How Typhoon Haiyan Compares to the 2004 Tsunami

haiyan trees in houses
Tress were uprooted by the storm and then crashed into people's houses, ECHO reported. (Image credit: Arlynn Aquino EU/ECHO, Leyte, Philippiones, November 2013)

Super Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the central Philippines on Friday (Nov. 8), affecting millions and displacing hundreds of thousands.

The tropical cyclone (the blanket term for hurricanes and typhoons) packed sustained winds of up 190 mph (305 km/h) in the hours before it made landfall, according to some accounts. It will likely go down as one of the five strongest storms in the last 50 years, even though estimates of the storm's strength vary, said Brian McNoldy, a tropical storm expert at the University of Miami. Estimates vary because there were no airplanes in the area to drop recording instruments into the storm (the typical way of making such measurements). Jeff Weber, a researcher at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., put Haiyan in the top three strongest storms, as measured by wind speed at landfall.

Some compared the storm's devastation to the mayhem caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which resulted from a magnitude-9.1 earthquake that struck west of the island of Sumatra on Dec. 26 of that year.

"The last time I saw something of this scale was in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami," said Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, the head of a United Nations disaster assessment team that visited the area on Saturday, according to The New York Times. "This is destruction on a massive scale. There are cars thrown like tumbleweed."

In particular, scenes of walls of water moving across coastal villages seemed to connect the two events in people's minds. [Photos: Typhoon Haiyan Hits Philippines]

"In a way, they're similar in that water quickly rose to amazing heights… and inundated low-lying, poverty-stricken areas," McNoldy told LiveScience. "Of course, they're caused by very different things, and a typhoon also comes with destructive winds, while a tsunami is only the water component."

Here's a look at some other measures of the two disasters.

People displaced and killed

·       Indian Ocean tsunami: In total, the earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed about 230,000 people and displaced 1.7 million people in 14 countries in South Asia and East Africa, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

·       Typhoon Haiyan: Local estimates put the death toll at 10,000 in the Philippines, with more casualties in Vietnam after Haiyan hit there today. "The overall number is expected to increase as aid workers reach more affected communities," the United Nations reported. The storm has displaced another 660,000 people, according to the United Nations.

Height of waves

·       The tsunami produced only small waves in the open ocean, but these traveled hundreds of miles per hour and pushed large masses of water inland, swamping low-lying areas. In some regions, these masses of water reached heights of up to 100 feet (30 meters) above sea level, according to the USGS. As shock waves from the tsunami rattled around the Indian Ocean, some areas — particularly in Indonesia — were hit with multiple waves.

·       Haiyan's storm surge, the name for the wall of water pushed ashore by the strong winds of typhoons and hurricanes, did not cause the same level of inundation as the 2004 tsunami. But Haiyan's surge was still impressive (and deadly), reaching up to 20 feet (6 m) in parts of the central Philippines, according to news reports.

Warning time

·       Most people affected by the 2004 tsunami had virtually no warning, thanks to the speed of the tsunami's waves. Experts at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu didn't even know immediately that the earthquake had set off a giant wave, until they heard reports of a tsunami hitting Sri Lanka, according to news stories at the time.

·       Philippine authorities gave residents several days warning about Haiyan, McNoldy said. Indeed, about 800,000 people were moved to storm shelters. But Philippine officials didn't expect or prepare for the 20-foot storm surge, said meteorologist Nick Wiltgen. The surge took many by surprise, in some instances swamping shelters, according to news reports.

Economic impact

·       The tsunami caused more than U.S. $10 billion in damages, according to various estimates.  

·       It's quite early to put a dollar figure on Haiyan, but Jonathan Adams, a senior analyst at Bloomberg Industries, said the storm's impact may reach U.S. $14 billion.

Area impacted

·       The 2004 tsunami hit low-lying areas in 14 countries, as far apart as Australia and Kenya.

·       Haiyan primarily affected the central Philippines, but inflicted damage even at higher elevations away from the coast, due to the storm's strong winds.

Email Douglas Main or follow him on Twitter or Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook or Google+. Article originally on Live Science.

Douglas Main
Douglas Main loves the weird and wonderful world of science, digging into amazing Planet Earth discoveries and wacky animal findings (from marsupials mating themselves to death to zombie worms to tear-drinking butterflies) for Live Science. Follow Doug on Google+.