Typhoons in Hong Kong: Looking forward to 'The Big One'?

As I've demonstrated before, I'm mildly obsessed with the weather. Much of the blame for this banal preoccupation can be laid upon my upbringing on the northern plains in the USA, aka Nature's Bad Weather Galleria.

Here in Hong Kong, of course, things are much less exciting, with no blizzards, real tornadoes, or even serious thunderstorms.

Weather excitement here boils down to rain that occasionally gets so heavy it's newsworthy, and, of course, typhoons. Yet for all the prominent roles typhoons play in potboiler novels set in Hong Kong, they don't really affect day-to-day life here all that frequently. Some years none at all come anywhere near Hong Kong, but most years at least one or two will occasion at least part of day off work, when the 'Signal No. 8' is hoisted.

As a confirmed weather geek, I'm inevitably a regular visitor at the Hong Kong Weather Underground, and a reader of the online forum that's active there. It's been a depressing place recently, with many disappointed and cranky contributors. The reason? This year has been 'terrible' for typhoons in Hong Kong, i.e. there's been only one that has even marginally affected the territory.

Actually, that's not entirely true -- several typhoons this year have hit Taiwan; this typhoon track has the unfortunate effect of changing our winds to the west or north-west, which makes it get about as hot as it can possibly get here -- temperatures in the mid to high 30s C. These unseasonable winds also bring down incredibly dirty air from the interior of China, a plague we're otherwise spared in the summer.

But even if typhoons that turned away from Hong Kong to Taiwan brought us mild temperatures and air of alpine purity, we weather geeks would still be unhappy. You see, we want typhoons to hit Hong Kong -- or so we suppose. They're powerful, even majestic, and they're simply exciting to people like us.

But the utter debacle Hurricane Katrina caused in the southern USA should make even the most rabid weatherwatcher take pause. Sure, it's great fun to watch a typhoon approach on the satellite photos, and then to experience the rainbands and wind coming onshore (NB: this is a good test: if you're a weather geek, you're right with me here; if you're a normal person, you're wondering what on earth is the matter with me). But when you see the damage and heartbreak that a really bad hurricane/typhoon can cause, it takes some of the wind out of your cheering.

The typhoon season also inevitably brings up a quandary the Hong Kong Observatory faces every time a typhoon approaches the territory. Do they inundate (pun intended, I admit) the populace with warnings and directives, or do they maintain a low key until it's clear danger is imminent, thereby risking a situation that deteriorates rapidly after only minimal warnings have been issued?

This dilemma was stated crisply by university student blogger -- and admitted 'weather nerd' -- Brendan Loy, who became moderately famous by warning, several days in advance of Katrina's landfall (see here), of the very real possibility that New Orleans was going to be in the deep, uh, water. In that post, Loy noted:

. . . how long will [the National Hurricane Center] wait before issuing watches and warnings? Normally, watches go up approximately 48 hours before the leading edge of the storm is expected to hit, but I wonder whether the NHC might fudge that a bit, and issue watches earlier, if New Orleans looks like the target, in light of the time-consuming logistical nightmare that a citywide evacuation would be. On the other hand, an evacuation that ultimately proves to have been unnecessary is economically costly and, more importantly, may have a vigilance-lowering "boy who cried wolf" effect, especially since it would be the second time in as many years. So this is going to be a tough call for the NHC. Here's hoping they get it right... and here's praying that New Orleans is spared.

A day later, with Katrina still a couple of days away from landfall, Loy was becoming more strident:

For some reason that I can't even begin to comprehend, the evacuation order for New Orleans is only "voluntary" at this time. The mayor says he might issue mandatory evacuations tomorrow morning, depending on what the forecast says. What is he waiting for??? The forecast calls for a DIRECT HIT! This is the story we've been fearing for decades! And if he waits until 24 hours before landfall to order people to leave, it may very well be too late!

In retrospect, of course, it's obvious there was no way the National Hurricane Center -- and the mayor of New Orleans -- could have overdone their warnings.

But what about here in Hong Kong? Should the Observatory work harder to warn us of possible typhoon danger? Would it be better if detailed evacuation and cleanup plans were drafted and made publicly available, and issued well in advance of a typhoon's approach? Would people here respond better to such warnings than people in New Orleans did?

Let's think first about what happened as Katrina approached New Orleans, and then about what effect a similar storm might have as it approached Hong Kong.

First, a question that's being posed over and over in the US is, why did so many people in New Orleans (and elsewhere) ignore the evacuation notices? I've seen a lot of plausible reasons, many having to do with many residents' poverty, their distrust of government agencies, their assumption that things would turn out fine, even their unwillingness to leave pets behind.

But one of those reasons stands out to me: how many people in the USA have in fact become accustomed to assuming 'things will turn out all right' because there have been so very many overblown weather 'crises' in recent years in the USA? Millions of people have been told they're facing 'the big one' or the 'storm of the century', only to have a storm track change, or a storm weaken before making landfall, or fail to develop as predicted. I think there is a 'readiness fatigue' that sets in. How many people in New Orleans had heard it all before, had never seen proof of the 'real thing', and figured this was just one more way to boost news ratings?

In Hong Kong, I think it likely that ramping up the warning systems would make us weather geeks delirious with joy, but would likely backfire in terms of alerting the general public. Why?

First, I think Hong Kong people (in general -- note that there are many exceptions) care far less about the weather than many people in the USA do. I frequently hear people here make statements that are spectacularly ignorant of weather reality, e.g. looking out the window in April and seeing heavy rain, and stating 'there must be a typhoon nearby!', or assuming that a Typhoon signal #1 is a 'warning' that a typhoon will strike Hong Kong, when in fact it's meant as only a very preliminary alert. More warning information isn't necessarily going to help people who aren't that interested. They're just going to be more likely to garble and confuse the meanings and either overreact -- or, as is likely if 'readiness fatigue' sets in after a false alarm or two -- to pooh-pooh even the direst warnings.

Second, Hong Kong is a concrete and steel city, and very few people actually live in housing that is 'floodable'. The Talls live close to the coast, and our building is just a few feet about sea level, but when your flat is on the 46th floor, you're not really worrying much about storm surges.

And finally, what could most people in Hong Kong really do if there were a truly dangerous typhoon approaching, other than batten down the hatches as much as possible, and then ride it out? Evacuating New Orleans was a disaster, and it's a city served by three superhighways. Where would people in Hong Kong evacuate to -- and how would we get there? Even trying to board up or cover windows would be very difficult for most people here: how exactly do you do this when you have no way of gaining safe access to the outside of your home?

So what approach does the Hong Kong Observatory actually take? On the whole, they seem significantly more low-key than US agencies, although I think they have wavered in recent years by trying out some more aggressive warnings. You can sense their struggle with the warning dilemma: they've been savaged in the media (and by us weather geeks) both for hoisting Signal 8s when typhoons have turned out to be impotent -- and in other situations for essentially keeping their mouths shut and refusing to commit to aggressive typhoon forecasts and warnings.

I have many criticisms of the way the Observatory operates (I wouldn't be a real weather geek if I didn't), but I have a great deal of sympathy for them when a typhoon approaches. It's just impossible to issue ironclad forecasts or warnings about typhoons, since these storms' behavior is inherently fickle and unpredictable. So the Observatory is going to get criticized no matter what -- unless they get their forecast exactly right, and do so for several days in advance. And that's just not going to happen.


typhoon hype

Now that we're moving into the heart of typhoon season, the thoughts of all us weather geeks turns to typhoon readiness. I quoted self-proclaimed 'weather nerd' Brendan Loy at length in this article on typhoons I wrote three summers ago, right after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

Loy is back with an excellent article that articulates superbly the dilemma between getting people ready to respond to the threat of severe weather, and the danger of hype. 

Check out the comments as well; they comprise a genuinely thoughtful debate.