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City Weekend

Fish on buildings, storm names and signal No 8 free shots: Hong Kong’s history of typhoons

As Super Typhoon Mangkhut bears down, here’s a look at some storms which have rocked the city from decades past

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 September, 2018, 9:33am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 September, 2018, 11:43pm

Unbearably muggy weather, windows crossed up with tape and the anticipation of a day off school or work – anyone who has lived through a summer in Hong Kong will know the signs of typhoon season.

With the city preparing for Super Typhoon Mangkhut on Sunday, expected to be the strongest to ever hit Hong Kong since records began, the Post explores a stormy history of weather and useful stuff to know as residents batten down the hatches.

What is a typhoon?

Typhoons are tropical cyclones in the western Pacific Ocean, bringing moderate to intense wind and rains to places they move over. In other parts of the world, they may be called hurricanes, so terminology for the phenomenon of strong convective air currents formed from warm ocean temperatures is purely down to geography.

When is typhoon season for Hong Kong?

This usually runs from May to October, with the summer months of July and August being the peak period. However, each year, typhoon season seems to start increasingly earlier and end later for the city.

In March, the Observatory predicted five to eight No 8 signal typhoons would come within 500km of Hong Kong this summer.

So far however, the city has only experienced heatwaves and heavy rain, but the typhoon warning signal has not gone beyond No 3 – a stark difference compared with last year, when by August 2017, Hong Kong was facing down Super Typhoon Hato with Tropical Storm Pakhar just round the corner.

How are typhoons classified by the Observatory?

In 1931, 10 different signals were established to indicate typhoon strength and direction. Typhoon signals No 2 and 3, initially for storms of equal severity but of different directions, were then merged and have remained so ever since.

Signals No 5 to 8 were also combined in 1973 into what is now known as No 8 to avoid confusion.

The Observatory issues a signal No 1 as a standby warning, alerting residents there is a storm within 800km of Hong Kong’s waters.

How climate change can cause more super typhoons

A No 3 signal, or strong wind signal, implies a typhoon close enough to cause huge gusts of winds and much rain in the region. Precautionary measures, such as the securing of scaffolding and the docking of ships, are taken but it is mostly still business as usual in the city.

When conditions trigger a No 8 warning or the storm signal, schools and offices shut down and residents are advised to head home. A No 9 signal indicates an increasing storm and this level, including the highest of No 10, are only used when wind speed is sustained at 118km/h and gusts surpass 220km/h.

As of 2009, any storm with wind speeds of 185km/h or above at its centre is considered a super typhoon.

What to do or avoid doing during a typhoon?

The first priority is to get home safe if you are outside. As the storm builds, public transport services will be increasingly packed as commuters rush home. The MTR operates even through a No 10 signal but not above ground, and all other ground transport, including trams, buses and the light rail, will be shut down in a No 8 typhoon.

If you intend to take a taxi, be prepared to pay more as fares are jacked up during a typhoon.

Owners typhoon-proof their homes by taping a large ‘X’ across windows as a precaution against the glass shattering inward. But so­me experts warn the technique may do more harm than good, as tape is generally not strong enough to reinforce the glass.

Is there any point in taping up your windows ahead of storm?

If winds turn violent, the best option is to ensure your windows are latched and stay away from them until conditions are stable.

Remove all hanging clothes, flower pots and loose items near windows or on balconies.

Store enough food at home as convenience stores, restaurants and supermarkets are closed during a No 8 typhoon. Ensure vehicles are parked in a safe and sheltered area not prone to flooding.

Even if an approaching typhoon hasn’t arrived and the weather seems stable, avoid activities such as swimming or hiking.

During a storm, stay away from watercourses as violent waves whipped up by gale force winds could easily sweep you out to sea. Thrill seekers may “chase” typhoons – donning raincoats and venturing outdoors for a taste of the maddening winds – but authorities warn against this behaviour as such individuals only put themselves at unnecessary risks.

As drivers jack up fares again during typhoon, is it time to legalise such ‘surcharges’?

How are typhoons named?

Typhoon names are selected out of a database with around 120 names proposed by 14 countries and regions in the western Pacific.

Names are reused every five or six years, unless a “killer” storm occurs that brings severe human and economic loss. When this happens, the typhoon’s name is removed from the database, and new names are proposed out of respect for the memory of victims in the previous disaster.

Storm names provided by Hong Kong are as follows: Fung-wong, Ma-on, Shanshan, Dolphin, Lingling, Banyan, Man-yi, Kai-tak, Choi-wan and Lionrock.

What’s with the typhoon symbols?

Typhoon symbols in Hong Kong are directional indicators, notifying the public as to which direction the storm is approaching from.

Warnings for typhoons began in 1884 when cylindrical, triangular and rectangular symbols were hung up in typhoon shelters and ports to warn people of impending storms.

Different pairings of the shapes were used to indicate the direction and distance of the storm’s approach. Thus, the Cantonese phrases gwa bor – “hanging waves” – and gwa fung kau – “hanging wind ball” – were established.

Authorities no longer manually hang up such signs, but they have been etched firmly in Hong Kong’s consciousness.

What are the worst typhoons to have hit Hong Kong?

Typhoons can cause much damage in the city, but high levels of death are seldom encountered in recent decades.

One of the worst storms to slam into Hong Kong was the “Great Typhoon” of 1937. On September 2 that year, waves were so violent that fish were thrown from the sea and harbour, and some were found on nearby buildings more than 30 metres high.

It was later estimated that wind speeds for the storm peaked at 260km/h, and the disaster claimed the lives of more than 11,000 Hongkongers.

At the time, Hong Kong Observatory director CW Jeffries wrote: “It is doubtful if a storm of greater severity and destructive power has ever visited the colony.”

A brief history of Hong Kong typhoons

After the establishment of the typhoon signalling system in 1946, the strongest typhoon to hit Hong Kong’s shores was Typhoon Wanda in 1962.

Regarded as the most intense storm to hit the city on record, Wanda made landfall on September 1 with wind gusts of up to 261km/h and 26.3mm of rainfall. Strong winds merged with high tides, whipping up a storm surge that flooded streets and reservoirs in a mere 48 hours.

Wanda ultimately displaced 72,000 people, and took 434 lives.


What if you’re caught out and about, and fancy a drink?

At the crossroads between Lockhart and Fenwick Roads sits the nautically-themed Typhoon bar. Those brave enough to make their way there enjoy free shots every hour during any storm ranked signal No 8 or above.