by Nancy Bach
If you’re arriving for your Hong Kong expat assignment to coincide with the fall start of the school year, you’re hitting typhoon season in full force. Unless you’re used to hurricanes along the US coast, this may be a bit of a scare. Not to worry…
We flew into Hong Kong at the end of a major typhoon. Our kids, aged four to nine, were a bit concerned by the turbulence, so it was important that we stayed calm. We landed safely and learned later that another flight that day had actually experienced a sudden 1,000 foot altitude drop prior to its safe landing.Traveling by taxi to our home was a bit more problematic. The trip from the old Kai Tak airport in Kowloon through the tunnel to Park View should normally be 45 minutes or less. Our trip was two hours. In our jetlagged state we’d doze off and wake, only to find that we hadn’t moved in the line of traffic on the windy roads.
The problem was the heavy rain of the typhoon which had caused a number of “landslips,” 60 in Hong Kong, as reported later, with some injuries and deaths from smaller, unstable homes being swept away by mud and rain from flash flooding. On Hong Kong Island, rains often wash away bits of a road here or there. However, this storm was especially hard on Wong Nai Chung Gap Road, the direct route up one of the Hong Kong Island mountains to our new home and to the south side of the island. In multiple spots, half the road simply slid down the hill. Island traffic was at near-gridlock.
We arrived at Parkview to see our tropical resort in ruins. The center of the apartment complex with its circle of 18 towers had a lush grass and tree-covered area, but nearly all of the trees had toppled, their roots pulled out of the ground leaving great craters.
We woke the next morning to a totally different scene. Dozens of workmen were busily raking and resodding where needed. Others hoisted the trees back into their nests and anchored them discreetly in place. Several days later the grounds had their normal Disneyesque appearance.
And that’s what typhoons are in Hong Kong for most expats: a brief bit of strong winds and rain, rapid recovery, and life as usual. Our kids grew to love typhoons for they often resulted in “typhoon days” with no school. They were thrilled that the “snow days” they gave up from our New York home were replaced. One severe Level 10 typhoon hit square on Hong Kong and shook our building with a fury. We stepped outside during the eye to see the destruction, trees uprooted, debris lodged at upper story levels, and a total stillness rarely experienced in Hong Kong. We didn’t venture far since the eye wouldn’t last long and we quickly jumped back inside to ride out the rest of the storm.
Typhoons are monitored closely as they approach Hong Kong. They are assigned numbers just like hurricanes in the US. The numbering system is different, however. Early warnings will be a stand-by Level 1 that a storm is nearby, or 3 that strong winds (70mph) exist or are expected. Imminent danger with gale force winds of 100+ mph is Level 8 or 9, and hurricane force winds of 140+ mph or direct impact on the island is Level 10. Local television and radio will provide ample coverage, often with several hours’ warning. Your children’s school is likely to have a typhoon alert system, and your apartment building may post a prominent level alert in the lobby. The Hong Kong Observatory website will have the most current information on level and movement.
James Clavell’s fiction about Hong Kong, Noble House, features a horrific typhoon with catastrophic impact, including a Midlevels landslip that topples a highrise building. It’s very entertaining, but it’s fiction. Hong Kong’s highrise buildings include massive anchors in solid rock and typhoon-resistant construction to withstand heavy wind. In fact, standing on the 30th floor of any of the towers of Pacific View in a moderate wind will give a pleasant sense of riding on an ocean swell. The buildings sway gently in the wind. And power lines are buried underground, so there are rarely electricity outages.
There are precautions you should take, however. Don’t walk outside in the city during a hurricane. Wind or rain may bring down that amazing bamboo scaffolding that reaches high up the buildings, and the mesh covering will not keep it in place. The building won’t topple, but windows, signage and other debris could fall and kill you. Don’t go out on a drive or hike when bad weather is imminent. Look closely at the massive rock along the twisty-turny roads up and down the Hong Kong hills and you’ll see it’s not rock, but sprayed-on concrete. Most likely these areas have had landslips in the past and this is a manmade attempt at repair and erosion-control. But strong rain can easily undermine the coating and cause massive slips.
Many of the hiking trails parallel sluiceways coming down the mountains. These concrete chutes look like they’d be great fun with a logflume boat or rubber tube, but they would be deathtraps if a flashflood hit. Trickles of water flowing under some of the paths become massive torrents during flashflooding. Stay off boats and ferries when typhoons are predicted; even in modern times, there have been deadly ferry incidents during major storms. In your apartment bring loose items in from your balcony (before the storm) and stay away from the windows. Be cautious of a sudden lull in the winds; it may be the eye of the storm with more dangerous winds coming behind it.
You’re trapped inside, so pour a glass of wine and curl up with a good book. Read Noble House!