First Person

Typhoon who? How Yolanda became Haiyan

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The typhoon the crashed into the Philippines on Nov. 8 has displaced 4.4 million people. Photo by Erik deCastro/Reuters

When the super typhoon slammed into the Philippines two weeks ago, we began to pump updates onto our website as fast as possible, scrambling to make sure we got our facts right: wind speed at landfall (195 mph); the number of people Oxfam intended to  help (500,000); storm name (Haiyan).


I noticed in a colleague’s blog post that he was carefully recording another name for the storm as well. “They call it Yolanda in the Philippines,” he wrote. He sounded determined to keep that name alive—for the sake of countless people who had lost just about everything else in the fury of the typhoon. At least he could help them hold onto the name they had given to their nightmare.

Still, in the blogs and news updates we churned out, in our press releases and web links, Haiyan was the name that won out. Yolanda appeared only as a parenthetical reference. We weren’t alone. Haiyan was in western headlines everywhere: CNN, the BBC, USA Today, the New York Times.

Then, other colleagues, also keenly sensitive to the rights of Filipinos, began to wonder: What’s in a name? Why are there two? Are we using the correct one?

“Was this a situation of a country picking a name for a storm that was about to ravage its people and then the international community coming in and giving it a different name?” they asked. “Should we be taking a stand and using one locally chosen name?”

Oxfam humanitarian researcher Tara Gingerich dug in to find out. Here’s what she discovered:

“In this case, the job of naming the storm fell to the Japanese Meteorological Agency, which is the official Regional Specialized Meteorological Center for the western Pacific Ocean. On Nov. 4, when the storm reached the status of a tropical storm and thus warranted a name, the Japanese followed protocol and dubbed it Haiyan—chosen from a collection of names contributed by each country in that region. Two days later, on Nov.  6, as the storm spun toward the territory for which the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) is responsible, that organization gave it a local name: Yolanda. Individual countries have the option of assigning storms their own names.The Philippine agency decided to do so — and Yolanda was up next on their list.”

So, no international complicity here—just a storm of such destructive force it easily deserves two names.

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