm to ever hit the Philippines. Our ability to reduce disaster death tolls seems to have hit something of a ceiling of late.
The culprit, it appears, is not lack of technology. Forecasters nailed the track and landfall intensity of Hurricane Katrina nearly three days in advance, and of Hurricane Sandy a full five days in advance. Moreover, the high long-term threat to both New Orleans and New York City had been analyzed and discussed for years. Even in the case of the fast-moving and freakishly intense Haiyan, forecasters had it pinned as making a landfall at Category 5 intensity northern Leyte more than 48 hours out. And although the failures of both media and governmental officials to accurately convey the danger to citizens have been scrutinized in recent years, especially following Katrina and Sandy, this does not seem to be the main culprit either, either in those disasters or in Haiyan. Rather, the main problem is more straightforward: people in harms’ way simply didn’t evacuate.
When we put it like this, we are apt to sound callous and judgmental: the victims were too stupid or too rashly self-reliant to heed warnings; they were asking for trouble. Of course, this is to underestimate how prone we all are to distrust experts when it comes to forecasts of impending doom (climate change, anyone?) and to rely instead on an optimistic extrapolation of personal experience—”I weathered the last storm all right, so I’ll manage this one.” This independence of mind is simply human nature (and a valuable part of human nature at that), and there will always be a few too stubborn to listen to warnings. But in Haiyan, as in Katrina, to peg the death toll on this stubbornness would indeed be callous.
It is all very well for we rich white people, with our cars and our spare cash and inland relatives to stay with, our homes protected with safes and security systems, to wonder why these people don’t get out of harm’s way. But for the average Filipino villager, not unlike the impoverished masses of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, evacuation is hardly such a simple proposition. Burdened by elderly relatives and young children to care for, travel is difficult for those with good means of transportation, and all but impossible for those without. Besides, how to pay for days or weeks in safe lodgings, away from their only livelihood? And then how to survive after the storm if they return to homes looted in their absence, stripped of all their worldly possessions? Faced with the uncertainties, perils, and crushing expense of evacuation, it is no wonder that many in the most vulnerable areas decide to take their chances facing the storm instead; especially as, with less access to education, they have few reference points to come to grips with the dire warnings of official bulletins. These are problems that no mere improvements in scientific knowledge or technological innovation can fix.
In other words, disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan confront us with the sobering reality that the deepest, deadliest and most intransigent problems we face today are social problems, not technical problems. We continue to deceive ourselves with the hope that if we can but increase our knowledge of the world, our technical know-how at problem-solving the riddles that nature poses for us, we can defeat death and disease. We have made enormous strides, to be sure, but have reached a point of diminishing returns. All the advances in nutritional knowledge and agricultural production are no good as long as poverty prevents access to a supply of healthy food. All the advances in neuroscience do little to solve the epidemic of alcoholism and drug abuse, so long as despair, isolation, and poverty drives people into addiction. The solution to poverty does not lie just around the next bend of scientific discovery; there is no research paper about to be written that will show us the trick to just distribution of resources. While our societies concentrate more and more of their efforts on technical advances, the underlying evils continue to fester and their solutions continue to elude us.
Our scientists and meteorologists, our inventors and innovators, have done their best over the past century, and we must applaud and thank them for their accomplishments. But we must stop expecting them to prevent great human tragedies like we have observed this last week. The task now lies with us, the sociologists, the ethicists, the theologians and political theorists, to undertake the much harder and longer labor of resolving the social problems that leave much of the world so vulnerable to the forces of nature. And the task lies with all of us, as humans, to cultivate the self-sacrifice, empathy, and love that alone can ultimately succeed in breaking the bonds of oppression and lifting the poor out of their suffering.