Mass flight from storms a hangover from hut era
Criticism of recent failures to predict localised wild weather conditions that caused traffic and airport chaos prompted the Observatory to revamp its system of typhoon warnings earlier this year. They are now based on predicted average wind speeds across Hong Kong and not just on Victoria Harbour. As a result, more No 8 signals can be expected. The tropical storm that passed by without incident yesterday may be a case in point.
But just as a decades-old warning system has been adapted to the times, it may be time to question our one-dimensional herd response to the No 8 signal - the custom of sending everyone home, creating traffic chaos and disrupting commercial life. The mass evacuation triggered by the No 8 has its origins in a Hong Kong of times past, when the city was more exposed to the elements. Many people lived in substandard dwellings, including shabbily built huts on hillsides. There was no safe train transport through tunnels. People crossed the harbour by boat. Strong winds could leave a trail of damage, posing a serious threat to life and limb.
That is no longer the case, although the prospect of a signal higher than a No 8 should never be taken lightly. As a typhoon approaches, there will always be a need to batten down the hatches and stop outdoor and maritime activities. But given the safer environment of our city in a storm, there may be room to give people the option of exercising cautious discretion rather than sending them home every time a No 8 is hoisted. They could be advised that it is safe to stay indoors unless they feel a need to rush home.
A more flexible response, instead of a mass rush homewards, would depend on a flow of updated weather information to the public and businesses by every means, including text messaging. Given that, business need not have to shut down and life need not be disrupted. Times have not changed so much that people should be denied the option of the safety and security of their homes. But perhaps they have changed enough to ask why even computerised international financial markets in safe, modern buildings have to close - on a day in which no flights had to be cancelled.