Hong Kong braces for Typhoon Usagi

AFP-JIJI, AP

After killing two people in the Philippines and unleashing landslides in Taiwan, Typhoon Usagi barreled toward Hong Kong on Sunday, shutting down one of the world’s busiest seaports and throwing flight schedules into disarray.

On Saturday Usagi — which means rabbit in Japanese — was downgraded from a super typhoon, when its sustained winds fell below 241 kph after it passed through the Luzon Strait separating the Philippines and Taiwan.

Usagi packed winds of 165 kph as it closed in on China’s densely populated Pearl River Delta, forcing some residents in vulnerable areas to tape up windows and stock up on supplies.

The Hong Kong Observatory, issuing the second of a five-step tropical cyclone warning, said it was likely to bring “severe” disruption to the city with transport systems affected and expectations of high waves and localized flooding.

Cathay Pacific said it was canceling all flights from 6 p.m. Sunday. At Chek Lap Kok Airport, airline counters were besieged by anxious passengers hoping to re-book on earlier flights.

Hong Kong’s Airport Authority said that by the end of Sunday, it expected to see 376 flights canceled by Cathay and other airlines.

Operators at Hong Kong’s maritime cargo port, one of the busiest in the world, ceased work late Saturday, stranding many giant tankers in sea channels not far from shore.

The financial hub is well versed in typhoon preparations and enforces strict building codes, so rarely suffers major loss of life as a result of tropical storms.

But the observatory warned against complacency, saying that Usagi was set to become the strongest storm to hit Hong Kong since 1979, when Typhoon Hope killed a dozen people and injured 260.

Usagi was located about 370 km east of Hong Kong as of 10 a.m. Sunday and was expected to make landfall in the evening. The observatory said a No. 8 storm signal was possible, which would shut down most public transport.

China’s National Meteorological Center issued a “red alert” — its highest-level warning — as it forecast gale-force winds and heavy rain.

Sunday was a regular day of business in China but in the city of Xiamen, on the coast of Fujian province, authorities called off school classes and suspended ferries to Taiwan.

En route to Hong Kong and southern China, Usagi forced the evacuation of some 3,400 people in southern Taiwan, dumped more than 70 cm of rain on the city of Hualien, and forced more than 100 flights to be canceled to and from the island.

A mudslide hit one hotel in a popular hot-spring resort area of Taiwan’s Taitung County late Saturday, shattering windows and damaging some furniture.

“I heard a loud sound and (the mudslide) came through the windows of the restaurant in the back. Our customers were safe but we estimate losses of 1.5 million New Taiwan dollars ($50,000),” a hotel worker told reporters.

Remote villages elsewhere in Pintung County suffered heavy flooding.

“I thought a tsunami was hitting. . . . I’ve never encountered this before in my life,” said a 60-year-old woman who scrambled to safety with her pet dog.

Nine people were injured in Kinmen, a Taiwan-controlled island off China’s Fujian province, after they were hit by falling trees, according to the Central Emergency Operation Center.

After the typhoon had passed, in the Taiwanese port of Kaohsiung a giant yellow duck designed by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman — which has already proved a huge hit in Hong Kong — was set to be reinflated for public viewing when wind speeds ebbed.

Prior to Taiwan, Usagi brushed the far north of the Philippines, where a man and a woman drowned when their boat capsized in high seas. Another two people are missing from the mishap.