Competing in ModelOff from the Eye of the Haiyan Hurricane: Insider Perspective Stevenson Yu

Join Stevenson on his incredible journey preparing to compete in the ModelOff competition with the threat of the Haiyan Hurricane looming.

In the week leading to Round 2 of Modeloff, I found myself obsessing and fretting over models.  Not financial models as I would have expected, but tropical cyclone forecast and spaghetti models.

It started with a small tropical depression passing slightly to the south of my home in Cebu City.  It wasn’t powerful, but the amount of rain might be troublesome, so I checked it online.  In fact, it generated a few very rare tornadoes, but they didn’t last long or cause much damage.  That wasn’t what worried me, however.  There was a new tropical disturbance brewing in the East Pacific Ocean.  It stood a good chance of developing into a very powerful supertyphoon, thanks to a confluence of favorable climactic conditions.  What’s more, if the typhoon formed, it was forecasted to bee-line directly towards Central Philippines, right where I live.

The possibility of a coming supertyphoon dredged up unpleasant memories from 23 years ago.  Back in November 1990, when I was in Elementary school, supertyphoon Ruping (international name Mike) directly impacted Cebu City.  I remembered the severe gusts of wind and the ever-present howls.  After Ruping passed, the city was essentially flattened – all trees and electric posts were down.  It took well over a month before electricity was restored, and I remembered finishing classes on May, instead of the customary March.

This time around, the potential storm’s route was a five-day forecast so there was still time for things to change.  When Round 2 question breakdowns were revealed on November 4, it provided a welcome distraction.  The blog had promised Round 2 to be much more technical than Round 1.  Based on the Round 2 breakdown, there were cases on M&A financing, financial statement projection for a struggling company, and analysis of a large data-set.  I would have to brush up on the first case, but I was more confident with the other two.  The question, of course, is whether I would be fast enough to answer everything in two hours, but I figured that everyone was in the same boat.

On November 5, I rechecked my newest favorite website; Weather Underground’s tracking page on the tropical disturbance.  By this time, it hds intensified into a typhoon, and was now assigned the international name of Haiyan (Chinese for a species of seagull).  What’s worse, the initial forecast remained on track – Haiyan would develop into a Category 5 supertyphoon before it would impact the outlying islands of Central Philippines.  It would weaken slightly, head on a northwesterly course, and dissipate over Vietnam and Laos.

To account for the uncertainties in storm prediction, cyclone maps come with a cone of uncertainty.  These are ever-enlarging circles that project where the storm center could be within regular time intervals.  The most likely course was for it to pass over the northern tip of Cebu Island.  Cebu City, which is located in the middle of the island (shaped like a J), was well within the cone of uncertainty.  Haiyan, which was assigned the local name Yolanda, would enter the Philippine area of responsibility on Thursday, hit hard on Friday, and exit the country by Saturday.

With memories of Ruping seared deep in the Cebuano psyche, nobody was taking any chances.  Crowds descended into shopping centers and grocery stores, cleaning out all stocks of batteries, rechargeable lamps, battery-operated radios, bread, rice, canned goods, packaged snacks, and bottled water.  By Wednesday evening, the stores were wiped clean.

Although it was no longer priority number one as I had initially planned, I took measures to ensure my participation in ModelOff – I spent $30 to enter as many rounds of an Excel modeling contest as I possibly could, and I fully intended to protect my investment.  These measures included:

  1. Preparing multiple 3G wireless dongles from different providers, in the event that my cable internet connection was severed by the storm;
  2. Testing the signal strength of the 3G reception throughout the house (which, surprisingly was strongest in my bedroom);
  3. Fully charging up a laptop, in case electricity for my main computer was knocked out;
  4. Purchasing a keyboard with a numeric keypad, which makes entering numbers into Excel far easier than with a laptop keyboard;
  5. Readying a UPS unit to power a printer with, since I planned to print out all the question sheets; and
  6. Requesting the contest organizers for a potential special deferred exam session, if in case I was unable to connect at all during the contest, since there were no guarantees the cell phone towers would remain standing after the storm.  The request was kindly granted by their lead organizer, Mr. Johann Odou.

With everything else in place, there was nothing left to do but make final preparations.  That meant looking for, and securing any items that would be blown away by the wind, preemptively cutting down trees close to our roof that might be toppled by the storm, preparing vats of water for use in the toilets, closing down most of the windows, and making sure the dogs would be safe.

As Friday drew close, I continually checked the typhoon tracking page, hoping that the typhoon had somehow violated the laws of physics and gone the opposite way.  There were no such reassurances: the forecast remained on track, and one of the spaghetti models even showed the storm plowing right through the city.  Now, we could only pray, and hope.

On 4 AM Friday, Yolanda made its initial landfall in Guiuan, Eastern Samar.  It roared through Leyte, devastating its capital Tacloban with enormous storm surges – up to 17 feet in height (Tacloban was barely above sea level).  We watched the devastation unfolded in real time, with updates streaming in via Facebook and Twitter.  Then, the electricity cut off at 9:30 AM, signaling that the storm has finally reached us.

The next two hours was an agonizing wait.  The extent of the damage would be determined by how things unfold during this time.  Mercifully for us, Yolanda did far less damage to Cebu City than we feared. Unlike Ruping, the eye of the storm followed forecasts and brushed against the northern tip of Cebu.  Most of the trees survived – while Ruping toppled every single tree within sight, Haiyan knocked down a few banana plants, but left everything else standing.

The winds, although they also howled and gusted occasionally, were not as horrifying as Ruping either.  Ruping was a slow-moving typhoon, and spent the night and the next day battering the city with its howling winds.  Yolanda moved east at a quicker pace, meaning that the worst was over after 12 PM.  Its relatively quick speed meant that once it exhausted its storm surge on the outlying islands, there was actually very little water left, which means less danger of flooding.

Power was restored that night, and internet access a little later.  My preparations for ModelOff had come to naught, but I have no complaints.  I could now approach Round 2 using the same facilities I used to approach Round 1.  Round 2, by the way, is where my participation is likely going to end.  Although I am familiar with Excel, accounting and finance, I neither have practical finance experience nor any knowledge about VBA programming.  Perhaps these might be small disadvantages, but in a high-pressure competition like ModelOff where only the sixteen best can compete in the finals, these will likely make a difference.

Nevertheless, I am grateful to have participated in both rounds of ModelOff, and I am particularly grateful at being spared the worst that Yolanda had to offer.  I truly hope that the other contestants in my country, and those in Vietnam (which will be impacted by the still-powerful typhoon during Round 2) will be as fortunate.

The sad thing about typhoons is that if you were protected from its effects, this meant that some other person suffered in your stead.  According to the Weather Underground, Haiyan is the most powerful cyclone in recorded history to make landfall, with winds of up to 195 miles per hour.  The true extent of the damage is slowly being revealed, as many of the areas directly hit by the storm were completely cut off from communications.

As of this writing, the death toll currently stands at 1,200 – with so many areas still out of reach, overall casualties could conceivably reach over ten thousand.  The international community is now mobilizing aid for the millions of people affected by the disaster.  Water, food, and shelter is currently the main concern, followed by medicine (residual flooding will eventually lead to water-borne diseases).  Although it may not be enough to replace everything these people have lost, every little bit helps.

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