Hong Kong government’s response to 16-hour black rainstorm deemed ‘too little, too late’ as critics urge full review of emergency system

It took less than two hours for the Hong Kong Observatory to upgrade its warning from amber to black.

The black alert was issued at 11.05pm on Thursday, when many who had been out for the night and workers were still on their way home.

Government insiders said, by that time, the weather forecaster had sent separate warnings to key departments including fire services, police and the drainage department to alert them to the scale of potential devastation brought by the rainstorm, influenced by Typhoon Haikui.

Departmental officials convened urgent meetings to draw up contingency plans as they had for past extreme weather such as typhoons.

A second source said high-level coordination kicked in after midnight when the government was told more than 158mm (6.2 inches) of rain had fallen in just 60 minutes, the most in an hour logged since records began in 1884.

Hong Kong villagers scramble to prepare for reservoir water release amid floods

Under the oversight of city leader John Lee Ka-chiu, No 2 official Eric Chan Kwok-ki held several video conferences with key officials across departments to mobilise manpower and resources, the source said.

The first official response from the government on Friday came at 1.19am on Lee’s Facebook page, where he appealed to people to remain in safe places and said the authorities were making “all-out efforts” in their emergency response.

But the Facebook post was bombarded with criticism in the comments section, including one echoed by others which asked: “Not everyone was on Facebook. Why wasn’t even an SMS sent to residents in this kind of situation?”

The insider revealed that the HK$150 million (US$19.1 million) emergency alert system to warn residents via SMS, developed by the government during the pandemic, was mentioned in one of the high-level discussions.

But officials quickly decided the alert system was not applicable for two major reasons.

It was concluded an extra alert would duplicate weather updates by the Observatory and the situation did not fall under the “call-to-action” type of messages that the system was designed for.

“People should have been aware of the heavy rain and flooding risks. Sending an SMS alert in the early hours of the day might scare people off,” one official said.

Hong Kong counts cost of record-setting rains as public attacks official response

Deputy Chief Secretary for Administration Warner Cheuk Wing-hing said at a press conference it was not necessary to use a new alert “to state the obvious”.

But the public said more information, not less, was what was badly needed and, in a crisis, “the obvious” needed to be said as people looked to the government for guidance.

Lawmakers also chimed in and said they were sceptical about how information was disseminated throughout the night and insisted that useful advice was “too little and too late”.

The first announcement on Friday came through the government’s information system, mainly a centralised platform to disseminate releases to media outlets, arriving at 1.41pm. It was about the opening of 12 temporary shelters, followed by another that landed an hour later to report efforts by various departments.

It reported that 40 emergency teams attended flooded areas and that vehicles had been arranged to pick up villagers affected by the water discharge from the Shenzhen reservoir at midnight.

“This was far from enough. No one will check out the government releases on websites, when those in emergencies need practical information on potential risks in different districts and what they should do,” lawmaker Doreen Kong Yuk-foon said.

Pedestrians negotiate water in Shau Kei Wan as a major rainstorm hit Hong Kong. Photo: Martin Chan

She added that when she was driving her family members to work at 7am in Eastern district, the main roads were filled with debris and largely flooded. She said a user-friendly mobile app to integrate information and warnings from different departments would help people avoid risks.

The government’s announcements on schools and work arrangements were also criticised as being “too late”. The school suspension notice landed at 5.34am – six hours after the black warning took effect – and one that advised employees to stay in safe places instead of heading to work arrived at 7am.

But an official defended the government response and said decision-making took longer than some expected as it was the first time authorities declared work arrangements for all in “extreme weather” not related to typhoons.

“Eric Chan and many key officials had a sleepless night making key decisions and coordinating the relief work. But we also understand that there could be an expectation discrepancy among the public, especially after we were well-prepared last week for the typhoon,” the official said.

When Saola hit Hong Kong a week ago and triggered at No 10 typhoon warning, the highest, Chan headed a cross-departmental steering committee, together with the Emergency Monitoring and Support Centre under the Security Bureau, to coordinate efforts.

In the aftermath, city leader Lee, in a lengthy press release, thanked Chan and other colleagues for their “full commitment to their work” and praised the government’s preparedness.

Some residents were frustrated by Lee’s absence from public view overnight and for hours during the day as the city grappled with the devastation wreaked by the rain.


At least 2 dead as Hong Kong residents face once-in-500-years downpour

At least 2 dead as Hong Kong residents face once-in-500-years downpour

Other than two Facebook posts, he appeared in public only at 6pm on Friday – after the black signal was cancelled – when he inspected a landslide site in Shau Kei Wan.

The official said: “We did not have a moment being complacent about our work last week. But perhaps we were too ‘consumed’ by the typhoon.”

Political commentator Sonny Lo Shiu-hing said the government should conduct a review of the emergency response mechanism to prepare for uncertainties that could be caused by future extreme weather events.

“Members of the public have higher expectations of Lee’s administration, which is now fully backed by Beijing,” he said. “Officials should sit down to capture the hard lessons and face scrutiny by lawmakers to demonstrate to the public that this revamped government can deliver results.

“They have no excuses to be caught off guard again by extreme weather events in the future.”


This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.