Part 1: A tumultuous affair
‘Dead bodies in all directions washed ashore’
On September 21, 1874, in front of the grand three-storey buildings lining the Praya, sampans bobbed in Victoria Harbour, crewmen unloaded cargo ships onto the wharves, and some 50 miles away a P&O steamship carrying Mary Fraser on a voyage from Italy churned towards Hong Kong. For two days the 23-year-old wife of Eton-educated British diplomat Hugh Fraser had watched with mounting dread as angry clouds massed and the sea started to roil.
‘The sky had been inky black, the sea the same colour and oily, and running mountains high … while every object on board was covered with horrible black flies,’ Fraser wrote in her 1910 travelogue, A Diplomatist’s Wife in Many Lands. As the ship approached Hong Kong, their path slowed by the wreckage of boats smashed to pieces by some tremendous force just hours earlier, bodies bubbled to the surface.
Once they had docked the passengers began to disembark. Fraser stepped gingerly from the gangway to the safety of dry land, only to glance down and realise her heeled foot was inches away from a bloated corpse. She screamed. ‘It was the worst typhoon of the past fifty years,’ she had been told on board, “swooping down into that deep tea-kettle of a harbour. It had taken just two hours to rake Hong Kong to its foundations. The harbour was filled with debris, hundreds of bodies lined the shore and battered homes and businesses formed a sorry backdrop to scenes of despair.
‘It was all a pretty severe ordeal for a happy bride, and my nerves were so shaken that during the week we had to remain in Hong Kong I could not be left alone for a moment without feeling faint and sick,’ Fraser recalled. The storm had claimed an estimated 2,000 lives and would prove to be the first of many to make headlines over the coming decades, kill thousands more and cause untold damage.
‘It is our duty to record … one of the most appalling disasters that has ever happened in this Colony. A typhoon of unprecedented violence raged in this neighbourhood on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning last,’ reported the Hong Kong Daily Press, in its 1874 dispatch that appeared in newspapers around the world. It was one of the first reports to document in detail the effects of a typhoon pounding the territory.
‘The wind increased frightfully in violence, raging and howling at first, and after a time sounding like one continued peal of musketry, broken at intervals by artillery, as sudden and more violent gusts swept through the harbour and over the land,’ it read. ‘At times, even above the fierce howling of the wind could be heard the pitiful cries of thousands, vainly battling with the storm. Dead bodies in all directions washed ashore… The flag staff at the Peak was seen leaning at an angle, a sad signal to ships miles away of the ravages to which the Colony had been subjected.’
In 1874 typhoons in this part of the world were nothing new, but a swelling population living in their path was. The number of people inhabiting Hong Kong Island stood at about 7,000 in 1841, with many living in small coastal villages. But by the census of 1865 this figure had increased to more than 125,000. It would be 32 years before a more devastating storm was reported, creeping up on Hong Kong seemingly from nowhere and stealing away 11,000 lives from Hong Kong’s by then 350,000-strong population.
‘It was wonderful, terrible, pathetic, yet grand’
1906 typhoon: September 18
Early on the morning of September 18, 1906, the weather forecast for ‘moderate’ winds and showers gave no clue of the havoc that would arrive sooner than anyone could imagine. At 7.44am the Observatory raised a signal to say a typhoon was within 300 miles of the colony. Just sixteen minutes later the typhoon gun boomed to signal that hurricane force winds could be expected - and by 9am the storm was raging.
‘Variable winds, moderate, with probably some thunder showers, was the weather forecast for the twenty-fours hours ended noon yesterday,’ the South China Morning Post recorded the following day. ‘How far wide of the mark the officials of the Observatory were was amply demonstrated ere the twenty-four hours had ended,’ the Post stated. ‘The noise made by the elements as they swept in blinding fury from west to east resembled as near as possible the deafening noise of a midnight express speeding through a tunnel. It was wonderful, terrible, pathetic, yet grand – this spectacle of elemental nature amok; indifferent to life and property.’ So sudden was the storm’s grip on Hong Kong that an estimated 10,000 unprepared people perished, with around 1,000 junks destroyed.
One notable among the victims was the Cambridge educated Anglican Bishop of Victoria, Joseph Hoare, who had been sailing with pupils near Castlepeak Bay when their vessel ‘received the full force of the typhoon’. Shortly afterwards their boat ‘overturned and was dashed to pieces on the rocks. The news cast quite a gloom over the European Community’, the Post reported.
An SCMP ‘representative’ accompanying the harbour master on his assessment of the damage the following morning, wrote: ‘The loss of life can be nothing short of terrible and the amount of destitution enormous. The poor homeless sampan people waded up to their middles in the water in the hope of rescuing what few goods they had possessed… The whole scene reminded one of a mammoth gypsy encampment.’ Later reports spoke of scores of people plucked from the water miles from shore, clinging for hours to the wreckage of destroyed boats, while one heroic tale told of an unusual rescue.
‘When the typhoon was at its height a Chinese was blown down Pedder Street toward the wharf, and unable to stop went headlong into the harbour… A European rushed across the windswept space and boldly jumped in to the rescue. He succeeded in securing the drowning man with the aid of an Indian constable who unrolled his turban and threw the end to the rescuer.’
The last scalp the typhoon claimed was that of the first Director of Hong Kong Observatory, Dutchman Dr William Doberck, who was widely known to ignore forecasts sent from the Jesuits who ran Manila and Shanghai’s observatories, and antagonised colleagues and the Colony’s governors alike. While it is uncertain whether Doberck was ever warned of the approach of the 1906 typhoon, blame was apportioned and a concerted campaign by the Post, among others, eventually forced him into retirement. Only then were bridges built with neighbouring observatories to help ensure such a devastating weather event would never again take Hong Kong by surprise.
‘It is doubtful if a storm of greater severity has ever visited the Colony’
The Great Typhoon of Hong Kong: September 2, 1937
Almost three decades later surprise was taken out of the equation when forecasters gave 24 hours notice of an impending typhoon. And yet the population was decimated again, this time largely due to a huge tidal wave that swept inland, washing away homes, families and everything in its path.
The Great Typhoon of 1937, billed by the Post as the worst to ever hit Hong Kong, was so fierce that meteorological instruments could not cope with the winds and small fish were blown right out of the foaming, churning harbour, later to be found on the roofs of buildings over 30 metres high.
In his report on the event, Observatory Director C. W. Jeffries described how ‘squalls of a phenomenal intensity’ had pushed the needle of the anemograph used to measure wind speed to its maximum capacity of 125mph (200km/h). It was later estimated that winds had peaked at over 260km/h. ‘It is doubtful if a storm of greater severity and destructive power has ever visited the Colony,’ he wrote.
Throughout the following week page after page of print described in minute detail the death and destruction wrought on the night of the typhoon - how fire had torn through buildings, flames fanned by the wind; how homes and businesses had lost roofs or collapsed, and how ships had been dashed on the rocks.
‘At the height of the storm a tenement block of nine four-storeyed houses in the Western District went afire and 15 inmates perished… Several buildings were unroofed, old houses collapsed, garden walls were blown down, roads blocked by landslides, fallen telegraph poles and uprooted trees. Among the many ships in the harbour were some laid up because of the war, or under repair at docks and without steam. A score of these broke loose from their doubled moorings and careered drunkenly about the harbour in a macabre dance. The Star Ferry pier suffered extensive damage.’
Two days after the typhoon it became apparent that the worst affected area had been Tai Po, struck without warning by a tidal wave just after 3am ‘which carried all before it for a quarter of a mile inland’. Entire villages were wiped out, many inhabitants washed out of their beds and to their deaths. One survivor described how the wave ‘flung itself onto Tai Po Old Market, causing about 90 deaths there so far… The water at this place was 20 feet higher than I have ever known. Among those killed were many women and children.’
The wave had been caused by a combination of meteorological features typical of typhoons but devastating due to its proximity to low-lying Hong Kong. Extreme wind speeds of up to 269km/h and plummeting air pressure at the eye of the storm conspired to suck water from the high pressure area outside, dragging it toward the shore as one tremendous wave that squeezed into the Tolo Channel to engulf all in its path.
‘Buildings collapsed, people were buried alive’
Wanda: September 1, 1962
Despite the huge death toll - about 11,000 perished, with some estimates putting the figure as high as 15,000 - Hong Kong was to witness an even more powerful storm a quarter of a century later. On August 27, 1962, far out in the Pacific, 2,000 kilometres east-southeast of Hong Kong, Wanda was born, forming as a tropical depression and setting off on a path that would shake the city to its core. Five days later, on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the 1937 storm, Wanda hit the city with an intensity not seen before or since.
Winds gusting at over 260km/h coincided with a high tide, causing a massive storm surge. Rain hammered down, pouring 1,500 million gallons of water into Hong Kong’s reservoirs in just 48 hours. Cars were flipped over by the relentless wind.
‘Typhoon Wanda, with winds of up to 162 miles an hour, smashed its way through Hongkong yesterday and in eight hours of terror, killed or injured hundreds, rendered nearly 20,000 homeless and left behind it a trial (sic) of destruction,’ reported the Post under the headline ‘Hong Kong’s Day of Terror’.
‘Not a single area escaped damage of some kind. Shataukok was ravaged by a tidal wave; so was Sha Tin where half the population were forced to take to the hills to escape drowning. Buildings collapsed, people were buried alive, there was extensive flooding everywhere, and there were fires – all at the height of the storm.’
At 10am Tai Po again found itself under more than two metres of water, as another tidal wave surged inland ‘carrying with it everything in its path. Only after it had devastated every district taking huge toll on lives and property did it ease its grip on the city’. When the winds finally abated and waters retreated 434 people were reported to have died and 72,000 had been left homeless.
‘I was swimming for hours before reaching the shore’
Rose: August 16, 1971
Eleven years later, for six days from August 10, Typhoon Rose wiggled her way towards Hong Kong, decreasing in strength slightly as she passed over the main Philippine island of Luzon, but soon intensifying again, making landfall on Lantau and wreaking havoc. Although not quite as powerful as Wanda, and smaller in diameter, 1971’s Typhoon Rose still packed winds up to 165km/h and claimed the dubious record of being responsible for the worst maritime disaster Hong Kong has witnessed to this day.
The 2,600-tonne Fatshan passenger ferry had anchored at Ma Wan Island to shelter from the storm. But the ship, carrying 92 crewmen and waiters, was blown towards Lantau, her useless anchor dragging along behind her. One survivor told how, on approaching Lantau, the helpless Fatshan was driven into two other vessels before finally succumbing to the storm and rolling onto her side. Tam Yau-sing was hurled into the broiling sea and forced to swim for his life.
‘Nearly all the crew members were in the cabins at that time. I think they had little chance of survival. I was lucky that I was on the stern of the ship,’ he later recalled. ‘It seemed that I was swimming for hours before reaching the shore. The sea was so stormy that I felt dizzy and fainted. I don’t know for how long.”
In all, 88 crew members died, while another 22 Hongkongers were killed elsewhere in the territory, including a 22-year-old woman and her two-year-old son, electrocuted by a falling cable outside their home in Pokfulam, and a woman and two boys discovered washed up on Lamma Island’s Lo So Shing beach. Some 300 small boats were lost, and 30 ocean-going vessels were grounded or damaged through collision, while 5,600 people were made homeless.
‘City at a standstill’
Hope: August 2, 1979
Eight years later Typhoon Hope arrived in Hong Kong following a near-identical path to that of Wanda. ‘Hope Hammers Hongkong’ the Post proclaimed on August 3, the day after the storm brought the city ‘to a complete standstill with all public transport – air, sea and land – suspended at the height of the typhoon’. Despite the standstill, Hope marked the first time transport connections between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon remained operational, thanks to the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, opened in 1972.
Hope wasn’t without drama - the streets were strewn with debris and 2,100 lorryloads of fallen trees had to be taken away - but the human cost was far lower than that of earlier direct hits. A dozen people were killed, with mudslides, downed power cables and collapsed homes all claiming victims.
The most dramatic visual loss was that of Kowloon’s two Star Ferry piers in Tsim Sha Tsui, smashed to pieces by the helpless 100-tonne Greek freighter Argonaut. Chief Officer Anthony Antzoulatos later recounted how it had broke anchor and the crew had tried in vain to keep the vessel away from the shore. The ship eventually came to rest crushed against Kowloon Public Pier, with gashes along her port side, a washed up symbol of the fury that could be inflicted upon the territory.
‘Never had such severe damage been done’
Ellen, Sam and York
The end of the 1970s mercifully marked the end of the high death tolls inflicted on Hong Kong by typhoons. The next two big names to arrive - Ellen in 1983 and York in 1999 - struck an increasingly vertical, concrete city which provided a stronger, more resilient infrastructure, able to more effectively shelter its residents from the elements. Ellen and York saw T10 signals raised for eight and 11 hours respectively, with York setting the record for the longest ever Signal 10 raised.
Ellen spawned only the second ever tornado recorded in Hong Kong, which flattened several wooden huts in the San Tin area of the New Territories, and caused flooding that decimated farmland, drowning 10,000 chickens and 2,300 pigs. The Zoological and Botanical Gardens were ravaged, with three-quarters of their plants uprooted, including centuries old trees. ‘Never had such severe damage been done to the gardens,’ the Post reported, recounting how a New Guinea Desmarest fig parrot died – either of fright or ‘being dashed into the side of its cage’. Two hardy Brazilian marmosets, however, were born during the storm.
In terms of the evolving cityscape, Ellen saw a new phenomenon. With an increasingly high-rise environment, one scaffolding company alone reported 500,000sqft of bamboo poles torn from buildings and hurled into the streets below - pleasing the company’s owner who boasted business would be ‘boosted by about 20 per cent’ thanks to Ellen.
The march of modernity saw fresh problems arise when York roared in. Gusts of up to 234km/h whipped around skyscrapers that hadn’t existed in Ellen’s day, posing a hazard for those inside and anyone foolhardy enough to be standing below. The gleaming new glass and concrete towers of Wan Chai were hit with a force that saw hundreds of windows implode, while a crane on a building in nearby Jaffe Road came crashing down from 30 storeys up.
Across the city the emergency services received around 460 calls for help, mainly to rescue people trapped in lifts by power outages. While just seven flights were cancelled during Ellen, the increased air traffic of the late 1990s saw some 470 flights cancelled or delayed, affecting about 80,000 passengers.
It was the second time that year that air traffic had faced major storm disruption, after Typhoon Sam months earlier contributed to the dramatic flipping over of a China Airlines passenger jet from Bangkok as it landed at Chek Lap Kok airport. Witnesses told investigators how the McDonnell Douglas MD-11’s right wing clipped the runway and was torn from the fuselage as it landed amid strong crosswinds. Passengers were left hanging upside-down in their seats in a smoke-filled cabin for hours while rescuers battled to save them, praying the aircraft would not erupt in flames. Three of the 315 passengers and crew were killed.
Since then Hong Kong has emerged relatively unscathed from the storms that have passed over the territory. Although the T10 signal was raised for Typhoon Vicente in 2012 - the first time the hurricane-force warning had been issued since York - damage was relatively superficial, with downed trees and passengers forced to sleep on the MTR making the headlines.
So is modern-day Hong Kong a safe place to be in a typhoon?
The flimsy huts of yesteryear have largely been replaced by brick and concrete structures and the city’s sea-dwelling population has moved onto land. Flood defences have been beefed up and advanced weather warning systems give ocean-going vessels plenty of time to take shelter. But many parts of the city still remain relatively low-lying and prone to flooding.
What damage a storm with the extreme force of Wanda, coupled with a severe tidal surge, could do the modern-day city is anyone’s guess. The truth is, Hong Kong is yet to be tested. And despite our best efforts at protection, we cannot be sure how prepared the city is until the next great wind tears across the South China Sea and unleashes its fury upon us.
How the South China Morning Post has reported major typhoons throughout the last century
Part 2: Living with storms
If you have ever been brave - or foolhardy - enough to step outside during the height of a typhoon, you know it is an event unlike any other.
In Hong Kong, winds slam into skyscrapers with such force that buildings sway. Tidal surges turn Victoria Harbour into a cauldron of foaming waves. The roads of Central and Mong Kok become rivers of seawater. Hongkongers lock themselves inside, listening to the echo of rain hammer on their outdoor air conditioning units like furious pounding on typewriters.
And then the skies clear and life quickly returns to normal.
How does Hong Kong survive the ravages of storms that once would have brought death and widespread destruction? And how will the city endure them 10, even 20 years from now?
Unbeknownst to many, Hong Kong has a protective system of defences to weather tropical cyclones. These defences continue to evolve - vitally important because experts predict we will see even fiercer storms in the coming decades that will test the engineering feats of man.
From cooler to hotter climes
With more than 700 kilometres of coastline, 263 islands and great swathes of low-lying land, Hong Kong is primed to feel the forces of climate change. Rising sea levels and the threat of increasingly extreme weather present a challenge that could threaten the city’s reputation as an Asian financial centre and tourist hub.
The average temperature in Hong Kong is rising about 0.12ºC every decade, with a mean 4.8ºC rise predicted by 2100, according to the Hong Kong Observatory.
The blame, the Observatory says, rests with growing levels of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the unique phenomenon of what’s called the ‘urban heat island’ - areas that are significantly warmer than their rural neighbours. Contributing factors are the city’s crowded streets choked with excess motor vehicle emissions, coupled with poor ventilation between buildings and scarce vegetation.
The city’s subtle warming triggers increased evaporation from the ocean and consequently more water in the atmosphere, Observatory forecasters say.
‘Climate change is not going to bring more typhoons to Hong Kong,’ says Professor Johnny C L Chan, City University’s Dean of the School of Energy and Environment and Chair Professor of Atmospheric Science. ‘[But] if you have more vapour in the atmosphere, then under the right conditions it will come down as rain. The amount of rain will increase and there will be flooding. People need to be aware of that.’
Climate change effects are likely to heighten the ferocity of future typhoons, says Hong Kong Observatory Director Shun Chi-ming. He calls the phenomenon ‘an increase in the global mean for tropical cyclone intensity’.
This will equate to higher wind speeds and heavier rainfall during the typhoons of tomorrow, and Observatory scientists predict the average annual rainfall in Hong Kong will increase 11 per cent by century’s end.
Climate change has also caused an ascent in Hong Kong’s sea levels, which increased at an average rate of 2.6 millimetres per year from 1954 to 2010 - a trend likely to continue at a rate of 2.4 to 2.7mm a year, according to the Observatory.
‘The three deadliest typhoons on record, namely those in 1906, 1937 and 1962, shared a common feature - an abnormal rise in sea level,’ says Shun. ‘And the global sea level is expected to rise in future decades, which, in combination with storm surges from tropical cyclones, will increase the chance of flooding in coastal regions like Hong Kong.’
If the city doesn’t prepare, it risks a repeat of Hong Kong’s 1962 disaster, some warn.
‘It is possible that we could get a very strong storm like the ones that hit us in the Sixties. We could still get another Typhoon Wanda,’ Chan says.
That typhoon was one of the most intense storms that Hong Kong suffered in the second half of the 20th century. Thousands of people were left homeless after a tidal wave rushed through Sha Tin and Tai Po, crumpling huts and sending fishing boats crashing into homes.
But compared with the storms that hit the city in the first half of the century, Wanda’s 434 deaths were but a blip.
Taking shelter and reaching for the sky
The savage typhoon of 1874 was a devastating monster, claiming 2,000 lives. Many who died were sampan people who lived on their boats, which were tossed about like twigs in the storm.
The storm’s impact on the colony led to the construction of Hong Kong’s first tangible line of defence – the typhoon shelter at Causeway Bay, built on the site of the now-reclaimed Victoria Park. Small and medium ships were moored in the shelter, which was shielded by a breakwater of 427 metres long.
Following the shelter’s construction was the opening of Hong Kong Observatory in 1883, which reported information in conjunction with the Hong Kong Marine Department. Before creating the numerical signal system, the Observatory used cannon fire and explosives to warn the public of a storm’s imminent arrival.
Over the next two decades, many of the seafarers that had once lived along the waterfront began trading their boat homes for land dwellings. But their low-lying buildings were still vulnerable to flooding. Hong Kong's fierce 1906 typhoon smashed into these structures, killing roughly 16,000 people - five per cent of the city's population at the time.
To combat the water's power, Hong Kong's architects resorted to a simple tactic - setting buildings on stilts. Thus began the city's obsession with building skyward. Most structures constructed during the 50s, 60s and 70s were elevated on wood or steel pilings.
While building high offered protection from waves and water, deadly winds posed more challenges.
Staying strong under pressure
‘The present practice of designing buildings to resist wind pressure in Hong Kong leaves much to be desired,’ wrote engineers S.E. Faber and G.J. Bell in their 1963 paper Typhoons in Hong Kong and Building Design, commissioned by the Engineering Society.
‘Individual details are frequently under-designed (if indeed they are “designed” at all) and there are numerous records of damage to windows, roofs, and chimneys.’
To ensure the safety of the city’s ever-higher skyscrapers, the Hong Kong Buildings Department spent three decades drawing up and refining the wind-bearing capacity for all buildings, with particular regards to their height, age and topographic location.
The Code of Practice on Wind Effects in Hong Kong, first published by the Buildings Department in 1983 and revised in 2004, is a physics paper detailing how much wind pressure a structure can withstand before it will sway and shear. To the layman the code is impenetrable, but it is required reading for engineers designing Hong Kong high-rises, which by the 1990s were reaching more than 200 metres into the sky.
Despite the regulations, Hong Kong-based storm chaser James Reynolds, who has spent the past decade filming cyclones around Asia, says the extreme height of Hong Kong’s structures is troubling.
‘My main worry is that if you look at the skyline now, compared to say, the 1960s, which was a particularly active time for typhoons in Hong Kong, it has totally changed. We’ve got all these skyscrapers, these big buildings - yes, they are designed to withstand the wind, but they haven’t really been put to the test yet.’
Dr Alex To, a wind engineering specialist from Arup Group Limited, the London-based firm that built the International Finance Centre and International Commerce Centre towers, says that Hong Kong’s skyscrapers may sway from the force of a typhoon, but are still sturdy and safe.
‘During strong typhoon winds, buildings will deflect in response to the wind… but most of the time we are not able to sense it,’ To says. For example, ‘the IFC and ICC are designed to sway in typhoon winds similar to other super high-rise buildings around the world. They are perfectly safe [because] the vibrations have been limited in their design to an acceptable level that will not cause a nuisance to the occupants.’
Stiff reinforced concrete cores that accommodate the stairs, the lifts and the service shafts of the IFC and ICC help to minimise vibrations, To says. In addition, Arup engineers designed connections called outriggers between the core and the large external columns of both structures, maximising the stiffness of the buildings and keeping them upright in the face of gales.
‘The function of these outriggers is similar to a skier using his arms and shoulders to hold onto the ski poles, providing a better and more efficient stability system,’ To says.
Engineers working on the territory’s expansive bridges must also consider stability. When Arup constructed the 1.6-kilometre, cable-stayed Stonecutters Bridge in the early 2000s, workers erected a mast on the site to gauge wind speed, providing data that was later used to determine exactly which parts of the bridge needed extra reinforcement.
‘A bridge is just like a tall tower lying horizontally,’ To says. ‘A bridge’s cross-section is very thin when compared to that of a building, and it can vibrate in the wind just like an aerofoil.’
To prevent this cross-section from fracturing in a typhoon, Arup workers reviewed historical data on wind speeds and conducted extensive wind tunnel testing throughout the bridge’s construction. To keep typhoon rain from fraying the bridge’s cables, engineers introduced what To calls a ‘dimpled surface texture’ to the normally smooth supports.
‘These indentations, which are much like the surface of a golf ball, create friction, disturbing the flow of the water and therefore limiting the vibrations on the bridge’s cables,’ To explains.
The result was a durable bridge that suffered a minimal amount of sway in typhoon winds, similar to the IFC and ICC towers.
Down the drain
Assuming that our skyscrapers and bridges are relatively safe, what about Hong Kong’s streets?
Storm surges - an abnormal rise in the sea level generated by extreme weather - are the most immediate typhoon-induced threat to Hong Kong. Observatory director Shun says they ‘can cause sudden and serious flooding in low-lying areas close to the seashore’, potentially triggering landslides.
Typhoon Wanda in 1962 triggered a storm surge that in mere minutes reached five metres high and flowed towards Tai Po, ‘leaving the whole town awash under 10 feet of water rushing in from the sea and carrying with it everything in its path’, the South China Morning Post reported at the time.
During the development of the New Towns in the late 1960s and 1970s, the city filled in flood-prone areas of Tai Po, raising the area three metres above sea level. As other districts in the New Territories developed, the Hong Kong Drainage Services Department instituted a HK$10bn flood prevention programme. Twenty-four flood pumping facilities were constructed along 55km of river, protecting hundreds of hectares of low-lying land, including Lo Wu and Sha Tin in the northern New Territories and Yuen Long in the northwest.
On Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, the Geotechnical Engineering Office examined 60,000 man-made slopes and retaining walls, reinforcing and conducting safety tests on nearly 10,000 found to be vulnerable to cyclones.
‘In the old days a lot of the damage from rain was through landslides,’ says City University’s Professor Chan. ‘But then the government spent so much money protecting the slopes in Hong Kong that the number of landslides has dramatically decreased in the last 20 years. Even if you have a very strong storm or heavy rain, the number of landslides is quite small.’
The next step was to wring excess water from the city. In 1996, the Drainage Services Department began working to build larger floodwater tunnels, costing HK$8bn.
The tunnels intercept water flow - known as surface runoff - from upland areas and discharge it into the sea, keeping urban areas from flooding, says Jennifer Loo, a Drainage Services Department spokeswoman.
The Hong Kong West Drainage Tunnel cost more than HK$3bn. The longest drainage tunnel in the city, it stretches 11 kilometres from Tai Hang, runs under Mid-Levels and discharges in Cyberport, protecting Sheung Wan, Central, Admiralty, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay.
The Lai Chi Kok Drainage Tunnel and Kai Tak Transfer Scheme handle the other side of the city, intercepting and redistributing runoff from east to west Kowloon. To prevent overflowing, these tunnels connect to diversion chambers that direct water into ‘storage schemes’ - gigantic underground reservoirs built to temporarily store rainfall before the water is pumped out through additional pathways into the harbour.
The Tai Hang Tung Storage Scheme, completed in 2004, has an underground storage tank 136 metres long which can hold 100,000 cubic metres of water. It can redistribute more than 100 millimetres of rainfall an hour - far surpassing the 70mm hourly rainfall classified by the Observatory as a ‘black rainstorm’.
Building Kowloon’s storage schemes and tunnels cost the government an estimated HK$4bn. But thanks to their efforts, the heavy floods in Kowloon Tong that submerged the crowded streets of Mong Kok, particularly in 1997 and 1998, were greatly lessened.
Looking to the future
While many scientists say publicly that Hong Kong is prepared for most of what nature may hurl at us in the future, some experts have raised concerns in professional circles that the city is vulnerable and must anticipate the hurdles of a rising sea level and increased rainfall.
‘It is important that Hong Kong begins to recognise the risks of climate change and puts into place both mitigation and adaptation measures now,’ writes Richard Welford, chairman of CSR Asia, a business think tank that promotes sustainable development.
‘If Hong Kong continues to want to be positioned as a world city, it will have to demonstrate leadership on climate change issues,’ he stated in a recent report. ‘Hong Kong could position itself as a leader on climate change adaptation in the region.’
A 2010 assessment of the territory’s weaknesses by the Environmental Protection Department notes that Hong Kong ‘is vulnerable to climate change because of the agglomeration of people and assets in a small area'. It states: ‘Hong Kong’s vulnerability is compounded by its dependence on imported food, water, energy and other products that are required for it to thrive’.
But the city has a great ability to adapt, the report notes, and the warning systems developed by the Observatory and the territory’s sturdy skyscrapers and extensive drainage tunnels are proof of this.
Just as it has for the last century, Hong Kong must continue to evolve its typhoon defences, experts say, if the city wants to avoid becoming a wind-lashed, storm-smashed, water-washed wreck.