August 3, 2016

Typhoon Nida: My First Typhoon

Somehow it's been three months since I posted... There's no great reason why that's the case, other than I spent May and June grappling for inspiration in my new "normal" of a life and then in July found myself talking about funny and frustrating bits about my Hong Kong life while visiting the US and was re-inspired.

Alas, I'm back and was ushered into town with quite a wave.

Within 18 hours of landing in Hong Kong, the office was shut early to allow employees to prepare for Typhoon Nida, with a Typhoon Signal 8 (T8) expected by 6 p.m. The T8 signal is the level where the city shuts down: no buses, no restaurants, no services except for the essentials, like 7-Eleven and movie theaters.

Jet lagged and with an apartment well-stocked with dirty laundry but seriously lacking in food, I left the office determined to make myself a fine T8 dinner from the shelter of my kitchen.

Walking to the market, my brain became its own typhoon trying to adjust to day/night while missing America yet feeling really happy to be back in my little home, and panicking as to just what the hell this big, scary T8 signal means.

"Typhoon" was not a word in my vocabulary as a kid, unless it happened to be in the name of an amusement park ride or limited  edition Gusher fruit snack flavor. As an adult I see typhoon and hurricane as the same.

Also having never been in a hurricane, I assume that everyone puts plywood over windows and rushes to Walmart to stock up on bottled water and breakfast cereal. After which families hunker down, switch on the TV, and watch the poor reporters on the beach trying not to get swept away while they explain that "the storm has really picked up in the last few minutes!"

The air right before the storm was atmospheric vomit. It hung absolutely still with temps pushing into the 30s (or 90s for my Fahrenheit friends). If a humidity level greater than 100% is possible, the air achieved it.

The hot, stagnant swamp was ripe for particulates and the pollution levels were actually truly off the chart. The app I use to track air quality measures HK air based on scales from a handful of nations and agencies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the US, EU, and Hong Kong.
Air quality just before the typhoon arrived

Each measuring agency has varying levels of qualitative vs. quantitative data. For example, at this very moment the Australia measurement model indicates the air is good enough to "enjoy activities" and the Hong Kong tab gives a resounding endorsement that the air is clean enough such that "no response action is required." By contrast, instead of life advice like the others, the WHO doles out only metered readings on various air quality metrics.

Immediately before the typhoon set in, every agency more or less said "Go outside at your own risk. Worst case scenario, you'll die. Best case scenario, you're now signed up for throat and/or lung  cancer within the next 20 years."

That evening while two friends and I were cooking a whole fish, bought and killed in the market, along with rice and veggies, we kept a close eye on CNN. Just like in the US with hurricanes, the  news promised great destruction.

The rain started before I fell asleep, and between typhoon anxiety and jet lag-fueled  nightmares, I barely slept. Although sleep should have come easy. All I could hear was the steady falling of raindrops. My building is well-protected from wind, so I didn't even experience any gusts.

Duct tape barricade
T8 was still "hoisted" and "in force" (bless the HK Observatory weather copywriters) in the morning, which meant a day to work from home. Midday I went out for a walk and the city was silent: no cars on main thoroughfares, closed up shops with "X" tape jobs on windows for storm protection, and empty sidewalks. Honestly, it was a treat.

Just before 2 p.m. the T8 signal was dropped and by 2:30, the city was in full operation and back to its unmistakable buzz.

The storm was a big deal on outlying islands and in the countryside. And it had whipped up quite a force in the Philippines before heading to Hong Kong. Today, the morning after the storm, Victoria Harbour was still churning and there were small bits of debris along the sea wall, but the city is back and the air quality is clean once again.

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