Haiphong Typhoon – Vietnam – September 15, 1881

A monstrous typhoon struck Haiphong, Vietnam, killing 300,000. Haiphong, poorly prepared in 1881 for typhoons, was devastated.

Haiphong, Vietnam, in the Gulf of Tonkin, lies directly in one of the most frequently used paths for those Pacific typhoons that originate in and around the Philippines and reach the Asian mainland through the Gulf of Tonkin. The typhoon that arrived on September 15, 1881, was very powerful and it devastated Haiphong and the surrounding coastal area. Three hundred thousand died. Little is known of the social and environmental conditions there at that time. It seems that no protective barriers were in place to protect people against a typhoon. Even today it is often difficult to protect people and buildings. Admiral William Halsey, commanding the U.S. Fleet during World War II, discovered something of the power of these storms when he found his ships caught in one. Seven hundred and eighty men were killed, three destroyers sunk, and more than a hundred aircraft lost. The storm had been more destructive than many of his encounters with enemy fleets.

Long before the typhoon of 1881, the Japanese, like Admiral Halsey, discovered the power of typhoons. In 1281, a Mongol fleet attempted to invade Japan but the ships were destroyed by a typhoon. The event was immortalized in the Japanese word “kamikaze,” meaning divine wind, and later in the suicides of the kamikaze pilots of World War II. Haiphong, Vietnam, is located in the delta of the Red River, approximately sixty miles from Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital. Haiphong is the main seaport for the northern region of the country and has, for centuries, been one of Vietnam’s principal trading centers. Earlier in the nineteenth century, when Vietnam became a colony of France, the city was France’s main naval base in Indochina. After World War II, when Vietnam attempted to regain its independence, Haiphong was the site of the first military action undertaken by the French. Later, during the Vietnam War of the mid-twentieth century, Haiphong was subjected to heavy bombing by the United States due to its status as country’s major port. After the war, the city was built up as a major industrial center and years later, early in the morning of September 27, 2005, Haiphong was struck once again by a strong Pacific typhoon.

Aware that the 2005 typhoon was approaching, preparations were made on the previous day to provide shelter from the storm by moving 2,000 people to areas away from the coast and giving them supplies of food and water that would suffice for several days. Dikes near the coast, built some years earlier to minimize the effects of storm surges of water, were already in place. The typhoon began as a tropical storm in the Philippine Sea east of the Philippines on the twentieth of September, 2005 but, as it passed over Luzon and moved into the warm waters of the South China Sea, it became a typhoon. The typhoon crossed over Hainan Island on the twenty-fifth of September and reached the coast of Vietnam early on the twenty-seventh with sustained winds of 100 mph. Chinese and Vietnamese authorities had been watching the approach of this typhoon with much concern and it turned out to be the worst typhoon they had experienced in several decades as its winds caused widespread flooding and destruction along the coast. Ultimately, the 2005 typhoon caused more than 150 deaths, almost half of them in Haiphong, before it moved on westward into China.

Vietnam’s deputy prime minister, accompanied by representatives of various government departments, spent most of September 27 on tours of the city assessing the damage. They discovered that the Maritime Search and Rescue Center was rendered helpless as a major dike protecting it had collapsed under the typhoon. The Center’s inability to rescue the people overwhelmed by storm surge may account for the high death toll. Elsewhere on the coast and throughout the city the deputy prime minister and his representatives encountered a scene of almost complete destruction. Within a few days, the government of Vietnam issued a worldwide appeal for help, asking for the equivalent of US$1 million in cash, goods, or onsite help. The appeal said that five thousand families, involving 25,000 people, needed both immediate and long-term care, the latter for at least twelve months. The government added that it had already contributed from its disaster emergency fund one quarter of the amount requested in order to begin the restoration work.

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