The only road into and out of two Hong Kong villages would partially reopen on Saturday evening, Chief Executive John Lee has said, after two landslides caused by record rain cut access to the coastal communities.

Residents of Big Wave Bay and Shek O clear debris from a landslide blocking Shek O Road, Hong Kong, on September 9, 2023. Photo: Supplied.
Residents of Big Wave Bay and Shek O clear debris from a landslide blocking Shek O Road, Hong Kong, on September 9, 2023. Photo: Supplied.

Lee said in a Facebook post on Saturday evening that the government anticipated that one lane would be reopened for light vehicles by 9 pm.

“Personnel will continue the maintenance work… with an aim that single-decker buses will be able to use the road by 6 am tomorrow, so residents can come in and out of Shek O,” he wrote in Chinese.

Photos of Lee speaking to workers on Shek O Road accompanied the 7.30 pm post.

Chief Executive John Lee assesses the damage caused by landslides on Shek O Road, Hong Kong, on September 9, 2023. Photo: John Lee/Facebook.
Chief Executive John Lee inspects the damage left behind by the rainstorm on Shek O Road, Hong Kong, on September 9, 2023. Photo: GovHK.

People living in Shek O and Big Wave Bay – home to roughly 2,500 according to government figures – on Saturday morning joined efforts to clear debris blocking part of Shek O Road, taking shovels and wheelbarrows up to the site as an excavator worked to clear the landslip from the other side. 

But there wasn’t much they could do about a collapsed section of the road further along, caused by a second landslide on Thursday night, with local media reporting on Friday that it may take a month before the road was fully operational again.

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Locals HKFP spoke to on Saturday ahead of Lee’s evening announcement expressed concerns about elderly residents and maintaining hygiene, as well as frustration over a lack of messaging from officials.

“There isn’t any information,” Lawrence, who has lived in Big Wave Bay for six years and asked that HKFP only use his first name, said via WhatsApp. “Everything is being coordinated by people on the ground who live here. There doesn’t seem to be any place we can go to find information,” he added. 

“I’m particularly worried about elderly and those with disabilities who cannot hike out or get to the next village and who may not have enough fresh food.”  

Paul Zimmerman
Paul Zimmerman, the vice-chair of the Southern District Council, looks at his election campaign materials from 2019. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Southern District Councillor Paul Zimmerman, who spoke to HKFP by phone on Saturday, said: “if you look at who is responsible in an emergency situation, that is the Security Bureau. The Security Bureau is supposed to coordinate the various… government departments responsible.”

It was also the down to the Security Bureau to communicate how the various departments were responding in a crisis, Zimmerman said. “They may decide that the message should go via the Home Affairs Department and their channels, but the message itself needs to come from the Security Bureau… I don’t see that they are ready.”

The Home Affairs Bureau, which oversees the local-level District Offices, “should not do the messaging, they do the channelling,” Zimmerman added.

News of an evacuation occurring from Shek O, which ultimately took about 200 residents by Fire Services Department boat to North Point and Causeway Bay, reached many in Big Wave Bay the way that most information did – via Chinese- and English-language groups on messaging apps.

Frequently used to coordinate lifts or share updates regarding community matters, residents of both villages were on Saturday swapping pertinent information about the road closure, although it was not always clear from where the information had originated.  

“At the end of the day, we need credible information from one source – the government,” Kaya, who spent part of her childhood in Big Wave Bay before returning as an adult, told HKFP on Saturday afternoon. 

“Everyone’s all over the place because no one knows what to believe” she added. 

“It would be good to hear from officials, because they are the ones that are supposed to be representing the people that live in the area,” Kaya’s husband Matt told HKFP. “If there was just a bit more clarity, then at least you can make informed decisions.”

deserted Shek O beach closure under covid
Shek O beach. File photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

Asked to comment on criticism that there was a lack of timely official messaging, a government information officer referred HKFP to an English-language statement issued at 10.41 pm, more than an hour after Shek O Road reopened.

“The Chief Executive, Mr John Lee, instructed all departments to race against time to repair roads, provide necessary supplies to residents and carry out evacuations,” the statement read.

Communications were hampered, too, by a lack of internet and service from most mobile phone providers, which cut out almost simultaneously at around noon on Friday. “I don’t have Wi-Fi, I don’t have cell phone [service], so I’m in the dark,” Philip, a long-term Big Wave Bay resident, told HKFP in person. 

He said he had got most of his information from the radio so far. “They were actually feeding us the information, but apart from that, I think it’s just good that our communities got together.”

SIM cards were delivered by the same fireboat that took Shek O residents out on Saturday afternoon, and internet and phone services resumed soon after the road became passable.

‘Issues have not been resolved’

The major downpour was the second extreme weather event to hit the city in a week after the arrival of Super Typhoon Saola caused the Observatory to raise its highest storm warning last Thursday. Seven days on, and a lot of debris from Saola remained uncleared, which, according to Zimmerman, was one of the reasons that the rainstorm caused so much damage.

“How do we expedite the cleaning up? I think this is a real question that needs to be asked,” Zimmerman said, particularly with the risks posed by the climate crisis.

Another reason was the general state of the old mountain roads on Hong Kong Island: “they [have] very outdated drainage systems and very outdated road infrastructure.”

Typhoon Saola Big Wave Bay,
Big Wave Bay, Hong Kong Island, in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Saola on Saturday, September 2, 2023. Photo: Mercedes Hutton/HKFP.

“It’s an issue that we’ve seen many times before. This isn’t the first time Shek O Road has collapsed after a rainstorm,” Zimmerman said, referring to an incident in 1995 when part of the road fell away after heavy rains brought by Severe Tropical Storm Helen.

“The Drainage Services Department has known and has published its own reports on the risk of severe rain already for many years. They have calculated that we’re going to have less rain in a year, but when we do have rain, we’re going to have much more severe rain,” he added. 

“The issues have not been resolved.”

Questions put to the Highways Department about whether outdated infrastructure played any role in the road collapse went unanswered, with a department spokesperson also referring HKFP to the government’s Saturday night statement.

Community spirit

Kaya, Lawrence, Matt and Philip were among dozens who assembled in the heart of their village at 10 am on Saturday morning to discuss how best to manage waste in the face of potentially weeks without collection services.

A system was soon established to try and reduce rubbish as much as possible, with residents asked to keep non-perishable refuse at home and dispose of food waste in bins as far away from residential areas as possible. Rats and boars were an issue, they said. 

Overflowing bins in Big Wave Bay, Hong Kong, on September 9, 2023. Photo: Mercedes Hutton/HKFP.
Overflowing bins in Big Wave Bay, Hong Kong, on September 9, 2023. Photo: Mercedes Hutton/HKFP.

From there, people split into groups, one of which went to clear the landslide, while the others set to work helping those whose homes were submerged during the historic deluge that began on Thursday night, when 158.1 millimetres of rain fell within the hour between 11 pm and midnight, the highest since records began in 1884.

High water marks, left by mud and debris on the outside of some houses, showed flood waters had reached above a metre, with people forced to climb out of windows to escape. 

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Despite being battered by the elements, though, residents of both Big Wave Bay and Shek O remained positive and commended their communities for coming together.

“It’s just that we’re bloody stranded,” one Shek O resident, who did not give their name, said, before news of the road reopening was announced. 

HKFP has reached out to various government departments for comment.

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Mercedes is a Hong Kong-based British journalist with an interest in environmental and social issues. She has written for the Guardian and the BBC and previously worked at the South China Morning Post.