It was a Sunday morning like no other for senior engineer Tse Kwan Leung. Rather than relaxing at home with his family, Tse found himself on frontline duty at the CLP Power System Control Centre in Tai Po as Super Typhoon Mangkhut, the most severe storm to hit Hong Kong since records began, barreled across the South China Sea towards the territory on 16 September 2018.
Mangkhut left a trail of destruction: there were over 46,500 reports of fallen trees, 500 reports of broken windows, and about 1,800 people sought refuge at Government shelters. The storm also affected power supply to about 40,000 CLP customers, many of them in remote areas of the New Territories, providing us all with a powerful reminder about the immense challenges the brutal forces of nature can present.
In the hours before the storm strikes, Tse and his colleagues are on edge as they monitor Mangkhut’s menacing approach. “We can’t afford to rely on luck,” Tse says. “This is a super typhoon and we have to be on our highest alert.”
This is despite preparations had begun months – and in some cases years – before.
High-voltage overhead lines and towers, for example, had been reinforced to give them the best possible chance of surviving such storms, explains Ken Chan, Acting Senior Maintenance Engineer for the North Region.
“We began to strengthen the integrity and structure of our 400 kV overhead lines towers a few years ago and they can withstand wind gusts up to 300 km/h,” he explains.
As weather forecasts spotted Mangkhut bearing down on Hong Kong, maintenance teams stepped up patrols of the transmission overhead line network with helicopters while vegetation management teams cleared stretches of overhead lines at risk from trees.
Another major safeguard has been the installation of flood gates to prevent substations in low-lying areas and near the coastline from being submerged, says Anson Wong, Acting Senior Maintenance Manager for East and West Region.
“At one substation which provides electricity to a government shelter, a storm surge pushed the water level so high that it would have been put out of action if not for the flood gates,” Anson says.
In anticipation of Mangkhut, Tse and his colleagues began emergency planning around a week before it struck, making contingency plans for all CLP power plants in Hong Kong as well as the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Station and the Pumped Storage Power Station in Guangzhou. A coordinated strategy was in place to deal with typhoon’s impact.
An even more critical element was advance manpower planning to ensure system control engineers were on duty around the clock before T9 and T10 typhoon signals were hoisted, Tse says.
“This arrangement ensures we keep our systems running through the most critical hours of Mangkhut,” he explains. “It is of critical importance given the extraordinary workloads at the height of a typhoon and its aftermath.”
It is two hours before the T8 typhoon signal is hoisted and the Emergency Management Team of the Power Systems Business Group is in action on the sixth floor of CLP’s Sham Shui Po office. Eric Cheung, Senior Director – Power Systems, is coordinating regional offices while the public affairs team handles an avalanche of media enquiries.
In Tai Po, Tse describes the atmosphere as tense throughout the 12 hours when the storm was at its peak. “We recorded many cases of overhead line faults in our 400 kV systems when the T9 and T10 signals were up,” Tse says afterwards.
“The faults came one after the other, especially on the 11kV overhead lines circuits. Our engineers had no time to pause. They had to keep a cool head and do the best they could to restore power by remote control where possible.”
He reflects: “I have been through many major typhoons, but this was the most severe storm I have experienced.”
Super Typhoon Mangkhut was indeed stronger than what we had prepared for. It wreaked havoc across Hong Kong: public transport came to a halt, schools were closed for two days and both runways at the airport were open overnight to handle 2,000 rescheduled flights.
Terry Fung, an engineer with North Region, says there were huge obstacles to restoring power for some of our customers in certain areas. “When we first sent our emergency teams from Sheung Shui, they were unable to go anywhere because almost all roads were blocked. At the end, they had to go by foot to inspect the substations before System Control Centre could restore the power supply,” he says.
In the end, it was all down to teamwork. To help the massive clean-up operation, colleagues from different business groups rushed in. Employees from the Generation Business Group, the Engineering Projects Department, the East and West Region, the Technical Services Department, CLP Engineering, and even the Power Academy rolled up their sleeves to assist.
“It was really encouraging, because we truly felt everyone in the company was supporting us and we were not alone,” says Terry.
Liu Wai Lung, a leader of the North Region’s Vegetation Management Team, spent more than nine hours clearing fallen trees from an access road to Tai Lam Country Park with three colleagues from CLP Engineering and a group of contractor employees.
“The access road was almost buried under the trees but we knew that we needed to clear it so our emergency team could do repairs. We felt like we were in a war and there was no turning back,” he says afterwards.
Some trees weighed more than a tonne and Liu and his colleagues resorted to ingenious methods to move them. “It was almost mission impossible because we had to cut all these big trees into smaller pieces or roll them down the hill,” he says.
Simon Lam, who oversees CLP Power’s residential customer services, says staff at the call centre were under immense pressure dealing with the impact of Typhoon Mangkhut. “Our colleagues were exhausted as most of us only had a few hours of sleep every night and were on duty at least until late night for about a week after the typhoon. But we knew some customers had been out of power for many days. They relied on us to help them out,” he explains.
“That was what kept our people going – our commitment to our customers and to take every extra step to provide the emergency service to them and help restore power as soon as we could.
“To answer calls from customers, we pooled resources from other teams. Even colleagues from Group IT and back office helped. At the same time, we asked our Customer Care team agents to look after those customers in particularly difficult conditions.
“Despite the pressure, our colleagues still came back on weekend to support the handling of customers’ enquiries on telephone, social media or email. They were all 100% supportive. That demonstrates everyone’s commitment.”
The same level of dedication was shown by account manager Sally Leung who deals with various government departments on utilities. “Some of the reservoirs and traffic lights are located in rural and remote areas. It will cause great disturbance and chaos to customers if the water supply facilities suffered power outage and if the traffic lights were out when the schools resumed,” Sally says.
“So we proactively liaised with respective government departments and co-ordinated with our engineering colleagues to help identify the fault locations quickly and swiftly carried out repairs,” she adds.
The dedication of employees in dealing with the storm has been recognised by customers, among them Lantau resident Ruby. In a letter she commended the CLP team who helped restore power to her village two days after the storm: “I would like to give my great respect to this dedication and devoted attitude to fixing the power issues for a village left in a desperate situation. Their help has left us with bright smiles on our face and a grateful heart.”
Yuen Long resident Siu Long Ming agreed, saying: “This proves once again the team at CLP Power is really world class and you always work hard to ensure a stable electricity supply for customers under any adverse circumstances.”
What impressed CLP Power Managing Director TK Chiang most was the willingness and commitment of employees to look out for and support each other. “You have shown me what teamwork is all about,” he says.
“Different teams will conduct reviews to find areas where our emergency preparedness and handling can be further improved. But with your dedication and professionalism, I am confident we will overcome challenges as we brace ourselves for more frequent typhoons and maintain our commitment to look after our customers at all times, whatever the weather.”