21 October 2016

Signaling problem: Why the Observatory still doesn’t get it

Was it negligence on the part of the Hong Kong Observatory or was it the “Li Ka-shing force field”?

We will let you decide what to make of Thursday’s controversial No. 8 typhoon signal.

But surely, not too many wage earners were impressed with the shorter-than-half-day break during tropical cyclone Linfa, which prompted the Observatory to issue this year’s first No. 8 signal but turned out to be a storm in a teacup.

Commuters anxious to get home packed MTR stations and bus terminals, obviously relieved to get off work a couple of hours early.

Many thought they did not have to go back to work the next morning, or at least a couple of hours later, after the Observatory said conditions were expected to deteriorate.

As it turns out, the No. 8 typhoon signal was one of the shortest-lived in Hong Kong’s history — a little over five hours — after Linfa made landfall in eastern Guangdong and weakened sharply.

Facebook and other social networking sites were abuzz with frustration and anger at the Observatory.

Some said Victoria Harbor was calm hours after the alert was hoisted.

Others accused the Observatory of timing the warning to avoid disrupting business and the stock market.

And some had fun with the “Li Ka-shing force field”, an imaginary perimeter that is said to repel typhoons.

On Thursday night, the Observatory issued a statement that it had sent a weather aircraft close to the storm to collect data for a more accurate forecast.

We know now that Linfa shot over Hong Kong as it moved further inland into Guangdong.

And the Observatory was left to defend itself, saying even in this digital day and age, weather forecasting is an inexact science.

Indeed, the Observatory has often found itself in the eye of the storm with its work.

In 2006, during tropical storm Prapiroon, it flagged the No. 3 signal even as winds whipped Hong Kong with the force of a No. 8 storm.

It refused to upgrade the warning and only realized it had underestimated the impact after more than 700 trees were felled, 300 flights were halted and swells rose to dangerous levels in Victoria Harbor.

The public was angry but workers were forced to report to work under hazardous circumstances.

Not surprisingly, the Observatory was accused of colluding with the business sector to keep the wheels of production running at the expense of safety.

Many said storm-related decisions were not made by meteorologists in weather balloons but by fat cats in executive suites.

Days later, complaints were still buffeting the Office of the Ombudsman.

Interestingly, two in three No. 8 signals in 2009 during the passage of typhoon Molave and tropical storm Goni, were hoisted outside general working hours or during weekends.

And historical records show that after York skirted Hong Kong in September 1999, the Observatory did not raise the No. 10 signal for 12 years.

To be fair, numerous factors such as El Niño and global warning could have been responsible for fewer storms in previous years in a region prone to cyclones and hurricanes from the South China Sea and the Western Pacific Ocean.

But these are not stopping people from spreading the most outrageous conspiracy theories.  

The present warning regime has been in existence since 1973 when five No. 8 signals were issued.

Besides Linfa, other short-lived No. 8 typhoon signals in recent years involved Nuri in 2008 and Doksuri in 2012, which lasted two hours and slightly over four hours, respectively.

Thanks to Hong Kong’s world-class infrastructure and well-oiled emergency response, typhoons here rarely cause severe damage or high casualties.

Some people have come to treat them as an opportunity to get extra time off work.

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EJ Insight writer

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