Community & Education Environment & Health Hong Kong

‘Are you treating us like we’re dead?’: Flood-hit Tai O villagers on front line of Typhoon Hato decry gov’t response

On the morning of August 23, 79-year-old Tai O resident Fung San-wing stood in the living room of his stilt house and watched as the water seeped in, rising to his waist and submerging his possessions.

When Typhoon Hato hit Hong Kong that Wednesday – the first storm to warrant the city’s highest warning signal since 2012 – some residents were evacuated as water rose to waist height in areas of Tai O.

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Fung San-wing indicates the water level in his house during flooding caused by Typhoon Hato. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

The fishing village’s low-lying position by a large inlet on the western coast of Lantau Island leaves it at the mercy of floods brought by storms. Residents described the flood caused by Hato as worse than that created by Typhoon Hagupit in 2008, which was reported to be the most serious in the past 60-70 years.

Frustrated with the government’s response to their plight, some Tai O residents poured their grievances onto a handful of government officials who attended an emotional town meeting on Wednesday night. They criticised the government for acting too slowly to help local residents after floodwaters receded.

“Do you know how many days we endured it? The garbage was piled up in Tai O like mountains… Are you treating us like we’re dead?” Anthony Kwok, a volunteer who helped clear trash from the streets said during the meeting, to applause from fellow residents.

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Government workers pass trash bags to the driver of a village vehicle on Thursday. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

After the flood, local residents formed volunteer groups to clear garbage and debris from the streets, aided by volunteers from outside the village. Residents say the trash the volunteers collected were left to fester at a village garbage station and near the bus station for several days, and was not cleared away until last Sunday, after some groups and legislators complained.

Eddie Tse Sai-kit, spokesperson for local concern group Tai O Sustainable Development Education Workshop, told HKFP that he was not satisfied by the government officials’ attitudes and responses during the meeting.

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Stilt houses in Tai O. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

“Yesterday’s meeting gave us the feeling that the government departments absolutely did not learn from the experience of 2008 in terms of dealing with the aftermath, in creating a mechanism to deal with the problem. Their focus is on the rescue effort – as long as nobody dies then it’s fine.”

Front line of the storm

Some of the residents who suffered the worst damage were those living in stilt houses along the river banks – many of them elderly people.

As the water rose in his house, Fung and his wife tried to raise as many of their possessions as they could, bringing their bedding, clothing and small appliances to their small attic space using a ladder with wide spaces between the wooden rungs.

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The ladder going up to the attic space in the Fungs’ house. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

“There’s only us two old people here, so we brought up as much as we could,” he said. “But there’s nothing we can do about the heavy appliances.”

It took them days to clean up – sweeping the mud off their floor, throwing out mattresses and clothes that got soaked in the dirty water, while the stench of the dead fish rotting below the floorboards hung about the house. Their children returned to the village to help them move heavy appliances and clean up some of the dead fish floating near the house.

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A bedboard that was soaked in the flood drying next to drawers that the Fungs brought down from the attic when the water receded. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

The Fungs lost two fridges, their gas cooker, and their mattress, and possibly their washing machine to water damage. Although the couple seemed to take the flood in their stride as a natural occurrence, they said that they received no help from the government. Only a few workers from the local YWCA went to their house, took a few photos and chatted to them about their situation after the flooding, Fung said.

The Fungs gave the local YWCA their information so their household could be considered for compensation, but they did not expect their losses to be fully covered, as they only received HK$5,000 after the 2008 flood.

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Mr. Fung relaxes in his stilt house. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

“It’s better than nothing,” Fung said, “but what can you buy with $5,000?”

Walled in

Some residents said that a riverwall along the back of the main street actually worsened the impact to certain parts of the town.

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Garbage remains near the Fungs’ stilt house. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Fung is a fisherman of the Yueh tribe who has lived in stilt houses on the northern bank of the river all his life. He said he has seen increased flooding at his home since the riverwall was built on the southern bank following the 2008 flood. He said it pushed the water over to his part of Tai O on the opposite bank.

Wong Pui-si, a retired social worker who is helping her son run a shop on Wing On Street, said the riverwall protected a few buildings along the street, but left her property and those around it vulnerable to floodwaters, which rose above the embankment and swept into her shop.

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Wong points to the place where she said the government originally agreed to place temporary flood barriers. Instead they were placed around her shopfront. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

She accused the drainage services department of improperly placing temporary flood barriers along the front of her shop, instead of along the back, where the river flows behind the shops.

Wong said the effect was that the water surged into the health food shop through the back, where it was kept from reaching the streets by temporary flood barriers that the government had erected around the store.

“[The barriers] basically just stopped us from moving our stuff away. That’s how our stock of fish maw all got washed away. We couldn’t get in or out, or open our door – it’s really improper management.”

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Pots toppled by floodwater in the Tai O Culture Workshop, which is now closed. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Though some residents said the wall improved the flooding situation this time during the town meeting, Wong said the government’s solution “sacrificed a few of us” while it protected others.

“Did the riverwall really do what it was intended to do?” Wong questioned.

The Home Affairs Department sent out a notice on Friday to tell Tai O residents that the Yan Chai Hospital will give elderly couples or people living alone who are above 65 years old HK$2,000 or a new fridge, and that the Tai O Heritage Hotel will give residents or business owners below 65 HK$2,000. The department also said that the garbage pile-up in Tai O has decreased since Thursday, and is returning to normal.

A spokesperson from NGO Crossroads Foundation told HKFP that it is working with the Home Affairs Office, district councillors, the local rural committee, residents and other parties to determine residents’ needs and provide them with appliances and furniture.

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Homework dries along the sidewalk behind a house in Tai O. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

As another storm approaches Hong Kong this weekend, Tai O residents remain on guard. The Fungs have kept most of their possessions in the attic or on high tables and shelves, while Wong plans to film the shop if flooding occurs to show the drainage services department that their barrier system is ineffective.

“We can’t say that we’re worried about the next flood, because that’s the way it is in stilt houses,” said Fung. “As soon as the Observatory reports that there will be a few metres of water rising, we know there will be flooding, we know we’re going to lose some stuff.”

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'Are you treating us like we're dead?': Flood-hit Tai O villagers on front line of Typhoon Hato decry gov't response