Typhoon Times – what’s in a name?

Its probably a bit late in the trenches and bolted down in a T8 for the second time in five days to start to discuss Typhoon safety. So I won’t ( well … I will a bit). We are currently experiencing Typhoon Pakhar (T8) (Name derived from a freshwater fish living in the Mekong in Laos) five days after Typhoon Hato (T10) (Name is a Japanese pigeon)

In 1969 The National Organisation for Women in the US passed a motion calling for the cessation of womens names being used for tropical storms ( something about women being always associated with terrible destruction – go figure!) and what we know in HK as Typhoons, had always had European names. This was largely ignored and many of us recall Cyclone Alice as the NZ Met office’s first uninspired naming attempt on a Fiji horror show – not Alice of Wonderland, however the name Alice has been attached to no fewer than 20 world wide Typhoons, Cyclones, Hurricanes and Tropical storms before the name was ‘retired’ in favor of ‘Andy’ in 1979. Not known for their creative genius these weather people! Cyclone Warren just doesn’t have the same energy as Cyclone Maud or Blossom.
Ten year lists of names were promulgated in advance. Hooray for Hong Kong!  1997 our first foray into post British ‘self determination’ had the Typhoon committee HK Members put forward a request to name Asian weather with Asian names and to stop using US and European names, that had been applied since 1947.  It took a further 3 years to gather the list of 140 names and agree that the Japan Met office would pick the names in sequential order from the lists provided by the members, depending on the category, and hence this year we have had Japanese and Laos names represented. Sadly Hong Kong’s dynamic contributions of Dolphin, Lionrock and Banyan have passed us by. It’s all fascinating stuff but the real truth is in what actually happens on the ground, not in the nursery where baby names are being conscripted for meaningless and often inconsequential weather patterns not yet born.

It’s a documented truth that in a Typhoon #8 or above, some people will go home, others will go to the pub and some will go kite-surfing. It all depends on your perspective on natures wildest forces. Fear and a need for security, opportunity for social interaction and reckless disregard for our own safety all find safe harbour in our spirits when a Typhoon signal comes out. I found out who I was, standing on the roof of my apartment wondering if it was safe to go for a run, past the local (to see who was there), when the iron sheets on the lean to shed were whipping a Trinidadian rhythm heard three floors down and the TV aerials were still transmitting from their scrunched up spaghetti nest on the ledge below where they had hung.
Since 1957 only two #10 Typhoons have not resulted in deaths. All have involved injuries. Rose, in 1971 claimed 110 lives and 5 missing along with 286 injuries. Don’t dismiss a Typhoon. I have experienced all three #10’s since 1992 and they are not for sissies.

So for the uninitiated and non-Hong Kong residents – we are ok. The Typhoon season begins as early as May, as I found out holding a birthday party outdoors on 1 May ( first May typhoon in 25 years) and ends around October sometimes with a late lash coming up from the Philippines.  In that time we ought to have experienced at least one minor, and from time to time, a major disruption to the daily business of running the business of Hong Kong. Estimated losses to Hong Kong last week in Typhoon Hato were in the 10’s of billions of dollars, and that didn’t count the damage. Just closing Hong Kong’s financial institutions for a T8 will cause a wide ripple on a global banking day not to mention the local economic fallout. Its little wonder that the guy with his finger on the TYPHOON SIGNAL #8 BUTTON in the Observatory is as much in fear of getting it wrong as President Trump ISN’T about hitting the nuclear codes. Much responsibility is in his hands.

As the death toll of Hato now climbs over 17 in the region let me reflect on how it is to experience natures force. It could be likened to an orgasm – different for everyone; everyone has an opinion but hard to explain. Some experience it fully, and others get the picture but only a glance. It depends where you are, who you are with and how much warning you got to prepare. The wind direction has alot to do with it (!) It can be disappointingly overrated or overly complicated. Some take preparation seriously and it doesn’t live up to its name, and still others take absolutely no precaution and just live with the consequences. I sit somewhere in the middle. T1 and T3 are foreplay to the main event. Sometimes the main event stops there. Not everyone is happy.
I’ve been irresponsible – stuck on a shopping trip to Shenzhen trying to return to pick up my kids from kindy when the #8 went up and 2 million people tried to get home across a small bridge with no sides as sheets of iron flew through.
I’ve had an overrated and expensive night in the Grand Hyatt when the ferries stopped, with an amorous work colleague, hoping to make a Typhoon more memorable. It wasn’t. I have been awed by the power of both Typhoon York, and Sam in 1999, watching a 100 year old banyan bend double to the force of mother nature, before gradually yawing over into a river of the torrent of Huka Falls. I’ve hurried home to find it was all over before I got there, and I’ve had to bale out knee deep water in my business offices and count the cost in dollar terms.

Today – I’m sitting Pakhar out, with a hot coffee and a cool AC, with WIFI and slippers, in a 4th floor apartment overlooking the boat harbour in Saikung. The rain is torrential, straight in from the East, the windows are leaking and the boats are a wobbly stack in the Typhoon shelter. Last week, in Hato, I watched winds whipping from the West and it was a WHOLE different mojo. Fisherfolk seem to know what to do from generations of hard earned experience, and today they are not battling the ropes to keep the craft in alignment, though to this untrained spectator – they ought to be. They know the winds. Last week it was every man to the pumps, today they may be in the pubs. They know the difference. We do not.

If typhoons are new to you let me give you comfort. Your partner may be in New York or on a flight to Israel, but when a typhoon hits, you will never be ALONE. Schools have procedures – follow them. Doormen will be wearing hard hats and taping windows. You are not expected to brave the force to rescue your child; they will send them home early or advise you to keep them at home well in advance. If you are at work with Chinese colleagues – they are like tortoises. They have an inbuilt barometric pressure gauge that will tell you to go home because the T8 will go up at 2pm not a minute later or earlier. They know. IF you are on a boat – you will know. If you don’t know you maybe ought to rethink living that dream on that Marina.

Typhoons are serious – scaffolding buckles, trees wrench, boats snap moorings and carparks flood. The best place to be in a typhoon is at home. Secure your furniture, tape your windows, get a DVD if you still have a machine and open a bottle of wine. It will be a chance to play monopoly with the kids or catch up on writing your will. You will have inspiration because the people you value will most likely be with you. Typhoons are family reunion days albeit without the margaritas or the aunts. If you happen to be a beneficiary of someone else’s will you may wish to revise your warning system.
I admire mostly the people who go on TV in typhoons to tell us its getting windy out there. Storm chasers for TVB or Pearl don’t get paid enough to stand in yellow macs in full gales giving obvious truth to the winds or the power of hair putty.

Finally to the doubters – All buildings in Hong Kong are pretty much ‘typhoon proof’, but windows do pop. Keep away from them and perhaps follow the urban myth (debunked but I do it) and crack open a small window on the leeward side of the apartment – not to relieve the pressure, but to give me a feeling that I have taken a precaution. Never underestimate a typhoon or its fury as it morphs innocent roadsigns into guillotines, and garbage bins into torpedoes. More importantly, never underestimate the help needed to clear it up as soon as the winds abate so we can get on with Hong Kong being the centre of commercial wonder we are. Grab a bag and help out if you can and if you need help, ask friends and neighbours – for years we were the only people we knew who owned a Husqvana chainsaw. I know lots who now do.
Listen to warnings, and do take precautions. Like unwanted pregnancies, failure to plan and prepare can have long term consequences, and definitely slows you from getting back into the swing of life when its all over. I have come to know that a Typhoon can go either way, and it is never the way you think, but it has never disappointed me being wrong when I anticipated it to be the BIG ONE. This week I have seen a BIG ONE. I hope it doesn’t happen again soon, but thankyou HK for your resilience, and the never ending army of ants who relentlessly tidy up and get on with life after.

For information on naming conventions of Storms and History of HK Typhoons