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Friday, 27th March 2009

Super Typhoon - the Reincarnation of Wanda

As my retirement approaches, reporters keep on asking me what my greatest regret is during my thirty plus years at the Observatory. I am optimistic by nature and really have nothing to regret about. However as a meteorologist, what I feel sorry about most is that no matter how hard we try, certain people would always ignore the warnings of severe weather we issue. During the passage of typhoons, we see people walking around in the streets or watching waves at the seashore or even venturing into the sea to get a jerk out of it. They throw themselves into harm's way and some get killed.

In the light of this situation, we find it necessary to prompt the public to be more vigilant about those typhoons which are packed with winds of particularly high wind speeds. From this year onwards, typhoons are divided into three categories according to their wind strength viz. Typhoon, Severe Typhoon and Super Typhoon.

  maximum wind at the centre
Typhoon118 - 149
Severe Typhoon150 - 184
Super Typhoon185 or above

The last time a Super Typhoon gave Hong Kong a direct hit was Hope of 1979. Three decades have passed. The younger generation has never experienced the wind and rain in a Super Typhoon, and no longer realizes that the approach of typhoons is a threat. Instead, they treat the No. 8 or even No. 10 signal as the synonym of a day off. Next time a typhoon like Hope returns, I am worried that the lack of preparedness would lead to significant casualties. If that happens, with the Hong Kong society as it is, a lot of blame would most probably be loaded onto the Observatory. We are now used to such things, that is not an issue. What meteorologists do feel sorry about is that avoidable loss of lives continues to happen no matter how hard we work.

Apart from Hope of 1979, the other Super Typhoons which hit Hong Kong directly were Wanda of 1962, Ruby of 1964 and Rose of 1971. Wanda and Rose each killed more than one hundred persons in Hong Kong. My generation still remembers vividly the horror of living through the visits of these two Super Typhoons. However, in recent years, more and more people acquire the illusion that there is nothing to fear about typhoons. The truth is that Hong Kong has not been tested by a Super Typhoon for a long while.

Severe Typhoon Hagupit last year was a warning sign. It passed 180 kilometres to the south-southwest of Hong Kong on 23 September. It was not as strong as Wanda or Hope. It was not a direct hit. But it was sufficient to cause at least 58 injuries and flooding in many low-lying areas. The damage at Tai O was the worst in half a century. Three ships dragged their anchors in high seas and damaged the promenade at Tsimshatsui East seashore. After the event, we re-computed the storm surge by moving Hagupits track 100 kilometres closer to Hong Kong and found that it would be 1 to 2 metres higher. Many more places would have been flooded and the consequences would be mind-boggling. We have been incredibly lucky. But we could not be forever lucky. Next time it might by a Super Typhoon. Next time it might come closer. We must be very vigilant against typhoons.

After our recent announcement about the new categorization of typhoons, certain people thought that it was confusing. Let me clarify that the system of local typhoon signals remains unchanged. Its mission is to tell people how winds will change in Hong Kong. The No. 10 signal will be issued in a direct hit by a typhoon no matter whether it is "Typhoon", "Severe Typhoon" or "Super Typhoon". Everybody and all organizations should always take the full range of precautionary actions in a No. 10 situation.

The categorization of typhoons is merely a means to describe the strength of the typhoon itself. If a Super Typhoon is far away from Hong Kong and has no influence on local wind speeds, then no typhoon signal is necessary. Please take good note of this fairly simple principle.

During my tenure as Director of the Hong Kong Observatory, no Super Typhoon like Wanda or Hope gave Hong Kong a direct hit. I have been lucky. Hong Kong has been lucky. But it is impossible to be forever lucky. We should remember that danger is always lurking round the corner. As I leave my post, I would like to sincerely ask everyone to be prepared. Next time you hear on the radio or see in the television that a Severe Typhoon or Super Typhoon is coming to Hong Kong, be extra vigilant. It could be the reincarnation of Wanda.

CY Lam

Wanda caused serious damage in Hong Kong. Courtesy HKSAR Public Records Office
Wanda caused serious damage in Hong Kong. Courtesy HKSAR Public Records Office

Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>