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Hong Kong is facing another shutdown under a possible No 8 typhoon warning signal as the second major storm in just days threatens the city, with the weather authority pledging to do a better job of preventing confusion over its forecasts and alerts.
Classes were suspended at kindergartens and schools for children with disabilities on Tuesday as the Hong Kong Observatory said city residents should prepare for a gale or No 8 warning as early as the afternoon as Tropical Cyclone Kompasu edged closer to the financial hub.
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“As Kompasu gradually edges closer to the coast of Guangdong and intensifies, its outer rainbands will bring squally showers to Hong Kong tonight. Local winds are also expected to strengthen further,” the Observatory said.
Kompasu was about 580 kilometres southeast of Hong Kong as of 11am and forecast to move west at some 25km/h across the northern part of the South China Sea.
The No 3 signal, issued on Monday night, remained in force on Tuesday morning, meaning wind speeds of 41 to 62khm/h were expected.
The Education Bureau announced that classes at kindergartens and schools for children with physical disability and intellectual disabilities would be suspended, while the Social Welfare Department advised residents not to take their children or elderly relatives to government-operated service centres if at all possible.
“These centres will, however, remain open during their normal operating hours to serve those whose families cannot provide alternative care for them,” the department said in a statement on Tuesday morning.
The Labour Department also reminded employers to make worker safety their primary consideration and adopt a “sympathetic and flexible approach” when determining if weather conditions made it infeasible for employees to travel to and from their jobs.
Due to strong winds, several ferry routes were also suspended on Tuesday morning.
The Transport Department announced three inter-island routes would be halted: Peng Chau-Mui Wo-Chi Ma Wan-Cheung Chau, Discovery Bay-Mui Wo, and Tuen Mun-Tung Chung-Sha Lo Wan-Tai O.
The Tsui Wah Ferry Service, meanwhile, is suspending journeys between Ma Liu Shui and Tap Mun, Wong Shek and Tap Mun, and Aberdeen and Po Toi Island.
After the city was battered by Tropical Storm Lionrock on Friday and Saturday amid complaints about changing predictions for the duration of the No 8 signal – which remained in force for 22 hours – the Observatory on Monday said it would provide timelier alerts for the impact of Kompasu, which was given a No 3 warning on Monday night.
“This time around, when Kompasu arrives, we expect there will be sudden changes in the weather. So in terms of monitoring the situation and providing better service, we will enlist more staff to help and hopefully improve,” Observatory director Cheng Cho-ming said.
The weekend’s storm, Cheng noted, had been “a very special case”.
“In terms of predicting such an extreme situation, it was very difficult,” he added, noting that climate change was making tropical cyclones stronger, wetter and harder to forecast.
Lionrock, at more than 500km (310 miles) away, was the farthest storm from Hong Kong in 60 years to trigger a No 8 signal – the third highest on the scale.
The city is now bracing for Kompasu – named after the Japanese word for compass – which is currently situated east of Luzon in the Philippines and expected to move towards Hong Kong over the coming days.
The Observatory issued the No 3 warning for the storm at 12.40am on Tuesday as it came within 800km of the city.
The storm will be closest to Hong Kong on Wednesday, and is projected to strengthen into a typhoon as it passes about 400km to the south, bringing gale-force winds and heavy rains starting late on Tuesday.
However, the effect of the northeast monsoon could ultimately push the typhoon further away and weaken its winds, making a No 8 signal unnecessary, Cheng said in a press conference on Monday.
Despite the lingering uncertainty, news of another possible No 8 signal sparked panic buying in some districts on Monday afternoon, compounding the effects of disruptions to the fresh food supply over the weekend, and leading to empty shelves and long queues at supermarkets around town.
A Tseung Kwan O community Facebook page showed one shopper abandoning the queue at a supermarket in Hang Hau after realising the wait could last more than half an hour, while another poked fun at the scene, likening it to “the end of the world”.
One housewife in the area, who declined to be named, said she was shocked to find the wet market at Po Lam Estate to be out of fresh vegetables by 5.30pm.
“The wet market was unusually crowded, with many people. Usually, the stalls are open until 7pm and put up discounts for fresh vegetables. But today they ran out of stock so early,” she said.
“Another housewife told me there were still some vegetables at the supermarket, but when I got there, only a very few choices were left. I only managed to get some cucumbers and such.”
“It seems everyone learned a lesson from the sudden typhoon on Saturday,” she added. “We were caught unprepared then, so everyone wants to grab food to prepare this time.”
In Quarry Bay, fresh vegetables were also mostly out of stock by 5.30pm at the Food Le Parc, run by ParknShop.
A customer who took a picture of the empty shelves said he had gone to the supermarket after work to stock up on some choi sum or lettuce for the next couple of days, but was disappointed to find none left.
“There were some bags of salad left, and there was coriander and asparagus. But no other fresh vegetables at all,” he said, adding he ultimately settled for the asparagus. “I don’t know why people are so panicked about the wind this time. This is crazy.”
Meanwhile, at the Observatory’s press conference on Monday, Cheng sought to explain its handling of Lionrock over the weekend, which some residents had criticised as haphazard.
Lionrock battered Hong Kong over two days before finally easing up in the early hours of Sunday.
The storm initially only triggered a No 3 signal, and school was not cancelled until an hour after a black rainstorm warning was issued late Friday morning, leaving many students to face harsh weather getting home.
The Observatory finally issued the No 8 signal on Saturday morning, and kept it in place for 22 hours – the longest since 1978.
But Cheng defended the predictions, saying it was not possible with the currently available technology for the Observatory to provide warnings any earlier than it did.
The director explained that the rainstorm warnings, which had remained at the lowest amber level until 11am on Friday, had been based on radar imaging that showed only scattered precipitation across the territory.
“But there were some sudden changes in the rainbands towards the east after 11am, with the rain becoming heavier,” Cheng said, adding that the Observatory had rushed to issue a red rainstorm warning at 11.20am, immediately followed by the black at 11.45am.
The black warning was downgraded as the rainbands moved away from Hong Kong, he said, admitting the Observatory could do a better job of communicating with the Education Bureau when there was a risk of high winds and rain.
“We can think about adjusting the guidelines for schools and when they should adjust their hours with the Education Bureau,” Cheng said.
In a statement on Monday, the bureau said any classes already in session should continue if a red or black warning was issued, and schools should only let students go home if the situation was safe. Parents did not need to rush to pick their children up, it added, and could decide whether they wanted to send their kids to school at all if there was a chance of flooding.
Cheng also defended repeated delays in lowering the No 8 signal, which was pushed back on four separate occasions on Saturday, and was not replaced by a No 3 until after midnight.
Cheng said computer models had originally shown strong winds would weaken by 2pm on Saturday, and diminish even further by 5pm.
The reality, however, was that Lionrock had taken a more northerly course, moving closer to Hong Kong than expected, keeping wind speeds high.
“Because of its erratic path and the convergence of the northeast monsoon, it created a line of heavy rain right over our area and sustained the winds over our region,” Cheng said. “That’s why we had to change our assessment.”
To avoid a repeat of the situation, Cheng said, the Observatory would dedicate more resources to monitoring Kompasu and release information earlier “so hopefully we can provide better service this time”.
A former assistant director of the forecaster, Leung Wing-mo, also came to its defence on Monday, saying the decisions taken over the weekend were based on the best available information.
“The predictions made were already as accurate as possible, but we are limited by the technology we have. I believe they are doing their best,” Leung said. “It just shows humans are no match for the skies.”
On Friday, 30 storeys of scaffolding outside a Happy Valley residential building collapsed under the onslaught of wind and rain as Lionrock approached, killing one woman, a construction worker.
The homeowners association of the building on Monday said the construction company was strengthening the remaining scaffolding in preparation for the coming storm, while some residents were planning a donation drive for the family of the deceased worker.
Additional reporting by Emily Tsang and Nadia Lam
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