As Hong Kong students headed to class on the morning of May 8, 1992, a sudden downpour became the heaviest in 30 years, claiming five lives, including those of two children, with a record 109.9mm of rain falling between 6am and 7am. Though no school closures had been announced, some children braved the flooding, lightning and landslides only to find themselves stranded outside locked buildings.
“Lessons to be learned from schools muddle”, read one headline in the next day’s South China Morning Post, criticising the education system’s inability to respond to severe weather. Legislators thought the events more than “a little bit unfortunate”, as the director of education had put it, accusing the Observatory and Education Department of “dereliction of duty” and “neglecting safety”. A seven-year-old and two adults were killed in mud and rockslides, one man was struck by lightning and 12-year-old Michael Bill drowned in rapid flooding.
“Michael was last seen being swept over the waterfall in the pagoda garden at the junction of Bowen Road and Wan Chai Gap Road,” the Post reported on May 10.
A resolution was quickly in the works, with the Post on May 14 announcing: “New warning system planned”. Warning signals in the traffic-light colours of green, amber and red, with the addition of black, would be automatically triggered in the event of heavy rain. If more than 50mm fell in any half-hour period, the red signal would be “broadcast on radio and television” and schools closed. The black signal would be issued in more extreme conditions.
“Following on from the events of last week we are all agreed that it is better to err on the side of caution and close the schools,” said former chief secretary David Akers-Jones.
Today’s children are no doubt glad that sometimes the price of safety is time off school.