Sunday I was doing what I could — not much — to deploy barges, boats, anything that could float a truck to the San Bernadino strait between Luzon and Samar in Eastern Philippines.
About the same time several tornadoes were tearing through the area of downstate Illinois where I grew up. In Pekin and Washington over 500 homes were destroyed, over 100 were hospitalized, one died. There was more death and destruction across the Midwest.
In each case — Central Illinois and Central Philippines — the precipitating cause was a cyclonic event with winds exceeding 190 miles per hour. In each case similar critiques have emerged related to risk-awareness, mitigation, warning, and preparedness.
Otherwise the differences are significant.
While there were over 70 confirmed tornadoes across the Midwest on Sunday, tornadoes are episodic. Tropical cyclones are epic. Survivors in the tri-county region of Illinois talk about two-minutes of hell. Survivors in the Visayas region of the Philippines experienced hours of assault by rain, wind, and surge. It is now estimated that up to 4 million have been displaced by the typhoon. Over 518,000 houses have been destroyed. The dead are still being found.
Terrestrial cyclones don’t come with storm surge. Water kills much more effectively than wind. Only earthquakes are more deadly… especially if they splash up a tsunami.
The scale — specific power at impact — of the EF-4 tornado that hit Washington is comparable to the CAT-5 typhoon that passed south of Tacloban. In terms of their scope… well, look for yourself.
But it is a mistake to only see the differences as a matter of scope or scale. In terms of consequences these events are expressions of entirely different categories. The Visayas Event was/is complex and very much continuing to unwind. The Washington Event was complicated and, except for those directly affected, is now mostly finished.
Disasters are contained in recognizable time-and-space, temporarily disrupting patterns that mostly rebound. Catastrophes are complex cascades marking a fundamental shift in experience and direction.
There is a temptation to focus on size, as if one is a ping-pong ball and the other is a basketball. Instead, it seems to me, we need to recognize that one is any size ball and the other is a positron: two very different types of reality, requiring two very different strategies of engagement.
In Illinois it is entirely reasonable to form a security perimeter around the impact site, to focus on evacuating survivors, and to defer mostly to private sector decisions related to recovery.
In the Visayas these same choices are possible, but where in Illinois the velocity and outcome of these choices are reasonably predictable and positive, in the Visayas such choices are likely to make things even worse (especially the next time). In any case, in the Visayas (the positron) we are dealing with probability not predictability.
Given the catastrophic context in the Philippines instead of perimeters, focus on permeability (e.g. clear debris, repair bridges, expedite convoys). Instead of evacuation, focus on quick restoration of lifelines (especially water and food, even electricity is secondary). Private choices will be important in both places, but there are threats and vulnerabilities in Tacloban and elsewhere that would benefit from a much more active role by both government and civil society.
Catastrophes are not just big and complicated, they are an entirely different category of reality.