Hong Kong’s embarrassingly poor response to cold snap must not be repeated

Albert Cheng says ill-equipped emergency services, irresponsible ‘frost chasers’ and a foolish decision to close kindergartens and primary schools don’t reflect well on the city

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 January, 2016, 4:49pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 January, 2016, 4:49pm

Hong Kong was caught off guard on its coldest day in 59 years last Sunday, despite meteorological warnings from as far away as Japan and the US that the territory would be hit by a severe cold front. Large areas of the world have been affected by the polar vortex which has been linked to global warming. Foreign forecasts even suggested it might snow in subtropical Hong Kong.

READ MORE: Hong Kong frost chasers stranded on Tai Mo Shan – fire department responds to calls for help, trucks blocked by traffic jam

In contrast, the Hong Kong Observatory predicted the temperature would only dip to six or seven degrees Celsius. Probably because of a resulting sense of complacency, no crisis plan was activated. Instead of preparing for the bad weather, people were excited about the prospect of a snow-covered Hong Kong. The public mood was festive, and none of the response units was ready for action.

On Sunday, there was no snow. Yet, the lowest temperature reading was minus two Celsius. Coupled with strong winds and rain, people experienced the coldest day in living memory.

Over 300 firefighters, police officers and paramedics were mobilised to respond to distress calls from those trapped on Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s highest peak. They rescued a total of 129 mountain runners and curious citizens who went “frost-chasing”. Some took along their children on a “family outing”.

The men and women involved in the rescue action deserve our applause and gratitude.

The person in charge at the scene could at least have exercised common sense and spread some rock salt on the icy slopes

Nevertheless, Tai Mo Shan was, by and large, an embarrassing scene. Like those they had to help, rescuers were seen slipping over on the icy slopes, as their standard-issue boots failed to provide any grip. There are only 56 pairs of crampons in the Fire Services Department’s entire inventory. Ambulances and fire engines are neither four-wheel drive nor prepared for icy conditions. A couple of ambulances had to turn away due to the conditions. The Government Flying Service, which managed eight flights that day, also admitted that their helicopters were not designed for such conditions.

This may not be expert advice, but the person in charge at the scene could at least have exercised common sense and spread some rock salt on the icy slopes, to make it easier for people and vehicles to move.

The worst call of the day came from Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim, when his bureau made a knee-jerk decision to cancel classes for all kindergartens and primary schools the following day.

When Monday dawned, it was warmer, with sun and clear skies. Children simply wasted a day of normal schooling and, more importantly, an opportunity to endure some physical hardship. It was not Ng’s job to predict the weather, but it is incumbent on him to make sensible assessments of what is in students’ best interests.

The worst call of the day came from Secretary for Education Eddie Ng

There are clear guidelines on when schools should be closed because of typhoons, rain storms or even contagious diseases. There is nothing, however, about low temperatures. The move to cancel classes was arbitrary, possibly a result of political pressure after the Professional Teachers Union issued a statement pushing for the closure.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying sought to justify the bad call by suggesting that there were no heaters in schools. But the same could be said of many of the children’s homes.

Hong Kong kids are mostly spoiled and overprotected. There was no sign that the streets would be covered with snow or ice. All public transport was running on schedule, even when Hong Kong was at its coldest. The only physical challenge for the students was the temperature. It would have been a good life lesson in perseverance.

READ MORE: Freeze frame! Images of Hong Kong’s chilling return to work on Monday, inside the polar vortex

Fortunately, there have been no serious injuries as a result of the cold spell. The social and economic damage has been limited. However, given the increasing prevalence of extreme weather conditions globally, it is anybody’s guess when the next cold front will descend on Hong Kong.

In preparation, the least the authorities can do is take a swift and serious look at the emergency response gear and protocols of other cities that experience such conditions. Residents may not be as forgiving if government departments are disorganised and ill-equipped the next time the mercury plummets.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk