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Super typhoon shows where Hong Kong can improve

/ 07:08 PM September 19, 2018

HONG KONG — Mangkhut, the record-high-intensity storm in Hong Kong since 1946, is really a test stone to the city’s capacity. It prompted the No 10 signal, the highest storm warning level, to remain in force for 10 hours, and it also whipped up floodwaters to their highest levels since 1904. While the storm struck Hong Kong on Saturday night and kept up its relentless attack throughout Sunday, the city, fortunately, succeeded in overcoming the storm without suffering great casualties.

However, the “storm” did not end as Hong Kong was struggling to get back on its feet on the following working days. The “storm” tore into the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government as it received angry comments over traffic chaos as work resumed just the day after Typhoon Mangkhut assaulted. But did the government deserve the blame? Let’s play back the events to evaluate what the government did in the past few weeks.

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The limited number of casualties brought by the most intense typhoon is largely credited to the work of the government. On Sept 12, several days before the storm struck, the government convened an inter-departmental meeting to review the preparedness and contingency plan for tropical cyclones to minimize the impact of inclement weather conditions. Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu chaired the meeting to strengthen coordination and communication among different departments under the Emergency Response System. The coordination work did contribute to limiting damage and casualties caused by the storm. To be fair, the jobs done by the rescue and emergency personnel in preventing casualties should be appreciated.

Immediately after the typhoon, the government, as well as the public utility operators, tried their best to restore public services by repairing train tracks, ferry piers, power lines, and 170 sets of broken traffic lights, while removing some 1,500 toppled trees blocking critical transport arteries as soon as possible. Hong Kong International Airport’s two runways remained open overnight on both Mondayand Tuesday to clear a backlog of 2,000 rescheduled flights. The efficiency achieved in the normalization of public services demonstrated a typical “Hong Kong Speed”.

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Still, the government came under fire for “underestimating” the traffic chaos on Monday, a situation caused by the shortage of transport capacity after many roads were blocked by fallen trees. The government was blamed for the ordeal many commuters experienced on their way to work. But the public dissatisfaction actually has more to do with overestimation than underestimation.

Firstly, the role and authority of the SAR government was overestimated. Facing the lousy conditions brought by the typhoon, the government could announce the suspension of school, which it did. But it could not order private businesses to suspend operations for one whole day. What the government chose to do was to leave the decision to employers, expecting they would handle the issue appropriately with employees in the spirit of mutual understanding. Indeed, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor urged employers not to punish their employees who were late or could not report to work.

Secondly, the government overestimated the relationship between the employers and employees. Some have opined that the government should have set an example for private businesses to follow. The government has in effect done so by issuing a notice to its bureau and department chiefs, reminding them to handle their colleagues’ attendance on Monday with flexibility.

Monday’s traffic chaos reveals that the government’s capacity is limited. The government can make a quick response in what its arms can reach; but its response could be much slower in what it cannot manage. The limitation of the institution, as evidenced in Monday’s traffic chaos, should draw more public attention. Indeed, some have recommended that the government should review existing ordinances, e.g., Cap 241 Emergency Regulations Ordinance, with the aim of further empowering itself in managing situations under extreme weather conditions and during public health crises. Just as Phil McGraw reminded us, “Don’t wait until you’re in a crisis to come up with a crisis plan”, it is worth studying and discussing how to strengthen the government’s capacity to deal with the next crisis before it happens.

The author, Paul Yeung, is research officer at the One Country Two Systems Research Institute, Hong Kong.

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TAGS: Asia, China, environment, Hong Kong, opinion, Typhoon Mangkhut
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