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Science & Environment

A Decade Of Stronger Hurricanes

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we'd like to take a moment to remember some of the biggest storms of the last 10 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

GWEN IFILL: Hurricane Sandy began battering its way ashore today. The huge system had 50 million people in its sights.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The massive Typhoon Haiyan struck the central Philippines today.

WOLF BLITZER: Hurricane Harvey expected to make landfall as a major hurricane.

TOM LLAMAS: We begin with the relentless threat from Hurricane Dorian - rapidly strengthening over the past 24 hours, striking the Bahamas with 185 mile per hour winds.

MARTIN: NPR's Jason Beaubien has reported on many weather-related disasters, including Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Dorian and Typhoon Haiyan. And he is with us now in our studios in Washington, D.C., where hopefully the weather is a little calmer...

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: It is.

MARTIN: ...Than it is on most of your assignments.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. It's good to be here with you.

MARTIN: So, after reporting on so many of these storms over the course of the decade, what is the common thread for you in all of this?

BEAUBIEN: Well, it is clear that the world is seeing more intense storms. You know, scientists have been saying with climate change, even this incremental heating up of the oceans is going to produce more powerful storms. It can produce wetter storms and all just makes these storms more destructive.

Just looking at the data from NOAA - from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - 4 of the 5 costliest storms in history for the last 120 years since they've been keeping track of this - four of them were in the last decade, and the fifth one was Katrina in 2005. So definitely, there's this more costly effect of these storms.

MARTIN: I know there's one story in particular that you wanted to highlight from your reporting...

BEAUBIEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan coming ashore in the Philippines back in 2013. Will you set up the part of the story that we're about to hear?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. So photographer David Gilkey and I had flown in. The typhoon had hit. We were in Manila trying to get down to Tacloban, which was the hardest-hit area. And it was just impossible to get there. You couldn't get there by boat. There were hardly any planes flying in. And we managed to get on a U.S. military cargo flight. And they just dropped us at the airport in the middle of the night, and we ended up sleeping next to the runway. And that's where this starts. The whole thing felt post-apocalyptic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVID GILKEY: The most bizarre thing was last night - was getting off that plane. Because you got off the plane, and you walked over to the terminal, which you could clearly see. There was some sort of light on the other side of it, so it was all backlit, like a haunted house. And you realize there's probably - what? - a thousand people cowering underneath plastic because it was raining, huddling there. I turned on my headlamp, and all I saw were eyes. Did you see that?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah.

GILKEY: Really weird.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE BACKING UP)

BEAUBIEN: Even before daybreak, the airport buzzed with activity. Filipino and American soldiers driving forklifts shuffled pallets of rice, tarps and clothes on the tarmac. The refugees still huddled by the remnants of the airport terminal waiting, trying to get on a flight out.

So it's Friday morning at about 7:30. And we've hitched a ride with Reuters in the back of their - the pickup truck. Now we're driving from the airport into the city. And the destruction between the airport and the central city is just amazing. I mean, I can't believe that anyone survived who stayed here.

WOLFORD AVEA: I was here in the height of the typhoon. I was prepared. I have all - flashlights, food, everything.

BEAUBIEN: Wolford Avea (ph) was luckier than many of the other victims of Typhoon Haiyan. At least his house hadn't collapsed.

AVEA: But because of the surge, all our food were drowned, and then our rice. We cannot eat anymore.

BEAUBIEN: Everything was destroyed. All...

AVEA: Yeah. Yes - food, everything.

BEAUBIEN: His biggest concern was how without any clean water he was going to clean up the huge, muddy mess that used to be his home. Everything was in short supply for us. There was no fuel, no food, no rooms, no cars to rent. So we rented a single motorcycle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE)

BEAUBIEN: It's probably around 10 in the morning now. David and I have rented a 125 motorcycle with a driver, so the two of us are going around the town in a - squeezed onto the back of this motorcycle. But that's how we're driving around.

Dead bodies wrapped in sheets had been placed by the side of the road for somebody to pick up. The distinct smell of rotting human flesh fouled the air.

Can we go in there?

David had spotted a collapsed cigarette warehouse. Visually, it was spectacular. People were scurrying across a landscape of shattered concrete and brightly colored cigarette packets searching for salvageable smokes. The atmosphere was almost festive, like a treasure hunt. This had become the new normal.

MARTIN: Wow, Jason. That is devastating. And you described some scenes that you just cannot get out of your head...

BEAUBIEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...I mean, total devastation, just - but there's another reason why this story stands out for you, and I'd like to ask you about that.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. So David Gilkey, who I was with - he was killed on assignment a few years later in Afghanistan. You know, we covered a lot of stories together. And just - even just this one here, and - you know, he's a big guy, and him on the back of the motorcycle (laughter), and then me and the driver. It's - yeah, it's hard to listen to. But it's also nice to know that that happened.

MARTIN: It was nice to hear his voice again.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah. So thank you for that.

I just want to go back to where we started our conversation, which is, you've covered a lot of disasters like this over the years. Is there something that you end up taking away from all these stories that could easily just run into each other, in a way? But what do you take away from it?

BEAUBIEN: I - you know, I'm just struck by how one place will get completely slammed. Like, in that one, Tacloban just got completely devastated, and yet Manila was OK. And then this year in the Bahamas, Abaco just got completely destroyed by Dorian, but the capital, Nassau, basically was fine. And for some of the people, it meant the difference between life and death. And for other people, it meant the difference between their lives being completely upended or, you know, barely touched.

So these storms make you think a lot about just fate and fortune and luck. You know, the number of people in the Bahamas who told me that they were just going to start over, just going away from their home, they're going to go look for a new job. They're just completely going to start over. So it makes you think about just how, you know, your life could just get blown away tomorrow. And unfortunately, you know, this is happening to more and more people as these storms get worse.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Jason Beaubien talking about his reporting on storms, many storms over the past decade.

Jason, thank you so much.

BEAUBIEN: Oh, it was great to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.