Typhoon Hato

Typhoon Hato shows there is no room for complacency in disaster planning

Alice Wu calls on Macau to rebuild public trust in its meteorological bureau, whose chief finally stepped down after years of miscalls. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Observatory deserves praise for a job well done

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 August, 2017, 9:33am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 August, 2017, 7:41pm

Hong Kong escaped Typhoon Hato relatively unscathed, and luck wasn’t the only thing on our side. The city owes its readiness to previous experiences with deadly typhoons. In times like this, government responses become very real measures of its capacity and efficiency.

Macau had neither Hong Kong’s luck nor disaster preparedness, and struggled to cope in Hato’s wake. The typhoon claimed at least nine lives and left the glitzy city without power and water for hours, disrupted telecommunications networks, and left many residents scrambling to fend for themselves.

Unlike some other natural disasters, severe storms and typhoons can be tracked. While nothing is foolproof, and severe weather systems can change drastically, there is no reason for people to be caught off guard by a typhoon.

Hongkongers were warned to brace themselves for Hato well ahead of its arrival. Airlines appealed for travellers to change their schedules. The Hong Kong Observatory gave regular updates and vital information, like its plans to raise the No 8 signal, early on. The Observatory must be commended for a job well done. Our emergency response systems were fully in place: plans for evacuations and rescue were ready.

The Macau Meteorological and Geophysical Bureau, by contrast, completely missed the mark. It failed to assess potential risks, did not forewarn its residents in time and was unable to disseminate crucial information. Power outages and telecommunications blackouts hindered communications, but they played no role in the bureau’s inadequate and grossly inaccurate forecast.

Watch: Asia’s casino capital left devastated in the wake of Typhoon Hato

To make matters worse, the bureau’s director, Dr Fong Soi-kun, called Hato a “special” typhoon at a press conference on Wednesday evening, thus refusing to admit responsibility for any failing.

Fong, who is no stranger to the wrath of Macau residents for his repeated miscalls on the weather over the years, finally resigned a day later, on Thursday. His poor performance has greatly damaged the bureau’s credibility and reputation.

Fong’s repeated failures during previous typhoons to give priority to the safety of Macau residents were a dereliction of duty. His reluctance to err on the side of caution and his willingness to put lives at risk made him unfit for office.

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When warnings of imminent danger are not issued and communicated, what, then, is the bureau’s job? Entrusted with the life-saving task of monitoring storms and issuing warnings, being caught off guard is inexcusable.

People were caught in dangerous storm surges and flash floods, and the government was completely unprepared.

Macau residents have done incredible things in times of crises. With what little information they had to go on, the community and civic groups came together this time to fill the gaping holes left by the government.

Macau must rethink its power grid and fresh water supply. The government must develop the political will to identify incompetence and the spine to hold people accountable.

It has a responsibility to rebuild public trust not only in the meteorological bureau but in the city’s disaster response capabilities in general – which leave a great deal to be desired.

Hong Kong, too, must remember that we cannot be complacent. We have been fiercely critical of the Observatory in the past, but we must recognise the role it played this time. Things could have been a lot worse.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA