By Paul A. Berger - Originally Published Mar 1965
High winds and torrential rains cause death and destruction when they catch residents of the "Typhoon Belt" with their guard down.
If you really WANT the straight scoop, go into the village and ask an old papasan. Since Americans have been on Okinawa, this seems to be the most popular method of predicting the arrival of typhoons.
"The best weather report available," claim many Marines, "is still the old papasan. It's instinct. You live with it and you know."
So go ahead, defy science. Ask any papasan, but keep in mind that he is concerned with typhoons too, and spends just as much time listening to the radio weather reports as anyone else. And notice too that he'll almost always say, "Typhoon no come."
Now here's where you're at a disadvantage. Papasan has more time on the island than you do. He does know something that you don't, but it doesn't involve instinct. Just one simple statistic.
Out of every 15 typhoons that whip out of the south, 14 miss Okinawa. That's not always true. That's a statistic.
So Papasan's merely playing the odds, which are 14 to 1 he's right. One Marine became known for his accurate predictions a few years ago. When people from the Third Division asked him for his sage advice, he'd look intently into the sky for a few minutes, then say, "No. The typhoon won't get us."
He always said that. Never "Yep, we're in for it this time."
He knew the odds.
Now that that theory is properly shot full of holes, let's get down to some serious facts about wind versus man.
You know what a hurricane is? Like those that clobber the eastern U.S. occasionally? Well, a typhoon is nothing but a hurricane that's pulling a tour in the Far East.
These super-storms start near, but not necessarily on, the equator. They require warmth, moisture, calm air, and a "twist" to begin the movement. Most start over an equatorial belt of calm areas called the doldrums.
The doldrums follow the heat equator, the true area of greatest heat on the earth's surface. As a result, typhoons start in different places, and travel in assorted paths, at various times of the year.
From 12 to 50 typhoons may originate annually in the region between the western Carolines, the Philippines, and the southern Mariannas. About 12 of these will affect the Ryukyu Islands. Affect, that is; not necessarily do any damage.
Okinawa is most likely to feel the destructive forces of a typhoon in August and September, although these months have no corner on the market. Typhoons have breezed in during every month of the year.
Writers have always had fun with the names of typhoons. Always named after women, they are subject to having descriptive adjectives tagged on them. There was Wanton Wilda, Flirtatious Flora, Treacherous Tess, and Ruthless Ruth. All of them are referred to as various sorts of ladies; Shady Lady for one that sits for a few days threatening the area, but not making a move; Fickle Female for one that lays down a zig-zag pattern across the South Pacific; and then there are numerous uncomplimentary names, usually thought up by Marines after one of these "ladies" has made her entrance and departure, taking a few tents, window panes, and an occasional Quonset hut with her.
It's appropriate that typhoons be named after women, however. While this may not be the official reason, and many women don't agree with the idea no matter what the reason, it's generally agreed by old-timers from the Typhoon Belt that these storms are feminine in temperament. They are great teases, and are apt to change their minds at the last minute.
The new typhoon-proof buildings on Okinawa have cut down considerably on the preparations needed when the word is passed: "Typhoon on its way!" This doesn't mean everybody sits back and ignores the warning. There's much to be done.
Without proper preparation of the threatened areas, one of these Blustering Broads (See how easy it is to think up their names?) can become a wild, destructive killer. A full-scale typhoon can exceed 150 miles per hour wind velocity, with gusts reaching well over 200.
The "eye," or center of a typhoon, is nearly calm, but at sea it contains some of the most violent waves encountered by ships. On land, if you are hit dead center by a typhoon, it would go something like this:
The wind blows from east to west, since it travels counter-clockwise and approaches from the south. When the eye passes, the area becomes so calm you might think it's all over. Not so. That was just the port section. You still have starboard to reckon with.
After the eye passes, you'll get the other side of the storm, and the wind will be blowing in the other direction. There is little chance that you'll get your roof back, however, since these Galloping Gals (Again!) can have a waist measurement of 500 miles. Anything that was blown away is probably halfway to China by now.
What a typhoon can't blow away, it tries to wash away, or at least drown. Even during the lull in the eye of the storm, it rains. Not the pitter-patter on the roof type of rain that makes the gardeners smile. This rain can add up to an incredible 80 inches in a 24-hour period. Typhoon Emma in 1956 dropped 51 inches in two days.
The rain knocks down crops, and is particularly disastrous to the Okinawan farmers when a typhoon strikes during planting or harvesting time. It comes through cracks, under doors, and even through cement blocks.
Many a Marine who was unfortunate enough to be living on the banks of the Tengan River, or in other lowland locations, has had to rescue a floating locker box. Inside the barracks!
Your link with civilization during typhoons is usually the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. A man with a battery-powered radio is one up on the game, since electric power frequently stops flowing when the wind starts blowing.
There's an old saying on Okinawa that it's illegal to have a fan pointing east or west. Only north and south. That's because the main power lines run north and south, and creating a cross-draft may knock out electricity to half the island. This is not true, but the juice does seem to go off early in the game, especially in the remote areas.
AFRTS, along with medical facilities, communications centers, and other emergency outfits, has an auxiliary power supply, and stays on the air, bringing the latest weather reports.
Most injuries to personnel, and much equipment damage, have resulted from the lack of knowledge of typhoon conditions and what they mean.
The first few years after the war, when the buildings on Okinawa left much to be desired, saw some hairy typhoons. Metal buildings were crushed like matchboxes and carried away like straws. They were put back together, and the next typhoon usually gave them the same treatment. Damage ran into millions of dollars.
There are 11 typhoon conditions, but only three are generally known and of importance to the individual Marine.
Typhoon condition III comes into effect when winds of 75 knots (84 miles per hour) are expected on Okinawa in 48 hours. Motor transport units are activated in strength for movement of personnel and supplies; emergency communications procedures are established; areas are policed up, removing all loose objects; personnel in the field are readied for evacuation; and Division Engineers report on emergency power supplies. The list is long, but it boils down to-don't put it off until tomorrow, for then it may be too late.
Condition II is declared when the winds are forecast within 24 hours of the island. Range and aircraft ,firing is secured; field training is suspended; the Disaster Damage Control Center is activated at Division Headquarters; Camp Damage Control Teams are alerted; temporary camps are readied for evacuation; transportation priorities are set; and emergency supplies and equipment are stationed.
This sounds like a lot of work, doesn't it? Well, it is, and just because 14 out of 15 typhoons miss Okinawa, don't think there aren't many condition III and II alerts. Once there were three storms existing at the same time; one in the area and two on the way. The island bounced back and forth from III to II for nearly a month without a break.
It all depends on the breaks. If the breaks are good, you get the "All Clear." If they're bad, you'll move steadily from condition III, to II, and then to ....
Condition I! The winds are 12 hours off the coast. Commanders advise the Damage Control Center of their plans; civilian personnel may be released; liberty is secured; vehicles are parked and secured for maximum safety; troops wear steel helmets when outside. All emergency preparations must be completed during this condition, because if things turn for the worse, there is nothing you can do.
A fourth condition may follow. This is Condition Zero. Now is when you belong in out of the elements, flashlight at the ready, rations and water on hand, ready to carry out any assigned duties. Mostly, you just sit and listen to the Windy Witch (That's a new one) howl as she sweeps by.
All Clear is set when winds have diminished to 50 knots or less, and no more high winds are predicted within a 72-hour period. Debris is cleared, personnel and supplies relocated, and the regular daily routine is resumed.
Like climbing Mt. Fuji, or eating raw fish, weathering out a typhoon is an Oriental experience worth having. Once.
The thousands of Marines who have been through typhoons must admitit's an experience. Thousands more will get their chance, since a Squally Squaw (That's the last one) visits the island once during almost every tour.
And remember-Papasan's words of wisdom are probably a blend of the 14 to 1 odds and a radio weather report. But official weather reports have been known to wander, too.
Maybe we're all wrong. It might be that Fujin, the wind god, became angry, opened the bag he carries on his back, and let a typhoon out. . . .