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Typhoon Hato

Lessons of Macau’s typhoon tragedy

Questions have been rightly raised about preparedness, response and the absence of a sense of urgency after Hato brought loss of life and a collapse of water and power supplies

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 August, 2017, 1:59am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 August, 2017, 1:59am

Our first thoughts are with Macau in its hour of mourning in the wake of Typhoon Hato. Our next thoughts might be to forgive the Hong Kong Observatory for all the No 8 typhoon signals and the subsequent city shutdowns and inconvenience we have moaned about over the years when nothing much actually happened. Macau’s ordeal has underlined the virtue of Hong Kong’s dogged persistence in being prepared for the worst while hoping for the best. This characteristic has once again been instrumental in our city avoiding loss of life during Hato, showing Hong Kong in a good light by comparison with Macau, albeit in a way that we would not want.

The modern casino hub that Macau has become may be far from the backwater of southern China that it was not so long ago. But Hato’s heavy toll in lives and the disruption to water and power supplies is a reminder that we must always be prepared for the worst if we are to prevent the unpredictable violence of nature from causing casualties or leaving people to cope with sub-standard conditions.

That said, the Macau authorities may be entitled to a little sympathy for not anticipating the full fury of what Hong Kong experienced as the most severe typhoon since the 1970s. Nonetheless, strong language of condemnation springs to mind in reflections on preparedness, response and the absence of a sense of urgency proportionate to the threat until it was too late.

Up to 10 people feared trapped in flooded underground car parks after Typhoon Hato devastates Macau

Reports of tardiness in raising typhoon signal 8, compared with Hong Kong, do nothing to moderate this view. The reports suggest a failure to strike the right balance between public safety and other considerations. Macau Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on, to his credit, did not equivocate about the woeful response, admitting that his administration had been ill-prepared for the “catastrophic” impact of the storm. But the resignation of the director of Macau’s meteorological bureau smacks of sacrificial bureaucratic scapegoating rather than meaningful political accountability.

If there were any doubt about the scale of official incompetence exposed by Hato, it is to be found in the unprecedented request, granted by the central government, for the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Macau to leave its barracks to help in rescue and recovery efforts.

It has never happened before in Macau or Hong Kong and is not without an element of humiliation for Macau officials. That ought to be a salutary reminder to consider whether regular generous cash handouts to residents from casino royalties might be put to better use improving their basic security and safety from typhoons. The expectation of another storm next week should concentrate the mind.