Remembering Typhoons in Manila and Port Vila

 

photo courtesy of Graham Crumb, Imagicity

Watching the coverage of the two devastating hurricanes in the US southeast the past couple of weeks made me think of some of the tropical cyclones I’ve experienced.

We don’t have hurricanes in Washington State where I’d lived all my life before we moved to the Philippines. So I had no idea what to expect when my first typhoon approached Manila.

Fortunately, my husband grew up on an island on the southeastern coast of China. China has more tropical cyclones than any other country on earth, most of them on the southeastern coast, so he’d been through quite a few. When the storm warnings came into the residents of Manila, Eugene knew exactly what to do.

I must have been too young and foolish to feel frightened. But I do remember being surprised at how much work it was to prepare for a typhoon. Here are some of the pre-typhoon tasks we did:

* We stocked up on food, candles, matches, and batteries for the radio;

* we removed pictures and scrolls from the walls and tucked them away, rolled up the carpets and pushed all the furniture as far from the windows as possible;

* and we filled pots, tubs, basins, and buckets with water. (We always kept water containers taller than our children in our bathrooms. Our water depended on our own electric pump.)

little helpers

No one mentioned evacuation. With around six million people living in Manila at the time, few of them car owners, that could have been a big mess. Besides, when you live on an island, where can you go?

Over the years, we got used to preparing for typhoons and then putting things back again when the storm was past. The Philippines gets hit by more tropical cyclones each year than any country on earth besides China. We must have gone through dozens of them.

We were lucky though. We missed two of the most damaging typhoons. Typhoon Yoling hit Manila in 1970, less than a year before we arrived. We heard many stories of what people went through. Yoling left 611 people dead on land and 135 at sea. Metal roofs flew off houses, glass was shattered, acacias and palm trees were uprooted, and the electricity was off for weeks. The other big typhoon we missed was Ondoy which swept through Manila in 2009.

Port Vila, Vanuatu

In Vanuatu, they don’t call a tropical cyclone a hurricane or a typhoon. They just call it a cyclone.

Our life in Port Vila was usually peaceful, but Old Man Weather did shake, blow, and drench the country on a regular basis. During a three-year stay, we experienced a fair number of earthquakes and cyclones, and we visited one of its many volcanoes. Again, we were lucky–no tsunamis.

There’s something about living on a small island in the middle of a huge ocean that can make you feel small and helpless. If you think about it too much, you can imagine the wind and water blowing in and sweeping you off the other side of the island.

It didn’t happen, of course. Instead, when a cyclone hit Port Vila, we sat inside, listening to Australian weather news on the short-wave radio, and waited for it to pass.

I mentioned luck a couple of times. Obviously, good preparations and good choices by both individuals and governments are crucial. But you can’t rule out luck and the grace of God when it comes to surviving a typhoon or a hurricane.

Have you experienced hurricanes and/or typhoons? If so, I hope you were one of the lucky ones who made it through relatively unscathed.

I wish all the best to those touched by recent storms and wild fires.

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About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen
Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She’s working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early ’90s.

Philippines, storms, Vanuatu , , , , ,

25 comments


  1. Wow. Thank you for this, Nicki.

    The hurricanes have been horrible. My family down in Houston has made it through okay. I feel for the people in the Caribbean and Florida 🙁




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    • I’m glad your family did okay. The pictures I’ve seen from Houston, Florida, and the Caribbean look horrible. The US Virgin Islands and Barbuda took a terrible hit. I wish the people affected a speedy recovery.




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  2. We occasionally get hurricanes in southeastern PA. I remember Agnes in the early 70s as doing lot of damage. Fortunately my family only had to deal with downed trees and no power for a time. There was no house damage or loss of life. I can’t even imagine the storms some people go through. I’ve been down to the keys. The islands aren’t big enough to have higher ground. I don’t know what happens to all the wildlife.




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    • We do have wind storms in Washington that break branches and knock out the power. People occasionally die when a tree or a big branch falls on their head. They don’t seem the same as hurricanes, though. You just stay inside and then afterwards you get out the chain saw and get rid of the fallen tree.

      I’m sure we must have been without power after many of the typhoons, but we had so many power interruptions in Manila on ordinary days, that it doesn’t stick in my mind.

      I’ve never been to the keys, but I can imagine how frightening it would be to be on such a small island when something like Irma hits.




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  3. Since I’ve lived on both coasts of the country I’ve been through a few extreme weather events. Mostly in the winter in New England where ice storms can be quite hard. We’ve been without power twice for a week each time. I felt the earth shake a couple of times in California but I’ve never been through an earthquake. We’ve also packed twice due to the risk of wild fires. And we’ve seen many big thunderstorms in Maine above the lake. But it remains mild in comparison to a tsunami or a typhoon or a hurricane. Just reading your story scares me.




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    • The event we’re afraid of in the Pacific Northwest is what they call “The Big One,” a big earthquake. I’ve been through a couple of rather large earthquakes in the past. In 1965 we had a 6.7 quake. I was in church, at St. James Cathedral. The chandelier over the altar swung on its long chain, casting creepy shadows; plaster fell on the altar; old ladies cried to God for help; and we all ran outside. Another memorable earthquake was in Vanuatu. I was at the airport, about to fly to Fiji where they were having a typhoon. I didn’t mind the earthquake at first, but it just kept going and going. When I got to Fiji, the typhoon was about over. As we landed, I could see red and yellow mangoes scattered all over the green grass–very pretty. At the hotel, bright pink bougainvillea petals were floating on the swimming pool. No fun to clean up, but also beautiful.




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  4. I’ve seen a lot of wildfires and been through some earthquakes, but I missed all the hurricanes on the East Coast. I guess the only plus for hurricanes is lots of warning. For earthquakes, well, my cat once jumped on my face and scratched me right before a big one hit. Less than a minute of warning, though.




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    • That’s fascinating about your cat! But that’s the trouble with earthquakes, no warning. Since the “Big One” is coming to the West Coast … sometime …, we’re told we should make extensive preparations and then continually update them (buy fresh water every so often, etc.). The list is so long and overwhelming that I haven’t done a thing.




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  5. There are typhoon warnings every year in my area in China but usually they amount to nothing (not much more than a windy day, sometimes with strong rain but that’s it). I have never experienced a real typhoon!




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    • I’m glad you’ve only had warnings and not a real typhoon. Do you mean Suzhou or Shanghai? Does Shanghai ever get any bad typhoons?




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      • Both! Suzhou is very close to Shanghai, about 80 km, so we basically have the same weather and everything. A couple of years ago there was one that flooded the streets in some districts, up to almost knee level.




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        • Where we lived in Makati (Metro Manila), the infrastructure was newer and the land a little higher. So the impact was always much less than in the lower-lying, older areas. Storms are usually harder on the poor, who have flimsier houses and live in less desirable areas. The squatter shanties are right up against Manila Bay and along the Pasig River.




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  6. Kind of puts it all in perspective, doesn’t it? Living on an island, seems that you’re that much more aware of how we humans live by the vagaries of Mother Nature. I watched a water spout while on a boat docked off of St. Thomas. Dodged a bullet – but my character Meredith didn’t in my book THE RIGHT WRONG MAN – she was right in the center of it. 🙂




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    • In real life we dodge lots of bullets. It’s more interesting when our characters fail to do so. Sometimes I have to beat myself over the head to have the courage to bring disaster down on my characters’ heads. Not going far enough is one of my writing faults.




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      • This is a brilliant point!! We get to know and like our characters so much (well, most of them) that we want to take care of them. Haha. I’m watching (writing) my main character make a horrible dating choice, but like my own children, I have to let her learn through her own mistakes. :-0




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        • So true. Once our children are old enough, we have to allow them to make their own mistakes. In either case, we can’t be too controlling. If my characters all made the same choices I would, they would all be the clones of me. And where’s the fun in that?




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  7. Nicki, what an interesting post. It must have been frightening at times when the winds really kicked up. I’m sure living on an island must have been beautiful with the storms the exception.
    I’m sorry I haven’t popped in much, it’s been a tremendously busy time and I try to hop around and visit someone different each time I’m online. Hope all is well with you.




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    • Actually, Michelle, I haven’t been posting much. My daughters have been visiting, so they’ve kept me busy. Most of the time I did like living on an island, especially in Vanuatu. It was beautiful!




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  8. Like your experiences in the Philippines, we experienced more disruption of our routine than destruction or devastation. So, yay! But it will take time to restore order from the chaos. At the moment, BFF is across the street wrestling with a tree in an effort to restore water to some homes on the street. The clean up continues . . .




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    • I’m so glad you made it through the hurricane, Nancy, and that your home survived. Hurray for neighbor men (and nuns) with axes and chain saws during the clean-up. And hurray for all the utility workers.




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