How to prepare for typhoon – Okinawan style

By David Higgins

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Torrential rains are the biggest problem most people on Okinawa face during the typhoons.

If you have lived on Okinawa for at least a year, then you have probably experienced living through a typhoon. In Japan, typhoons can occur anytime between Jun. 1st and Nov. 30th.

Although structural damage by typhoons is relatively rare on Okinawa, sometimes lighter buildings get blown away.

Although structural damage by typhoons is relatively rare on Okinawa, sometimes lighter buildings get blown away.

I had always thought that a ‘typhoon’ was something different from a ‘hurricane’ and was surprised to learn that they are exactly the same phenomena, except for the fact that they occur in different geographical areas. The term ‘tropical cyclone’ refers to a non-frontal low-pressure system that occurs over tropical or sub-tropical waters with organized convection (i.e. thunderstorm activity) and strong surface wind circulation. When referring to an extreme storm with strong winds (that can be sustained at around 100 kph) and intense rain, we use the term ‘hurricane’ when they occur in the Atlantic and Northeast Pacific. When these storms occur in the Northwest Pacific, they are called ‘typhoons.’ In the South Pacific and Indian Ocean area, they simply refer to them as ‘cyclones.’ Actually, the universal term for all of these variations of the same natural phenomena is ‘tropical cyclones.’ Clear as a flooded street, right?

It's surprising how many people rely on umbrellas during typhoons, as it's 100 percent sure that the umbrella is history after the first gust of wind they encounter.

It’s surprising how many people rely on umbrellas during typhoons, as it’s 100 percent sure that the umbrella is history after the first gust of wind they encounter.

Honestly, I am a bit of a hypocrite as I have never been very diligent about preparing for typhoons at all. The only exception would be that for some reason, when I hear warnings of a ‘typhoon,’ I immediately feel the urge to run out to the grocery store to pick up ‘essential supplies.’ My ‘essential supplies’ list usually consists of an assortment of vegetables to concoct a tasty salad with, some chicken, and most importantly, fluids; particularly beer.

Reviewing social media sites, I was impressed by the number of like-minded people who also prioritize, and stock up on their ‘essential supplies’ for anticipated typhoon parties. We tend to reach deeper into our pockets when a warning of an approaching typhoon hits the media. It is as if the warning sparks some primal ‘fight or flight’ reaction, and we have chosen (with the influence of the various forms of media and advertising) fight. With this choice to stay and fight, there is an inclination to believe that we have been provided with good enough reason to splurge on expensive craft beers or a few bottles of fine wine to sustain us during our ‘fight.’

Most of typhoon fatalities on Okinawa occur on shores when people go too close to admire the swells caused by the storm and then get swept away.

Most of typhoon fatalities on Okinawa occur on shores when people go too close to admire the swells caused by the storm and then get swept away.

Alongside these decadent beverages, we need to prepare some serious entertainment that will last the duration of the oncoming typhoon. Even if the internet does not experience glitches, entertainment beyond the screen needs to be taken into consideration. This usually consists of indulgent food choices, more alcoholic beverages and maybe a lottery ticket or five that can be scratched to pass the time during the storm. Knowing that you may get out of this storm alive and possibly ‘set for life’ is probably the best incentive ever to stay and fight… or party.

I must digress. Regardless of this playful banter, it’s important to understand that there are real dangers circulating in these super storms and some simple tips for typhoon preparation might make all of the difference to the safety of you and your loved ones. Most importantly, be sure that your phones, electronics and tablets are fully charged and usable. The smart phones can be used as a flash light and as a means of googling the typhoon location or up-to-date conditions of the storm. When the power goes out, it’s horrible. The cooler/aircondition doesn’t work and your comfortable home can quickly change into a sticky sweaty Indian sweat lodge with no wifi. This is a worst-case scenario.

As is the case in any place where one can experience extreme weather, it is important to prepare an emergency care kit that includes items such as flashlights, first aid supplies, canned food and water. Include a 2-4 day supply of paper plates, plastic cutlery, and a manual can opener because there is a possibility that you may not have power or water for a couple days. When you become aware that a typhoon is heading our way, pack a cooler full of ice as an ideal way to beat the heat if there is an extended power outage. Keep a few empty buckets on hand in case of roof leaks that can occur during the storm.

Another common worst-case scenario might be that you completely ignore all warnings and ‘drop-the-ball’ on any typhoon preparation. This includes completely disregarding the increase in wind factor during a typhoon and leave your belongings, such as chairs, laundry, barbeques, lawn mowers, swing sets, trashcans, plants, the family cat or beer cans out on your balcony or in the yard. Believe me it is going to get really windy, very quickly. It can get so windy and increasingly dangerous as the wind can be capable of flipping over cars, ripping off roofs or any type of cheap home renovation that was whacked together three months ago. Household objects can become dangerous projectiles and be destroyed if left out and unsecured. I find that every plastic bag that was ever forgotten outside during a typhoon seem to take refuge at my house. Please keep control of your plastic bags by bringing them inside where they will not be free to create havoc on every homeowner within a five-mile radius of your home.

Once the typhoon has passed and the wind has died down, people emerge from their homes to assess the damage outside. By luck or by nature, the following days usually tend to be almost surreal; sunny and bright, as if nothing had ever happened.

Because we are curious beasts, your inclination might be to take a drive around the neighborhood to see how it has held up. Take care in driving or walking as you will usually come upon fallen trees, scattered debris and even stop lights that have been twisted or moved and awaiting readjustment. Bright thinking engineers have developed these stop light posts to react this way in order to prevent them from snapping off and becoming potentially dangerous during a typhoon but not all objects have been provided with this sort of genius so tread lightly and stay aware as you explore.

With the onslaught of wind, rain and sea salt that have covered any exposed square inch of Okinawa and everything on it, all things metal will need to be washed properly to avoid corrosion. This is why you may notice that each and every car wash will be lined up with Okinawan locals. If your car was outside during the typhoon, you may as well get right in line behind them. It’s also a good idea to hose off all of your windows as they are usually difficult to see out of after they have been blasted for hours with sand and sea salt water laden wind.

Luckily, Okinawa enjoys it’s conveniences which includes the existence of ‘supply shops’ that are actually open while a typhoon is occurring. This is not a ‘free ticket’ to be unprepared for a typhoon but these shops are an available option if you did forget to stock up on ‘essential supplies’ such as pet food, canned tuna or water.

The stronger the typhoon, the more likely that work and school will be canceled the following day but don’t always count on it. During the rare occasion that announcement is made, it is always met with cheers of joy and jubilation. Nonetheless, always be sure to gauge the intensity of the typhoon and its’ potential dangers and/or damages accrued before deciding to consume your ‘essential supplies’ as the following day you may be faced with the reality of digging yourself out of your home or actually having to drag yourself into work.