On our expat travels we’ve experienced a few hairy moments. There have been riots, petrol shortages, a political coup, contentious elections, minor earthquakes and an unexpectedly severe hail storm in Johannesburg. Now we can add Super Typhoon to the list. Toto, we are DEFINITELY not in Joburg any more.
Typhoon Mangkhut blasted through Hong Kong on Sunday 16th September 2018. It was a sobering experience. Mangkhut was bigger and stronger than hurricane Florence and had already wreaked heartbreaking havoc in the Philippines before hurtling across the South China Sea in our direction.
Windows were taped up. Sandbags were deployed. The bread shelves at the supermarket were bare. Hong Kong was effectively on lockdown as only the brave or the very stupid would go wandering the streets in such violent weather.
Just before Mangkhut arrived I received a reassuring and helpful message from my parents who experienced a direct hit on the island of Okinawa many years ago:
“We lived through two in Okinawa. One we spent the night filling cases with books and barricading doors. Really scary. Good luck.”
In fact neither helpful nor reassuring. They were in a bungalow with typhoon shutters, we were holed up in an apartment on the 22nd floor with gigantic windows and inquisitive children. I had visions of us all cramming into the bathroom (the only windowless room) if things got really bad.
We awoke on the Sunday morning to heavy skies and empty streets. As the hours ticked by, the wind cranked up and up and up again, the heavens opened and we waited.
For hours the wind howled. The windows vibrated menacingly, debris whipped by and our lights flickered on and off. We watched the rain fall horizontally, some of it seeming to ball up into Brussel sprout sized drops that swirled blizzard like.
The video barely begins to capture the ferocious force of nature we witnessed just beyond our windowpane. But mostly and most thankfully, for us, it was a dull day stuck in a small apartment. Our experience was luckily completely uneventful, we were in a sheltered spot where the wind screamed past us, rather than at us. By teatime the wind began to drop and we saw a handful of people scuttling about and a few vehicles testing the roads down below.
Not everybody was quite so sheltered. During the storm we had messages from acquaintances scattered about the city. Some were in high-rise apartments (upwards of the 60th floor), their buildings were swaying. Swaying for hours. Can you be seasick in a building? Seemingly so. Others in houses had hoped for a cosy day at home curled up watching movies and playing board games. Instead they spent the day running about with towels and buckets trying to keep the water out and basically spent 12 hours being scared.
School was cancelled on Monday. So, to be sure that our children understood WHY we had stayed in all day and how serious the typhoon actually was and why I screeched at them every time they went anywhere near a window, we went out the next morning before 9am to see first hand some of the damage wrought in our neighbourhood.
I’d recognised the blue building with the smashed windows that had featured on the international news briefings, so we made a beeline there before the clear up crews set fully to work and taped everything off.
Pavements were carpeted in thick chunks of blue glass, bricks were ripped up, trees stripped of their bark lay naked and broken blocking roads. Each and every blade of grass was pulverised flat. Road signs were bent and battered, litter everywhere.
Despite the shocking damage, it was amazing to see how quickly the mess was cleared up and the public transport up and running again. (I’m looking at you British Rail with your endless delays because of the wrong kind of snow, rain or leaves on the track vs Hong Kong’s public transport which was back up an running mere hours after a super typhoon had struck).
Monday was chaotic with roads blocked and commuters crammed onto the reduced train and bus services. All schools were closed for two days. By Wednesday everything in the busiest parts of the city seemed to be running as usual.
In addition to the official clean up, many local residents groups organised weekend clean ups of their beaches and hiking trails. It was amazing to see how the city pulled together.
Mangkhut was the strongest storm in recorded history to have hit Hong Kong.
We’re really hoping that’s the end of typhoon season for this year.
* Typhoon, Cyclone and Hurricane are different names for the same scary stormy phenomenon, it just depends which corner of the world you live in.