Hainan villagers weren't warned how devastating superstorm Rammasun would be

Separate wind, wave and storm surge forecasts led Hainan villagers to underestimate superstorm

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 August, 2014, 5:53am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 August, 2014, 10:39am

Along the coastline of Beigang Island in Hainan province's northeast, some 20 villagers were throwing their clothes and bedding onto dozens of fires flickering in a coconut grove. They were burning waterlogged possessions ruined after getting soaked in seawater when Super Typhoon Rammasun struck last month.

"We are used to seeing seawater flow into the village, but it's usually not higher than our waists,'' said a man who quickly gave his name as Chen, as he yelled to neighbours to bring more things to burn. "We were prepared for the wind, but not the water. I've never seen such mountainous waves."

On the afternoon of July 18, Chen and fellow villagers saw waves several metres high approaching the islet, first from the east, and then from the northwest. Villagers who gathered at the pier said they spied waves that would reach the second floor of some houses. The islet was flooded with seawater for about six hours.

Watch: Typhoon Rammasun haunts victims in China's Hainan province

Located on Puqian Bay, Beigang Island lies between two of the areas hardest hit by the storm - the cities of Haikou and Wenchang . Each village in the bay area, and many others along the province's northeastern coast, were flooded.

Once a pretty port of fishing boats and a weekend getaway for city dwellers, the island has become a tangle of tree limbs, refuse and wrecked boats. The worst typhoon to make landfall in southern China in 41 years killed 62 people. Twenty-one were listed as missing as of July 25. About 386,000 people were evacuated or relocated.

Residents said a poor government forecasting system, along with spotty warnings to residents, contributed to the high death toll. Evacuation orders were not mandatory. On the day when Rammasun made landfall, dozens of people interviewed in Haikou said they were at work. They said no one they knew had received notification to stay at home.

"We encouraged all the old people and children to evacuate, almost mandatorily. Many others chose to stay home," said Chen Yihu, the chief of Beigang village.

It's also clear, after dozens of interviews with the largely uneducated populace, that they relied on superstition and failed to heed signs that the typhoon would be severe.

"We have typhoons every summer," Chen said. "Even those who are 90 years old who have lived here all their lives said the typhoon wouldn't be that bad."

Besides killing scores of people, the storm decimated the area's agriculture, the economic lifeblood of Hainan. Some 163,000 hectares of crops were damaged, and more than 23,100 houses collapsed.

Wind and seawater damaged crops, including rubber, bananas and sugar cane, in the Haikou and Wenchang areas. Seawater soaked arable soil, withering rice paddies. Agriculture experts told local TV reporters that the soil would not allow crops to grow for the next three years.

The people of Hainan had three days to prepare for the storm after the China Meteorological Administration said that Tropical Storm Rammasun had been upgraded to a typhoon. It issued an alert at 6pm on July 15.

Rammasun hit the South China Sea on July 16 after causing 94 deaths and widespread destruction in the southern half of Luzon island in the Philippines. At 6pm the next day, the China Meteorological Administration issued a red alert, warning that within six hours the storm would probably bring strong winds. The National Marine Environment Forecast Centre also issued a red alert, saying waves four to six metres high and in some areas seven to 11 metres would appear along the eastern coast of Hainan and off western Guangxi .

The same day, Premier Li Keqiang signed directives urging authorities to prepare for the typhoon.

Villagers living along the Hainan coastline said they did not receive warnings that the oncoming typhoon could ruin their houses and crops, not to mention that they might be inundated by rising seas. With the calm, clear weather, many said they were relaxed.

The national meteorological system, which includes the alert service, cost taxpayers more than 20.6 billion yuan (HK$26 billion) last year, according to the National Meteorological Administration's 2013 annual report. However, it failed to warn the populace about the storm's probable severity.

Typhoon threats always involve three components: wind, waves and storm surge - rising sea levels caused by wind and changing atmospheric pressure. Since three different departments made these forecasts, they each issued their own separate alerts instead of a combined single message to residents, said employees of the two bureaus.

In the South China Sea area, alerts are issued by the South China Sea Marine Forecasting Centre in Guangdong. Forecasts of storm surges and wave heights are released by two separate departments, according to Zhang Min, a forecaster at the storm surge alert office at the South China Sea Marine Forecasting Centre.

Once most people heard one alert, they thought they understood the meteorological situation, Zhang said.

Zhang said that strong waves were what really caused damage in coastal villages. "Stronger winds bring stronger storm surges, and stronger storm surges bring stronger waves, which cause heavier damage to fishing boats and fish rafts," Zhang said.

Residents maintain they did not receive adequate warning, giving them little time to save their animals, property or themselves. They described seeing what they believed was a tsunami - high sea waves sometimes caused by a geological disturbance such as an earthquake.

However, tsunami usually do not appear along China's coast because its continental slope is relatively flat, broad and long. But storm surges often hit the southern coastline, said Li Mingjie, a forecaster at the National Marine Environmental Forecasting Centre.

Both Zhang and Li said that their jobs were finished after they issued warning signals to provincial authorities. Zhang said that because Hainan didn't have its own marine forecasting centre, they usually passed warnings to the provincial government.

However, Hainan does appear to have such a centre in Haikou, the Ocean Monitoring and Forecasting Centre. A man who answered the phone there said it conducted its own forecasting. The centre's website contained one alert from 2011. Last week even that was removed.

The first typhoon warning issued by the Wenchang meteorological service was issued at 7.45am on July 17 - about 30 hours before Rammasun made landfall. The alert was broadcast on traditional media such as television, and text messages were sent mainly to village officials, said the service centre's office director, who would only give his surname, Lu.

"We don't have everyone's number," Lu said. "We sent the message to cadres, business executives and those we call 'meteorological information officers', who usually are village officials. They then went on to tell individuals."

Pan Jiayi, a professor of physical oceanography at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said early warning systems could be developed to predict potential storm surges and rises in sea level.

He noted that the US National Weather Service maintained a system to predict storm surges.

"China's National Marine Environmental Forecasting Centre doesn't work on storm surge predictions. They're concerned more with weather forecasting. There is no well-known operational storm surge prediction system for the China coastal region," said Pan.

Beigang village head Chen Yihu was one of those who received an alert from higher-level officials. At noon on July 17, about 24 hours before the storm hit, he and a team of village officials started to knock on doors telling the 1,140 villagers about the oncoming typhoon.

He said he tried to persuade everyone to evacuate to the village's three-storey typhoon shelter in the local government offices. But he said many people insisted on staying at home. In the end, Chen said he successfully convinced about 60 old people, children and some people living near the shoreline to head to the shelter.

July 18 was a beautiful summer's day. After securing their rafts and moving fishing boats into the harbour, many residents said they gathered by dikes around the island to watch the sea.

It has been a tradition among the locals, especially the elderly, to watch the waves before a storm. Some residents said they believed that the elderly could tell the scale of a storm by watching the sky and the movements of waves.

It was a calm and sunny morning. Coconut trees rustled in the breeze.

At 2pm, heavy wind gusts and rainstorms swirled onto the island. Seeing the rising sea levels, the crowd gathered at the pier started to run back to their homes. Some ran to the typhoon shelter in the village centre.

As soon as some reached the shelter, mountainous waves surged over the dikes and struck houses on the shoreline.

"No one had expected the waves would be that huge," said Chen Yihu.

Among the many villagers who chose to stay at home was 32-year-old Rao Mei.

Rao lives near the village centre. By the afternoon of the 18th, seawater filled her house, reaching the two-metre mark. Rao and her parents jumped onto their beds and prayed.

"If it came at night, we'd all be dead," she said. Her father ran to the backyard and brought a few chickens into the house. But the birds later drowned.

Around 4pm on July 18, 30 minutes after the typhoon made landfall, Fu Chuandao, 26, of nearby Nanyang village, borrowed a car and drove back to the village to help evacuate people. In his second trip driving fellow villagers to safety, the car stalled in water. Seven of the passengers walked through the water, hand in hand. Fu died after he was blown into the waves.

"If I'd known the typhoon would be like that, I would never have allowed my [only] son to return to the village," his father, Fu Xia, said.