Header image courtesy of Hong Kong Maritime Museum
As we step into the height of summer, this typically marks the start of typhoon season in Hong Kong. Hot and cold air meeting above waters form swirling winds, which then sweep into the coast of southern China. Because of our location on the coast of the South China sea, we’ve always borne the brunt of some severe weather conditions. It’s not just the rainstorms and strong winds that we have to contend with as well, because typhoons also bring with them a trail of destruction caused by flooding, landslides, tidal waves, gale winds, and more.
Records of tropical cyclones—more commonly known as typhoon signals—only began in 1946, and since then there have only been 16 typhoons that have been classed with a T10 signal. This is the Hong Kong Observatory’s strongest signal, raised when sustained wind speeds go over 118 kilometres per hour with gusts exceeding 220 kilometres per hour. But of course, even before this system was put in place, typhoons have already periodically raged through the territories.
If you thought Typhoon Mangkhut in 2018 was bad, you might be glad to know that this resilient city has survived even worse! Here are the worst typhoons to ever have hit Hong Kong in history.
We start the list off with a typhoon that reportedly wiped away approximately five percent of the territories’ population. The reason why Hong Kong sustained such intensive damages during this typhoon was because its warning was only issued less than half an hour before it hit. The official warning for tropical cyclones within 300 miles, then a black drum, was hoisted at 8.40 am, and by 9 am, sailors were already unable to reach their vessels to take necessary precautions.
Along the waters from Sai Wan to Causeway Bay and along Kowloon Wharf, many ships sustained serious damages and sank in the harbour, among them the HMS Phoenix. The Albatross Mirs Bay ferry sank near the Ninepin Islands, with 120 casualties; the Ying Fat ferry to Sam-chun sank near Kap Shui Mun, with 100 casualties; and the Perseverance steamer from Macau discharged all its passengers at Cheung Chau (then spelt Chung Chow), but sank on its return, with only one surviving crew member.
It was estimated that nearly half of the Chinese boating population and 5,000 licensed vessels were severely struck. There were so many who died during this natural disaster that the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals donated coffins for the burial of recovered corpses, but by the end of the month, there were said to still be more than 1,500 bodies left unclaimed. In the aftermath, the governor agreed to develop an early warning system for future typhoon alerts.
As forewarned by its dramatic name, this is one of Hong Kong’s deadliest typhoons, killing a record number of 11,000 people. Apart from the devastating death toll, the city must have also taken a financial hit as well, because back then, Victoria Harbour was the seventh busiest harbour in the world, packed with sampans, ferries, ocean liners, warships, and other such vessels.
The typhoon caused a tidal wave measuring 30 feet that swept through the villages of Tai Po and Sha Tin, almost completely decimating everything in its way. To give another idea of how strong the typhoon was, the observatory instruments—which were then capable of registering winds up to 125 miles per hour—broke down completely. The maximum gust in the Great Hong Kong Typhoon was recorded at 149 miles or 240 kilometres per hour, but only because the anemometer had maxed out at this reading. The true maximum gust could not even be recorded.
Aptly nicknamed ‘Bloody Mary,’ this was considered to be the worst storm to have hit Hong Kong in the 23 years since the Great Hong Kong Typhoon. The Royal Observatory issued the No. 10 warning signal, though sustained surface winds of 119 kilometres per hour were not observed, as is the international criteria.
More than 460 small vessels were substantially damaged, and at least 50 fishing boats capsized and sank in our waters. Mary also destroyed weak refugee shacks in the hills, built by mainland Chinese refugees using tin and tar paper; 18,000 of these refugees became homeless. The official count after the typhoon died down was 45 deaths, 11 missing, and 127 injuries.
Usually with tropical cyclones, neighbouring countries such as the Philippines and Taiwan will also be affected along with Hong Kong, but with Typhoon Wanda, there were few reports of impact elsewhere as a combination of cold air and land interaction caused it to weaken rapidly before it moved across southern China. Unfortunately for our city, it wreaked damages that were estimated to be the equivalent of $2.6 billion in losses today.
Wanda made landfall during the daily high tide, resulting in a tidal surge of waves that were five metres taller than normal, especially around Tolo Harbour. At the time, Sha Tin, situated near Tolo Harbour, was a shanty town area with a high concentration of squatter huts. A lot of these precarious settlements were flooded by the storm surges, and fishing vessels were blown clear out of the water and onto streets.
There were 434 casualties, 53 missing, and 72,000 people left homeless. Approximately 869 acres of farmland were flooded with seawater because of Wanda, and almost 65 percent of low-lying farms in Sha Tin were still affected two months later.
Ruby was the fifth typhoon to be issued the No. 10 signal in Hong Kong since the establishment of the signal system in 1946 and was classed as a super typhoon. A total of 38 fatalities were associated with this typhoon, though another 14 people remain unaccounted for.
Sheet metal torn from buildings injured numerous people, at least ten ships ran aground, high voltage electric wires were torn out by the winds and caused hundreds of fires, and the Hong Kong Stock Exchange was brought to a standstill. The area of Tai Po was the worst hit, where thousands of village homes and temporary shelters were destroyed. High waves flooded the City Hall, delaying the 1964 Summer Olympics torch relay.
1964 was really not a good year for Hong Kong, as barely a month later, the territories were again ravaged by Typhoon Dot, leaving 36 either dead or missing, and 85 injured.
Unusually for tropical cyclones, Typhoon Rose was preceded by an ominous fog bank before making landfall and was the most intense cyclone to hit Hong Kong since Wanda. Waves measuring nine-and-a-half metres were generated, and the storm surges sank or severely damaged at least 300 boats off of our shores, resulting in 110 fatalities.
A fire broke out at a large power sub-station in Kwun Tong but was unable to be subdued due to the strong winds, triggering power outages and blackouts in Kowloon and the New Territories. Thousands of people were trapped in elevators because of these widespread electrical failures. 30,000 telephones became out of service, and six buildings were damaged beyond repair and eventually demolished.
Several low-lying areas were flooded, and landslides occurred across the territories, blocking approximately 110 roads. One landslide crashed into a village hut and buried four children; two were killed, while one survived and the last remained missing. A total of 5,644 people were rendered homeless as a direct result of Typhoon Rose.
Ellen spawned the second tornado ever recorded in Hong Kong—and the first ever to be recorded during a typhoon. Upon making landfall, the winds in Stanley reached up to 154 kilometres per hour. 22 ships were completely wrecked, including a 21,000-ton freighter, which then necessitated the rescue of her 40 crew members. The 185-foot yacht Osprey, which was famously featured in Jackie Chan’s movie Project A, sank with nine people on board, eight of whom were never recovered.
Further inland, Hong Kong was already an increasingly concrete city by this point, but around 200 houses were still destroyed, and more than 2,000 were left homeless. Typhoon Ellen caused ten casualties, 12 missing persons, over 330 injuries, as well as 50,000 people to lose power, lasting up to four days. Interestingly, this seemed to foreshadow 2018’s Typhoon Mangkhut, which followed the same meteorological track as Ellen.
The much more vertical concrete jungle of Hong Kong in 1999 was hard hit when Typhoon York smashed in. Strong gusts of up to 234 kilometres per hour whipped around skyscrapers, smashing their glass exteriors. The new Inland Revenue, Immigration, and Wan Chai Towers had hundreds of windows shattered, and a crane that was perched on a building in Jaffe Road nearby fell down 30 storeys, striking a 10-storey flat, before crashing onto the streets.
Two people died, with another 500 sustaining injuries, and hundreds of others were trapped in lifts due to power outages. The T10 signal was hoisted for 11 hours, a record amount of time. Since York, modern Hong Kong has been better equipped to weather typhoons and has come out relatively unscathed. It would be 13 years before another T10, Typhoon Vicente, visited the city in July 2012, but the damage was superficial in comparison, with 138 injuries, and an MTR station turned into a makeshift shelter for a night.
Those who have resided in Hong Kong a little while will know how hot and oppressive the weather gets before a major storm. Hato caused a record-breaking temperature of 36.6 degrees Celsius—the hottest in 132 years. During typhoons, pressure drops and increasing wind speeds cause storm surges. Unfortunately with Hato, this happened at the same time as the highest astronomical tide, and also coincided with a new moon, which heightened gravitational effect and caused tides to rise even further.
The low-lying rural fishing village of Tai O was severely flooded, with the water level in some areas reaching up to waist-deep, and residents had to be evacuated from their homes. Other waterside neighbourhoods such as Heng Fa Chuen and Lei Yue Mun also had reports of serious flooding. Underground car parks were submerged, with all the vehicles inside suffering much water damage. While Hong Kong has had no deaths, there were 129 recorded injuries.
In neighbouring Macau, most of the area was majorly flooded with extensive property damages, and power and water outages citywide for at least 24 hours after the passage of the storm. A total of 12 deaths and at least 200 injuries were recorded, and the Macao Meteorological and Geophysical Bureau was heavily criticised for failing to predict Hato’s ferocity. The name Hato was retired in June this year as a mark of respect for those who lost their lives in China, Macau, and the Philippines.
We’re sure super typhoon Mangkhut is still fresh in the minds of most Hongkongers. The tropical cyclone was labelled by the Hong Kong Observatory as the most powerful to have swept through the city since records began in 1946. A maximum tide of almost four metres was measured in Quarry Bay, and torrential rains left two dozen neighbourhoods half-submerged in water, among them the coastal areas of Heng Fa Chuen, Shek O, and Lei Yue Mun.
The No. 10 signal for Mangkhut lasted ten hours, just one less than the record-holding York. Residents were urged to stay indoors, and Hongkongers watched with bated breath as bamboo scaffolding outside buildings crumpled like toothpicks, skyscrapers swayed in the gales, tin roof structures were ripped off, windows of buildings were blown out, and parts of buildings even crumbled onto the streets below.
One of Mangkhut’s more striking effects was that more than 46,000 trees across the territories were uprooted, including some historic banyan trees. Despite the havoc wreaked in the city over the weekend, the majority of workers had to return to office the very next day. Social media feeds were inundated with commuters going to work on Monday amidst the chaos, some even having to clamber over felled trees and debris. Tai Wai MTR station, in particular, was shown to be absolutely jam-packed with commuters, with a line that trailed out the station and around the nearby roundabout.
The body of a middle-aged man was later found in waters off of Hoi Pong Street in Sai Kung, but it was not proven that he had died as a direct result of Mangkhut. The typhoon left Hong Kong with 458 reported injuries, and thankfully no deaths.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the city doesn’t see the likes of such natural fury again!