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Hong Kong environmental issues

‘Worst post-typhoon tree situation’: Hong Kong’s long clean-up after Mangkhut

Arborists and contractors toiling to clear damaged greenery across city, with expert estimating it would take at least another month of work

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2018, 5:32pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 September, 2018, 5:32pm

After working in the sweltering heat for more than three hours removing trees uprooted by Typhoon Mangkhut, arborist Bill Lau has only finished half a Caesar salad for lunch.

“I’m too tired to have an appetite,” Lau, 35, founder of Lam Long Nursery and Landscape Contractor Company said. “This is the worst post-typhoon situation I have seen since I joined the industry almost nine years ago.”

A week ago, Mangkhut, the city’s strongest typhoon on record, slammed into Hong Kong, activating the highest tier No 10 warning signal. The monster storm wreaked havoc – buildings swayed, windows were smashed and transport came to a standstill.

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The clean-up in the aftermath of Mangkhut looks to be a long one, with more than 17,00 trees uprooted across the city, 1,000 roads blocked and billions in infrastructure damage.

Just on tree clearing alone, Lau estimated it would take at least another month to clean up the mess wrought by Mangkhut. He said because of the huge amount of fallen trees, most work centred on disposing of the damaged greenery instead of replanting them, which would incur more costs.

On Friday, the Cultural Services Department, which manages trees in the city, said it would deploy about 900 workers and contractors daily to address the issue.

Four days after the storm hit, Lau said he went three nights with no more than three hours’ rest, as he laboured to serve both government and private clients.

“There are fewer than 2,000 people working on trees in Hong Kong as far as I know,” Lau said. “My company has been fully booked to the end of October.”

My company has been fully booked to the end of October
Bill Lau, arborist

From 9am till noon on Thursday, Lau and his five-man group were working to clear only their fifth fallen tree out of about 10 along Fa Po Street in Kowloon Tong. They have removed only about a quarter of its crown.

The tree, which was more 20 metres tall, was leaning on a short wall. A metal grille on top of the wall had been smashed and a surveillance camera and a string of coloured light bulbs were broken.

Lau and a colleague worked on a mechanised platform to cut branches manually and with electric saws, throwing the bits to the ground while a third worker stood watch in the middle of the road and directed traffic.

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In his sweat-soaked work gear, Lau said the task, though difficult, was not the most urgent or dangerous one among his post-Mangkhut work.

He said on Monday, at 6am, 20 minutes after the typhoon warning signal was downgraded from No 8 to No 3, he had to leave his home in Yuen Long on an urgent call from the Highways Department. A road near Hung Shui Kiu in west New Territories was blocked by a fallen tree.

“I had to remove some other trees to make way for my van, before I could even get to the tree I was supposed to work on,” Lau recalled.

“They were so heavy that I only managed to open a path just wide enough for the vehicle.”

In strong wind and rain, Lau and his team cut the obstructing tree into more than 20 segments and removed the chunks within an hour.

“We had to be quick and leave immediately afterwards because once traffic resumed, staying there would become very dangerous,” Lau said.

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Days of work like this have resulted in a deep brown tan on Lau’s exposed forearms, while his hands, covered in gloves, were a contrasting pale white.

According to him, most clients wanted the damaged trees cut and removed instead of saved. Trees which have been uprooted have a slim chance of survival, and trying to save them would incur more costs.

A member of Lau’s team told the Post that on average, the cost for cutting a tree was between HK$3,000 and HK$4,000, while replantation could easily cost more than HK$100,000.

Branches and trunks chopped up would be sent to the landfill if no special efforts for preservation and recycling were made.

“I know some environmental organisations and some people in our industry who would collect such wood in nice condition,” Lau said. “But there is simply too much this time.”