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A Bad Case Of Wind

No, I’m not talking about the unsociable aftermath of last night’s aloo gobi; I refer to an atmospheric disturbance, believe it or not, of an altogether more vicious persuasion: Typhoon Mangkhut, very powerful, you may have heard about it. Although we’re used to handling cyclones here, when experts start talking about the most severe storm ever known to man and an impending disaster of biblical proportions it gets you thinking that this could indeed be a bit of bother.A bit of bother which might well lead to one’s very own aloo gobi moment but of an entirely different making. And so it came to unfold during the second week of September. As we’re keen weather watchers via the Hong Kong Observatory’s website we noticed quite early on a little bubbling of potential mischief lurking some distance east towards Guam, within the western reaches of the North Pacific. Oo-er we thought, this looks interesting, a typhoon could be forming but it may not come our way, hardly any have this year, little did we know. It was the website’s satellite imagery which facilitated this bit of meteorological sleuthery.

The tell-tale swirls of cloud are often indistinct initially but, over a couple of days, gather form to gradually resemble that of an octopus caught in a spin drier, arms yielding helplessly under rapid rotation. Eventually the arms all join up aided by the sucking in of yet more surrounding moisture and then, somewhat menacingly, an eye develops, beady and cold looking – though it is of course anything but.

By this time it will have embarked upon its evolutionary development commencing as a tropical depression and progressing up through the ranks to become a tropical storm, then a severe tropical storm, then a typhoon before achieving notoriety as a severe typhoon and on to its highest accolade, a fearful SUPER typhoon. Those two latter categories never existed back in the day and were only introduced in 2009 when extra classification was obviously required and I’m sure you can imagine why. Incidentally, each classification comes with its own band of mean wind speed varying from a steady 62 km/h, the maximum for a tropical depression, up to a racy 185 km/h or above for a super typhoon; speeds are taken as those nearest to the centre, amazing how they manage to assess these things.

So, having grown up into a fairly big and wrathful entity, along came Typhoon Mangkhut, as it was now to be called; a moniker chosen by the Thai authorities. Typhoon names, as a matter of interest, are selected off a list comprising ten offerings from each of several countries in the region; this time it being the turn of Thailand hence their contribution of Mangkhut, a translation of mangosteen, the popular Southeast Asian fruit. A very pleasant fruit incidentally, purple on the outside and with sweet, white, segmental innards, very good for you too insist the experts, though presumably without the 200 km/h tailwind which Mangkhut had worked steadily to achieve as it thus bore mercilessly down upon the northern Philippines.

Mangkhut struck the Philippines on 15th September, 127 perished and a trail of destruction remains. Often the first country in the line of fire, not to mention victim to a host of other natural disasters, I’m often perplexed by the contradiction of this wholly god-fearing nation and the disproportionate wrath she incurs.

Meanwhile, here in Hong Kong people, including us, were starting to get a little jittery. As Mangkhut left the Philippines for dead it became all too apparent that we would be next as the storm barrelled spectacularly into the South China Sea with power to threaten. As necessitated by the storm breaching the crucial 800 km distance from Hong Kong, the No. 1 Standby Signal was already in effect on the night of the 14th. This well-tried warning system has been in operation for over 100 years, the numbering sequence may have changed over time (now: 1,3,8,9,10) as has the method of delivery. Gone are the big iron drum, ball and cone hung by the waterside to visually warn mariners as have the loud guns and bombs aimed, not literally, at those inshore. Nowadays of course we have more modern communication via the internet and mobile phone coverage. What was a bit unusual for old Mangosteen, is that our dear government called a press conference stressing that we should ‘Prepare and plan for the worst’, not a consoling phrase or one we particularly wanted to hear.

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The following evening the storm warning was notched up to the No. 3 Strong Wind Signal as gusts began strengthening and jitters intensified with many folk panic buying then fleeing home to batten down the hatches; which usually comprises of securing anything flyable and taping up windows to prevent injury from flying shards. We busied ourselves upstairs on the roof where a closed-in room covering a portion of the area can be used to stow loose items such as plant pots and garden furniture. Some larger potted shrubs we laid flat and that, apart from wait with fingers crossed, was about all we could do. We were concerned about the sliding doors and windows which constituted quite large panels, though my engineering background told me that tempered glass should be okay unless… Doubt was beginning to nudge its way into my reasoning mind; a fixed-in-place waterproofing tarpaulin over the room was also old and a tad frayed, that too…

Then, the severity of warnings started to increase, seemingly in direct proportion to the more blustery buffeting outside. In accordance with our well-proven warning system, in the early hours of the 16th came the No. 8 Gale or Storm Signal which for most common or garden typhoons would be tops for a while before the winds gradually dissipate and the Territory breaths a collective sigh of relief – all would be over. Not on this occasion however, as wind speeds ratcheted up, the warnings followed suit. At breakfast time the No. 9 Increasing Gale or Storm Signal appeared and a couple of hours later at 9.40 am: bingo!! The hoisting of the No. 10 Hurricane Signal confirmed the worst. And then it happened, but were we prepared?

Well, yes and no. Although the weather deteriorated rapidly at this stage the good news (if you could call it such) was that Mangkhut had weakened into a severe typhoon with wind speeds of 175 km/h and would pass about 100 km south-west of Hong Kong. Not that you’d have thought it! The wind roared unceasingly, this was no little storm in which tree leaves helix gently down to the ground, no, vegetation was flying horizontally passed the window along with the rest of the tree in seemingly hot pursuit. At least it arrived in daylight; typhoons can be so much more terrifying under the shroud of darkness. I like to see and judge my wind (so to speak) and be in a position to pre-empt it – not that you can do much about it obviously. It was very unnerving and really quite worrisome, testing times indeed and it’s amazing how tiring sitting around, doing nought and expecting the worst can be; doubtless much of the Territory felt likewise, nails bitten to the quick might be tell-tail evidence of one’s principal calming measure.

Trying to keep occupied with a book or crossword proved futile as yet another distracting gust roared rudely past; could wind really blow that loudly? Tenterhooks had you waiting for the smash or crash that may have concluded each burst, a distant commotion or breakage detected but surely some distance away, was it?… Each volley reminded me of Nick Lowe’s song I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass and waiting each time for just an event: a crescendo, a crack, the tinkling of tiny fragments and expecting it to be ours. We lost our internet connection late morning so didn’t have too much idea of what was going on which didn’t help matters at all.

As northern hemisphere typhoons rotate anticlockwise the first attack by Mangkhut came from the northeast, the direction our village faces. As the day wore on and the storm edged over and away from us, this direction consequently changed to a more south-westerly front and, because we’re shielded by hills behind, gusts were considerably diminished. And so it thankfully was that towards late afternoon, after a battering of several hours, the first discernible traces of calm were detected. One or two severe gusts remained but their bite had gone. Was it over, was it safe?

Not far off, and we guessed it when we heard birdsong, the bulbuls were back, a sure sign of quietening and who should come along next? The monkey! A sandy-hued, long-tail macaque that frequents the area, he strode purposefully along next door’s roof parapet to sit dismissively at the corner. He stayed there quite regally peering studiously around and then, like a statue, gazed entirely motionless up at a sullen sky for quite some time, it reminded me of that final scene with Elsa the lioness in the movie Born Free; it was interesting animal behaviour, no idea what it all meant but we’d never seen him do that before, Elsa had an elevated rock, monkey chose a village house roof. Joy and George Adamson would probably have made sense of it. Contemplation over and perhaps remembering who and where he was, he launched feet first into the adjacent trees for a bit of foraging of anything that hadn’t been blown away, good luck with that! – all back to normal then?

Almost, at least Mangkhut had the decency to substantially fizzle out in time for a well-earned sundowner at 6.00 pm. Never mind a mere finger of gin, after what we’d been through a fist was unanimously agreed to be a more appropriate G&T measure – stiff upper lip and all that! This typhoon was a hell of a ride and, all things considered, one we wouldn’t be too keen on repeating anytime soon. But of course the way the world is heading, I fear we shall neither have a choice nor too long to wait.

Suitably emboldened to face any potential apocalyptic damage, we ventured gingerly upstairs to the roof to see which of those crashes and smashes belonged to us. Well, not too bad in fact, all the windows and doors had survived the onslaught but most of the roof tarpaulin had been snatched clean away and was probably half way over western China by the time we noticed. So, if anybody reading this over there woke up with a dark green material adhered to their living room window, it’s ours; no need to return it, please dispose of as necessary – many thanks!

As darkness descended we noticed all those houses directly inland and up the hill from us were without power; it must have failed part way through the afternoon, for them yet more aggravation brought on by Mangkhut. Amazingly, their power and our internet connection were restored later that night, a great performance by those two service providers. The No. 10 Hurricane Signal remained hoisted for an unbelievable ten hours that day, eventually being cancelled at 7.40 pm. And it wasn’t until the evening of the next day that all wind signals were lowered and normality could attempt a return.

It was the most powerful typhoon that we have ever experienced and that was certainly the general consensus. Hong Kong sustained substantial damage and a few hundred injuries, but thankfully no deaths. Damage was limited to some single-storey masonry structures, high-rise glazing and the usual construction site scaffold and temporary works. Flooding occurred in low-lying areas and even our district experienced a major storm surge of 3.38 metres repulsed thankfully by well-engineered coastal defences, we couldn’t possibly envisage the trauma of a flooded house on top of everything else that had just happened. Rainfall incidentally varied between 100 and 200 mm across the Territory that day and most of it seemed to be sloshing around our roof. Some folk living in high rises complained of blocks swaying alarmingly in the wind and we, as structural engineers, were quick to reassure that it was all accounted for in the normal design parameters.

Cleaning up on the roof

So a big clean-up was soon in progress. There following day (Monday, 17th September) yielded much chaos as folk tried to get to work but with many roads blocked (1000 reportedly) most buses were cancelled and the MTR metro, itself running a limited service, was quickly overwhelmed. We stayed at home to mop up so as not to add to the rush hour melee, many reckon the government should have given non-essential workers the day off – they certainly should have! Roads were extremely hazardous with fallen trees either blocking the way totally or causing vehicles to zigzag as they tried to proceed. And perhaps it was the loss of trees which for many people constituted the most depressing aspect of the Mangkhut experience. I read that up to 47,000 had been uprooted and surveying the carnage that could well be right; and not insignificant trees either, these were huge, maybe a hundred years old with substantial trunks denuded, decapitated, broken in two as if matchwood.

So that was Typhoon Mangkhut. Writing this on a calm, sunny day, a month after the event, things still aren’t quite back to normal; many areas still resemble a war zone, damaged buildings and street furniture evident, fallen trees littering the wayside. This is the future experts warn us, expect more and worse. Seems it’s already happening, many parts of the world having experienced some extreme weather recently. So, this time next year will I be writing a similar account of an even more super, SUPER typhoon? Watch this space…

Ben Zabulis

After graduating in 1982 Ben worked throughout the UK before an unlikely adventurous disposition led him to Nigeria, India, Japan and Hong Kong. Between each of those overseas assignments he had attempted repatriation with varying degrees of ‘success’; the last of which occurred in 2004 when he and his partner returned from Hong Kong for what they considered to be a permanent move, only to return to Hong Kong years later. The exotic misdemeanours inherent in that first expatriate period (1984-2004) together with various Asian sojourns and activities, contributed to a series of travel journal scribbles which eventually morphed in to the book Chartered Territory – An Engineer Abroad.

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