SCMP Friday, July 27, 2001

Raise the threshold

When life and limb are at risk, one can never be too careful. Nevertheless, it is time Hong Kong reviewed its near-century-old practice of shutting down whenever the No 8 typhoon signal is hoisted.
Introduced in 1917, the numbered signal system was geared to wind force. The No 8 signal goes up when gale or storm-force winds with a sustained speed of 63 to 117 km/h are expected or blowing in Victoria Harbour.
But why should the strong winds matter for those who have no plans to venture out on to the choppy seas? As the Hong Kong Observatory's Web site points out, the signals were not intended for them but for mariners. Certainly, when winds of that strength blew, the junks and sampans had to seek refuge in the typhoon shelters.
By nobody's design, the system has over the years been adopted by the public. Perhaps, when Hong Kong was much less built-up and more exposed to the elements, it was necessary to batten down the hatches when winds were that strong. Moreover, the heavy rain that accompanies typhoons used to lead to flooding, landslides and blocked roads, resulting in deaths and injuries.
But thanks to technological advances, Hong Kong people have become far less vulnerable to inclement weather. The buildings in which we live and work are built to withstand even a direct hit by a typhoon, which does not happen often. Even in a typhoon, we can safely travel on a rail system that can operate at all times except the very worst conditions. Most slopes have been stabilised, and squatter huts cleared.
Certainly, sailing or hiking as a typhoon advances will always be dangerous. And despite advances in meteorological equipment, weathering forecasting remains an imprecise science. Yet, the threshold at which Hong Kong needs to huddle up for protection against strong winds and rain could probably be raised.