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Megastorms' awful truth: Preparation can only do so much

Wednesday, 13 Nov 2013 | 11:21 AM ET
Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan wait to board a C-130 aircraft during the evacuation of hundreds of survivors from Tacloban, Philippines.
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Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan wait to board a C-130 aircraft during the evacuation of hundreds of survivors from Tacloban, Philippines.

A terrible reality when it comes to killer storms like Typhoon Haiyan, which has devastated the Philippines, is that you can only prepare so much. And that preparation deficit may be getting worse.

"It's hard to really get a handle on preparations," said Elizabeth Ferris, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution on internal displacement. "Even when you are warned."

Killer storms like Haiyan have gotten stronger over recent decades, and climate models forecast that they're going to get more powerful in the coming years. The devastation wrought by Haiyan is all the more sobering given that the Philippines are better at dealing with them than most places.

The Philippine islands are in the middle of the world's most volatile region for typhoons, and the nation has a lot of experience coping with severe winds, flooding and storm surges. But even that hard-earned expertise sometimes isn't enough to prevent death tolls from climbing into the thousands.

(Read more: How to help: Organizations offering relief to Haiyan survivors)

"The Philippines are one of the strongest nations in terms of these type of storm preparations, but obviously they didn't realize how bad the storm would be," Ferris said.

Luck of Mother Nature

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.

No safe place to go?

Even with a death toll of 10,000, Hayian would not top the list of deadliest typhoons. In fact, it wouldn't even make the top 35. Southeast Asia has had 33 of those storms, including Cyclone Bhola, which struck Bangladesh in 1970 and killed 300,000 to 500,000 people. Scientists expect storms to keep getting stronger.

(See: Scenes from Philippines' superstorm)

"Getting the world better prepared for any future storms won't be easy," said Brookings' Ferris. "I think there will be an initial surge to get better prepared, but we think it will never happen again. So after time, I think we'll lose the focus."

"Hurricane Sandy and Irene were wake-up calls in the U.S., but you have to wonder what will actually be done," she said. "I think with climate change, there's going to be more severe weather incidents."

There are some areas for preparation with room for tangible improvement, but most of those fixes aren't cheap. In many areas, for example, the satellites used to track storms now "may not last long enough for their replacements to get in orbit," Trostel said.

The U.S. military tracks Atlantic storm activity with aircraft but has stopped doing so in the Pacific Rim region in 1987 due to budget cutbacks. It now depends on satellite data, which does not record wind strength.

"The key is having the right information and getting it out to the people," Trostel said. "But even with that, there may not always be a safe place to go from a storm."

—By CNBC's Mark Koba. Follow him on Twitter @MarkKobaCNBC

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