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  • Anna Au

The August to remember

Making my mark

It was August 2017. I was thrilled, not only because I got to attend World Library and Information Congress (WLIC), the biggest library conference in the world for the first time. It was also that my first submission to this conference was accepted for presentation. It meant a lot to an early-stage researcher like me as I was still a Master's student at that time. This would later mark myself as a valuable peer in the library community. To put how big of a deal it was in perspective, about 5,000 people attend this annual conference in each edition. I believe most researchers can relate to this when they finally reach the instant that sets the course of their career.


I booked my trip, packed my luggage, and board the 4-hour bus from Berlin to Wrocław, Poland on August 19. I took the tram and went straight to the conference venue Centennial Hall, a beautiful place surrounded by a plethora of well-cared botanical comfort a bit outside of the city centre. I got off the tram with other participants of the conference some of which looked like this edition was not their first drill – they knew what to expect while some looked tired from traveling. I could not believe I was becoming one of them. I took a tentative step and thought about the endeavours that led me here and how much more I aspired to be. I inhaled the waft of fresh air. It was chilly, but I was contented.


I must have looked like a toddler taking her first steps in the world as other participants were moving along to exactly where they wanted to go – the registration desk. I walked amongst them and followed the signages and the instructions of the volunteers to the registration desk. After I registered and received my conference package, I inspected the conference programme like a fanatic X-ray machine.


Looking, looking, looking... and there! It was my name on the programme! And all was good. I was satisfied.


As the evening loomed, it got chillier, but the satisfaction was sufficient to keep me warm on the train ride to the accommodation. I unpacked and showered. I had a snack and read up on the recent development in the library field until I eventually fell asleep.


Feeling rested and refreshed, I woke up at 6 am the next day. I get dressed. I rehearsed my presentation and fixed bits and pieces of imperfection in my presentation slides that were probably imperceptible to anyone but me. I was determined to be great; I wanted to convey an air of perfection. After an intense scholarly obsession in the early hours of the day, a stroll to a cafe in the city centre to indulge myself with a hearty breakfast sure sounded great. And that was what I did. I took a window seat. As I observed the city gradually starting its hustles in a sunny, breezing summer day, I closed my eyes and imagined the future I wanted. And then I let out a sigh of relief knowing that was something I could achieve. I left the cafe and board on the tram to Centennial Hall. The tram was filled with people with the same red lanyard that signalled a kind of solidarity – "this is an August to remember".


It was not a long tram ride. People filed out of the tram and the several trams that came after. As if we were all striving for the same goal with a mutual tacit understanding I walked amongst the others towards the conference venue. While some were looking at the programme booklet or the conference application on their phone, possibly checking for the room location of different sessions, I had one clear goal in mind and I went straight for it. I got myself a warm, nice cup of morning delight generally known as coffee by most people. And then, I was ready to start the conference. All these happened by 9 am and that was my routine until my presentation day on August 22.


My presentation was in a session after lunch time. It was the second of the five. I took a deep breath to compose myself and began my 12 minutes of fame on health information. I stood up with the dignity, strength, and grace of an Amazon that I did not know I had and asserted my take on rethinking what to consider as health information. The presentation was over before I even noticed. My initial deep breath must be an hyper efficient breath because I do not recall breathing in those 12 minutes. It was as if I were on a high; I was probably was. It was an academic and scholarly high, a high that marked my worth as a researcher.


I felt great. I was satisfied with my performance. The only thing that kept my joy from overflowing was its own tension. It was a complex emotion. My whole body tensed up yet I was elated. After my session, I tapped, tapped, tapped away the good news in a text on my phone in the manic motions of my shaking fingers, wanting to share the glory with my family. I sent the text and let out a breath. While I was waiting for my family’s response, I checked my incoming texts and notifications from social media. Little did I know then that was the moment when my joy started to fade way.


Typhoon Hato

A very powerful typhoon, Hato, was approaching closer and closer to Macau. In anticipating its passage, storm warnings was signalled and school and work were suspended. The memories of flood in Macau suddenly became the most salient, possibly the only, thoughts in my head. Knowing Hato was bound to bring upon dreadful floods like other powerful typhoons had in the past, deluge, immersion, or saturation may be some closer terms to describe the impending change of landscape of the neighbourhoods at the waterfront.


My family lives in one of these neighbourhoods.


I got a text from my brother informing that the family was riding out the typhoon just like all other prior instances. As Macau was six hours ahead of Poland in summer, it was already night time in Macau when I got the text. And that was the last news from my family until a four days later. My follow-up text asking them to stay safe did not even get through. I recalled staying for the cultural evening programme. The sunset was beautiful and the food was nice, but I do not think I was actively enjoying; I sat at a table by the pond, occasionally joined by other conference participants, and observed things happen around me. I guess I just did not want to go back to the accommodation and be alone with the spiral thoughts of uncertainty and the certainty of how bad the city could become in a typhoon, so I stayed until I could no longer tolerate the evening chill at the open-air venue.


The chill. It was the evening chill. My body shivered because of the chill. That was the physical sign that jolted me away from the welcomed distractions around me and pushed me to finally realize that all of my joy from the day was drained by the dementor called anxiety. All was left was the unrelenting tension. My cold hands reached for the phone and my tensed-up muscles tapped in the only two keywords necessary in the search engine – typhoon and Macau. Typhoon Hato was getting closer and closer. A higher typhoon warning signal was hoisted. The meteorology authority announced that even higher warning signals could be hoisted the next day. Flood was very likely to happen. I could barely make out people’s voices in the videos documenting Hato’s effect as the backdrop was the raging sound of the storm. I got an inkling of the situation. It was vexing. Yet, I still did not have any update from my family. That evening was so chilly. I felt so cold. I had to get back to the accommodation. When I made my way to the tram, I pulled my jacket as tight to my body as possible. I wanted a warm hug. I wanted to believe that it would be alright.


I took a warm shower. That was the closest thing to a warm hug. I also had a cup of tea to warm me up from the inside. But neither distinguished the chilling anticipation of what would come next in my family’s neighbourhood. I must have passed out in the exhaustion of racing thoughts because I do not recall creeping out of consciousness that night or the next four nights.


I still woke up quite early in the day, not for reading up on the news or development in the library field, but for checking the updates on Hato. My fingers tapped on the keyboard with the avidity of a woodpecker looking for hiding insects in the tree. I needed to know what was going on in Macau. I needed to know how my family’s neighbourhood was faring. I needed to know that my family was safe and well. Just tell me something, anything, I whispered to the internet.


Flood has begun in the waterfront neighbourhoods when I was sleeping. Compounded with heavy rainfall, storm surge, and powerful winds, the infrastructure could not withstand Hato. The floods rose the highest at 2.38 meters. Streets became canals. Garbage was drifting along. The flood water was a dirty brown stew of dread and sorrow. Vehicles were stranded. Some people could not get home. Many windows were busted by the wuthering gust of terror. I also found out that Patane Library, a public library which was inaugurated less than a year prior in a waterfront neighbourhood, was flooded. Yet, there was still no news from my family. I texted a friend of mine in Macau to try to call them. I tried everything. I was inundated with anxiety as Macau was literally inundated. About a week after the passage of Hato, I learned that that was the time when it was closest to Macau.


Power was down in many neighbourhoods, especially those closer to the waterfront. Phone services, both landline and mobile, were unstable. Internet connection was a lost cause too. That was what I read from the limited updates that kept circulating in news outlets and social media. In that split second, I knew I would not be able to reach my family in any way. I still called all the numbers of my family though. Come on, just give me one tiny tinge of luck, I muttered like a mantra. I tried to reach them through the internet, but the last text I sent my brother remained to be marked with a grey tick – sent, not delivered yet. Nothing worked and my anxiety inflated. There was nothing more I could do. I could only wait. I waited and waited. Time stretched like a spider releasing its silk to reach an impossible distance, target in sight yet seemingly unattainable. I wish I was in Macau, so that I could be sure that my family was safe.


Photo used with the permission from Johnson Chao.
Flood in Inner Harbour Neighbourhood (by Johnson Chao)

Photo used with the permission from Johnson Chao.
Flood in Inner Harbour Neighbourhood (by Johnson Chao)

I had to do something. I needed a little bit of distractions. I pulled myself together somehow. I got dressed and made my way to the conference. The day and coming ones were sunny and breezy in Wrocław. It was as if the weather were either taunting or taming the turbulent trepidation in me. I had a full conference day. I sat through the sessions. I ate. I networked with other participants. I went back to the accommodation. And I repeated the same protocol the next day. The general outline is the only thing I could recall for these two days. The immediate external world meant nothing to me. All I wanted to do was to reach my family. That day, like the conference culminating its epitome in the closing session, the aggression of uncertainty also finally pushed past the last increment of my mental barometer. At that breaking moment, I decided to end my conference trip early and go back to my home in Berlin to regroup my thoughts. While other participants were applauding or exchanging contacts, I looked down at my phone and rebooked a mid-night bus ticket to leave that evening. That was the best decision I could have made.


Right after the closing session, I went straight to the accommodation. I took a warm shower to resurrect my rational thinking. With a clear head, I made a plan. I focused on what I was certain of. Knowing exactly what to do, I first had a light dinner. And then I slowly, but surly packed my belongings and filled my water bottle before I checked out. I still looked for information of Hato on my phone when I was waiting for my bus at the station, but I was fine; I was no longer obsess over obtaining live updates. Instead, I used my equanimity and prowess of the scientist that I was to weed out misinformation and glean what was useful. I also retrieved the memory of my family’s scrupulous protocol with any impending storm and then I knew they would be okay. I would be able to reach them, I concluded, and I just had to wait for recovery of the neighbourhood’s utilities. I was okay. I even casually snacked on a banana and a granola bar. I was okay. Being okay was good enough.


The bus ride took a bit over four hours. The sleep on the bus was not the greatest human experience, but it was okay. I got some sleep. The U-bahn ride from the bus station back to my place was not a refined experience either, but it was okay. I got home and it was good enough. I did what I always do as soon as I returned to the comfort of my own place – I unpacked and did laundry. Afterwards, I drained the exhaustion in my body with a warm shower and replenished myself with a soothing warm cup of tea. It was until then I checked again for the updates of what has happened.


Hato left a trail of devastation in its wake. I did not need to be in Macau at that time to imagine the obnoxious post-flooding stench and filth. I knew that as a fact, not just from my microbiology and environmental science classes, but also from my own memory and my parents’ recollection of other floods in the past. Cleaning up the homes and stores ravaged by the flood was, of course, obviously the utmost priority. Things that used to be business equipment, furniture, clothes, goods, and food lumped together as piles and piles of one single entity of trash on the streets. The city waste management company could not catch up with collection as the trash just kept piling up. Even if some things in the piles could be salvaged, people simply did not have the vigour to sort them out. I saw the sadness on their faces in the photos – the sadness of losing memorabilia, the sadness of losing business resource, and the sadness of losing loved ones. Ten people died and 244 people were injured in this catastrophe. All things must have stood still in the moment a person lost a loved one. It must be if standing helpless in a shadow that became an all-consuming darkness. It was August 25.


I knew my family was okay because later that day, the friend I texted before was finally able to call them on my behalf. The family cat was doing well too. It was a huge relief. I remember sinking into my bed and having the first restful sleep in those few days that felt like forever. Somehow, things seemed bearable.


On the next day, August 26, I was finally able to call my family. It was a 20-minute call. They told me that the clean-up was still ongoing. Power, water, phone service, and internet were gradually recovering, but it was not fast enough. Their complaints were endless, but those were the kind of complaints coming from people who knew the situation would get better. That international call cost me a fortune that August, but it was priceless to hear hope in their voice.


The city had to get back to some level of normalcy as a new school year was expected to begin in early September. Public services scrambled to resume operation. Given time and financial aids, businesses would also eventually recover. A lot of Patane Library’s equipment had to be restored or replaced, but it opened its doors again after a month. Its reopening felt like a symbol of resilience. There were also talks of improving infrastructure, warning systems, and evacuation plans. Of course, communities urged for immediate actions.


Days, months, and years have passed. People have become more prepared and equipped. Other powerful typhoons have also come and gone. Reference to Hato’s destruction comes up quite often whenever issues of infrastructure are raised and people exchange looks of mutual frustration, exasperation, terror, and all ranges of human sentiments. Although Hato has long gone, its influence still lingers in people’s everyday life.


How to do better?

Hato moved on and so did some people, but I definitely have not.


Extreme weather events like severe typhoons and flooding are likely to become more frequent in the foreseeable future as climate scientists have been warning us tirelessly. As a health scientist, of course, I think of them as public health crises that can be averted. I think about how to systematically carry out interventions better. I identified five main dimensions of intervention and they are as follow.


1. Critical infrastructure

Tidal and flood gates can be barriers against storm surge that could potentially exacerbate flood.


2. Green roofs

A large coverage of well-designed and managed green roofs throughout neighbourhoods or the city can retain rainwater as irrigation for the vegetations. At the same time, green roofs detain rainwater and allow the urban drainage system more time to properly drain the water that is already in the system, and thereby delay the incidence and effect of flood.


3. Urban design

Whenever there is a plan for building a park or playground, we should consider its potential to become a water square or water basin. On a sunny day, the park or playground is just like any other of its kind, whereas on a rainy day, it acts as temporary vessel to detain rainwater or stormwater for delaying the incidence and effect of flood.


4. Walkability

Good neighbourhood walkability means shorter transport distance and time in the case of rescue and recovery. It benefits neighbourhoods not only during disasters, but also every day life. Better physical connection by walking, biking, and public transit means less driving and more physical activities. With less cars on the street, there is less exhaust gas and commute time is easier and shorter. People are also more likely to be in touch with their neighbours and neighbourhood when they are able to reach destinations with active transport.


5. Science communication

Scientists, civil societies, public institutions, media outlets, and journalists, etc. should put more effort into ensuring access to reliable information and debunking misinformation for different target audience, so that the public is able to make informed decisions. Helping the public understand the impact of the climate crisis on themselves and the significance of climate actions are quintessential to the call for actions.


With a mitigation plan in mind, we then have to evaluate the social, environmental, and economic sustainability aspects of the plan itself and steer the intervention to fruition with good governance. On a final note, public health interventions and built environment interventions are highly contextual, so my advices may not be applicable to every community. Nonetheless, I still hope the information I provide help you rethink climate advocacy and actions.

The photos are used with the permission from Johnson Chao.

Related episode: Inspiring hope & Surprise! It's a poem!

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