Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A relatively weak typhoon blacks out Manila

Typhoon Conson (Basyang) was a relatively weak typhoon with a small circulation. I have followed the cyclone's development from a weak low pressure area near Yap island to its intensification in the Philippine Sea as a category 1 typhoon. It got most of its steam from the deep and warm waters of the Philippine Sea. What I found very unusual is that one of the first storms of the season followed an almost westerly track. Check out the forecast scenarios.

Typhoons that follow this route usually do so late into the season in October and November. The reason given by meteorologists is that there was a strong high pressure steering ridge in southern China. Usually northwest Pacific typhoons swerve and take a curving path towards northern Luzon, Taiwan and Southern Japan during July.

So Conson made a beeline for Metro Manila and by the time it passed over the city. it had a maximum wind speed of 95 km/hr with gusts of 110 km/hr. This made it as a tropical storm rather than a typhoon. In the league of storms, Conson is a pfft rather than a roar!

Manila has experienced stronger cyclones, the most strongest in recent years (2006) was Milenyo (Xangsane) with 220 km/hr winds. It toppled trees and blacked out Manila for a week. In other cyclone events, the city would be blacked out for a few hours. But in Conson, the city was totally blacked out for almost a day.

Driving around the city, most businesses were shut. The longer the city was without power, the more business lost money. This is so true for gas stations since their pumps were run by electricity. As of 4 PM, the Makati central business district where the banks and corporate HQs are, was still out of power.

Thus citizens want to find out why the city's power distributor MERALCO is taking so long to restore power. This won't go down well with them since MERALCO charged them an arm and a leg due to expensive power generated last summer. MERALCO reports that only 20.2% of their customers had power at 2 PM.

The weak storm has caused media to batter the Philippines' weather bureau PAGASA with questions on why the bureau can only provide forecasts every 6 hours. PAGASA director Dr Prisco Nilo said on national TV that they need at least an additional 1.3 B pesos to get the most basic equipment that will allow them to give more frequent forecasts. I agree.

People think that PAGASA is hopeless (walang pagasa in Filipino) because its staff are not doing their jobs. We have to disagree. PAGASA meteorologists are one of the most skilled in Asia and that is the reason why shipping and aviation companies are luring them with juicy salaries and commissions. The press has reported that PAGASA meteorologists get at most 20K pesos a month while they can get 1000 USD per forecast. Having known these public servants in the course of my work, it is amazing that most have stayed put, knowing that the Filipino people need them for their own survival! Hooray to these public servants!

If PAGASA is hopeless then the blame should be put with Congress, which hasn't appropriated enough money for it to do it job well. Now President Noynoy Aquino should resist the temptation to blame the weather bureau for political mileage. He would get more mileage by kicking Congress' butt!

And yes, the six hour forecast is not enough. Many students were following the forecasts so they would know if they have school or not the next day. But the power went out. Now looking out their windows, the students and their parents were flustered when PAGASA still has an un-updated forecast when the wind was howling outside.

PAGASA was unable to advise people that the storm would pass directly over the city until after the storm did! But those who were able to follow other forecasts, they would have known that the storm will pass near or over Manila.

And this is the first storm of the season. If we follow the average, we still have 18 more!

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