Sunday, July 29, 2012

a severe typhoon

An unpleasant occurrence, known as Severe Typhoon Vicente, interrupted life in Hong Kong last week. With winds hovering around 118 km/h (73 mph) and torrential rains, the tropical-storm-turned-hurricane began its arrival on Monday, intensifying unexpectedly and almost catching the city by surprise.

Hong Kong employs a number of “signals,” which alert the public to weather conditions and wind speeds. Taken directly from the Hong Kong Observatory website, thus:

The Observatory has operated a numbered tropical cyclone warning signal system (TCWS) since 1917 to alert the public of the wind conditions in Hong Kong. The current TCWS consists of the No. 1, 3, 8, 9, and 10 signals… Prior to 1973, the signals consisted of the No. 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10, of which the No. 5, 6, 7, and 8 all warned about gale or storm force winds, i.e. wind strength of 63-117 km/h (34-63 knots), coming from wind directions of NW, SW, NE, SE respectively. In order to strengthen the public understanding that all these four signals warned about the same wind strength, these signals were replaced by 8NW, 8SW, 8NE and 8SE respectively in 1973. The Observatory wishes to clarify that the No. 5 signal in the past was the same as the No.8 NW signal today.

As with most information issued from the local Observatory, I find this largely unhelpful; confusing at best. Essentially, we understand the meanings of signals No. 1 (just watch out, although nothing is really happening), No. 3 (well, this could turn into something, but you don’t need to take action yet), No. 8 (most businesses and companies shut down, so—yes!—let’s leave work a bit early) and No. 10 (stay home and watch the useless weather reports, keeping away from windows and glass).

Why we cannot employ a more straightforward approach—something like signals 1, 2, 3, 4—I’ll never know. My dad claims that it was likely invented by the British, the same brilliant folks who created the tennis scoring system of Love 15, 30, 40, game.

Our friend Vicente brought such high wind and heavy rain that the Signal No. 10 was hoisted during the early hours of Tuesday morning for the first time in 13 years. At one point, gusts on one of the outer islands reached 255 km/h (158 mph). Hundreds of flights were disrupted at the HK International Airport, and some unfortunate commuters found themselves stuck overnight in one of the train stations. Over 1,000 trees fell or were uprooted by the winds, several falling on buses and cars. About 130 people were injured, though, amazingly, no fatalities occurred.

In one curious incident, hundreds of bags of tiny plastic pellets (made of polypropylene, used for manufacturing) washed up on a local beach. Assumed to have blown off a container ship in the storm, these potentially toxic bits are creating an environmental hazard to sea life.

Apart from minor window leaks in my flat, I survived the Severe Typhoon. Many trees around the neighborhood, however, did not. As I emerged from my building later, I was surprised to see multiple saplings along the sidewalks bent at odd angles. (I would not have guessed that there was enough foliage on these baby trees to be grasped by the gusts.) When I neared our church, I found extensive damage to every tree on the block—including two that were completely uprooted, and a large decades-old tree that was partially destroyed (photos below). Hampered by continual heavy rains, I suspect it will take weeks to complete the cleanup around the city.

Meanwhile, apart from Tuesday when all activities were postponed or cancelled, we held a Vacation Bible School program at church all week—the theme of which was “Operation Overboard.” It was a week for swim masks and snorkels…inside and outside.