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Typhoon Mangkhut

Critics of Hong Kong’s response to Typhoon Mangkhut have a point: there are improvements to make

Bernard Chan says that, after Hong Kong’s worst typhoon on record, we should recognise the precautions that protected us but also how technology can ease the disruptions that followed, particularly on public transport

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 October, 2018, 11:48am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 October, 2018, 7:36pm

To some people in Hong Kong, Typhoon Mangkhut will be remembered as the storm that the government mishandled. Officials failed to declare the following day a non-working day, and there was transport chaos in the New Territories. And even weeks later, crews still hadn’t cleared all the fallen trees and other debris.

I won’t go on at length in the administration’s defence, but let me make a couple of points. The government does not have clear powers to shut down business. Nor – even with citizen volunteers helping out – can it mobilise enough trucks and other equipment to remove 46,000 fallen trees in just a day or two.

The international press thought Hong Kong withstood the storm extremely well. Overseas media reports particularly noted that we escaped without suffering a single fatality. To put it in perspective, Mangkhut killed over 100 people in the Philippines.

Of course, nature was on our side. While it was our worst typhoon on record, Mangkhut had been even fiercer earlier when it approached Luzon. We were also helped by our urban environment with its solid structures and extensive drainage and other infrastructure. Not least, we must be thankful for our precautionary measures and the performance of our emergency and other services on the day. We must also accept that we were probably lucky.

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In 2017, Typhoon Hato swept through Hong Kong and badly hit Macau, where it caused 10 deaths and cut out power supplies for days. The physical damage in Macau was extensive. My own company’s insurance subsidiary paid out gross claims (before reinsurance) close to HK$400 million – and we are just one insurance company. Hato cost the whole industry billions.

Yet the preliminary assessment shows that the cost of damage from Mangkhut will be significantly lower. The difference is probably partly due to improved precautions – but luck must have played a part. We cannot be sure it will do so next time.

While Hong Kong came through Mangkhut fairly well, our officials and the whole community need to ask what lessons we should learn.

The brave few who kept city safe, fed and cared for during Mangkhut

Several groups have proposed that the government do more to protect workers when transport is disrupted. There are precedents for refining our bad weather warnings.

Typhoon Mangkhut brings transport chaos to Hong Kong

There was a time when the observatory would raise a No 8 signal without notice – and there was chaos as everyone went home at the same time. Now, forecasters give advance warning of a higher signal, and things are much smoother.

Similarly, officials now announce school closures well before the start of the day – to avoid the chances of children arriving at schools to find them closed.

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Cynics say that the government cares more about the stock market and business than workers. But I think officials accept that the transport problems in the New Territories the day after Mangkhut were unacceptable. So I expect the administration will look into changing its procedures on this. Few responsible business owners would oppose a system that enables the government to declare a No 8-equivalent holiday in such serious conditions.

In fact, Hong Kong may be more pro-worker than people realise. I was recently due to fly to Tokyo as a typhoon was approaching Japan, and I called my contacts there to ask whether the working day might be suspended, as it would in Hong Kong. They said they did not have a No 8-style system, and people there just go into the office regardless.

This would also be a good time to look into how the government collects and uses real-time information about disruptions to transport and other services. While the observatory, police, other departments and transport operators all issue updates, we do not have a one-stop platform where people can check to see what buses or trains are running, which roads are blocked, which public facilities are open or closed and so on.

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This is a basic “smart city” feature, and it should not be too difficult to set up an online system or app to do this.

We need to think about these things because, with climate change, we are going to get more extreme weather. The fact that we have had Hato and Mangkhut in two years suggests that such events may become normal rather than extreme.

If these events have revealed areas where our systems are failing, we should not just see it as an excuse to complain – but as a reason to make improvements.

Bernard Chan is convenor of Hong Kong’s Executive Council