In the case of Haiyan, some 800,000 people were evacuated in the Philippines to churches, schools and other public buildings before the typhoon struck Friday. At least 9 million people in 41 Philippine provinces were affected by the storm, which meteorologists say was the largest typhoon to make landfall in recorded history. (Typhoons, hurricanes and cyclones are different names for the same type of weather condition.)
The city of Tacloban—with a population of some 220,000 people on the island of Leyte, caught the worst of the impact, leaving it in ruins. Winds of up to 195 mph and the offshore rise of water to some 20 to 30 feet destroyed around 80 percent of the city's buildings. At least 1,800 people in the Philippines are reported dead, but the death toll could climb to near 10,000, according to some estimates.
(Read more: Filipino Americans across nation aid in typhoon recovery effort)
The Philippines are endangered not just by their location, but the fact that the nation is an archipelago with millions living in low-lying areas. And people in the Philippines often can only afford to live in homes built from materials that wouldn't pass code in the wealthier parts of the planet.
But having more people who are increasingly vulnerable isn't a situation limited to the Philippines; on the contrary.
"We have a lot more people on Earth living in vulnerable areas than ever before," said John Trostel, a senior research scientist and director of the Georgia Tech Research Institute's Severe Storms Research Center. "You had a situation in the Philippines where the storm surge pushed very large amounts of water on the land. There weren't that many safe places for people to go."
Despite the best laid preparations, luck and Mother Nature often play the biggest role in how deadly a storm becomes.
A more recent storm in Asia demonstrates as much. Before Cyclone Phailin hit India last month with 165 mph winds, it had been predicted to be a devastating storm. In preparation, around 800,000 people were evacuated out of Phallin's path.
While it caused more than half a billion dollars of damage, the storm's death toll was surprisingly low—44 people died.
"India had very good evacuation plans, but the storm surge from Phailin was 13 feet, where Hayian had higher water levels," said Trostel. "So that helped limit the damage."
"Also, the Philippines are islands (7,107) so you had a much wider range for the storm to hit than India," he said.