Typhoons, cyclones and hurricanes are all just different nomenclature for the same meteorological phenomenon – a migratory, super low pressure system that draws its power from the sea and unleashes it on land in the form of beating rainfall and gale-force winds of no less than 74 miles per hour. The key difference is their area of origin; typhoons form in the Pacific, cyclones in the Indian Ocean, and hurricanes in the North Atlantic. Typhoons are most commonly classified under the Saffir-Simpson scale, which categorizes typhoons based on wind speed, beginning with Category One storms, increasing up to Category 5 typhoons with speeds of up to 155mph.
However, power and speed does not always equate to increased deadliness, and the destruction caused often depends more on the location of the typhoon’s landfall. Here is a look at Asia’s top three typhoons of the modern age.
1881: The Haiphong Typhoon
In 1881, what was to be the third deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded struck the Vietnamese city of Haiphong. The busting port-city is actually located 10 miles inland, but was connected to the Gulf of Tonkin via an access channel, the main artery through which the city’s lifeblood ebbed and flowed. On the 8th day of October 1881 however, this lifeline to the ocean quickly became a deathtrap. The channel magnified and amplified the surging effect of the waves in the Gulf, causing massive flooding of the city centre, killing 300,000 helpless inhabitants.
Besides the catastrophic local death toll, the economic impact of the disaster was felt regionally. As the main out-port of the important city of Hanoi, the destruction of port facilities severely impacted and hampered trade in the region.
1970: The Bhola Cyclone – the Cyclone that birthed a Country
The 1970 Bhola Cyclone is known as the deadliest on record – with up to 500,000 deaths in the lowlands of what was then East Pakistan. Although by far not the most powerful (it was only a Category 3 storm), it destroyed entire towns and industries; the city of Tazumuddin had 45% of its population of 167,000 wiped out. In a region where 80% of the protein consumed comes from fish, the destruction of 65% of the fishing facilities was almost condemnation to starvation. Bhola’s reach did not end after the storm – water-borne diseases like cholera and typhus were rampant in the initial months following the disaster, claiming many more lives. Water in wells was mixed with the seawater, rendering water bodies undrinkable.
The tragic human toll was only overshadowed by the disastrous political fallout. Voters took their anger over what was seen as the lackluster response of the Pakistani government to the polls; the Awami League capitalized on the public outcry in East Pakistan and led a liberation movement, resulting in the Bangladeshi Liberation War, and the formation of the new country of Bangladesh.
Yet there was a silver lining. The aftermath of the Bhola Cyclone saw the first ever benefit concert, held by ex-Beatle George Harrison to raise funds for the victims of the cyclone. The ‘Concert for Bangladesh’ raised $250,000 for the stricken nation, and marked the beginning of this new avenue for charity and humanitarian giving.
2008: Cyclone Nargis
Nargis derives from an Urdu word meaning ‘daffodil’, but there was nothing delicate about the awesome natural energy that the cyclone harnessed. Cyclone Nargis was a Category 4 cyclone that ripped into Myanmar (Burma), killing 138,000 people, constituting Myanmar’s worst natural disaster ever recorded. The death toll is estimated to be much higher, but statistical counts were halted prematurely by the ruling military junta in an effort to minimize global and domestic political fallout. The cyclone caused an estimated $10 billion in damage, making it the most destructive cyclone ever to hit Indochina.
The reaction to Nargis was also marred by dark, political undertones, with the military junta refusing all international aid at first. Blankets, food, shelters and medicines all lay in wait at the Yangon International Airport, as aid workers waited for their visas to be approved. This stubbornness in the face of a humanitarian crisis was strongly criticized by the world community, and eventually, the military junta accepted the international aid, averting the much-feared ‘second-wave’ of deaths that would have occurred.
Despite our many technological advances, mankind still remains subject to the awesome power of nature; the amount of energy released by a typhoon in one day eclipses the power of 400 20-megaton hydrogen bombs. Asia’s worst typhoons are a reminder that man’s control over nature is limited, and a lesson to the generations of the importance of environmental awareness.