I lived with my wife in South East China for three years and through that I experienced a typhoon season three times. Two of these were mild, a lot of rain admittedly, but no worse than the worst of storms I’ve seen back home in the UK.
But one was both devastating and humbling. It tore a city apart and taught us the intense kindness of the Chinese people. How united a community becomes when faced with disaster.
This is the story of some not-so-bad storms and the worst weather I’ve ever experienced, in the city of Xiamen, China.
China: The Wettest Place I’ve Ever Lived
I come from Manchester England, where it rains. From the way Brits talk, you might think that this gray English city was the wettest place in the world.
I certainly used to, until I moved to China.
You see, the entire Chinese economy is built on rainy weather. Back 4,000 years or so, at the beginning of Chinese history, a man named Yu the Great famously solved China’s flood problem. He diverted the floods away from the Yellow River into canals. This massive irrigation project fed the rice paddies. You can see large hatted men and women wading through these in Chinese winters today.
In China, a deluge of rain usually comes during the early summer monsoons. You’d know this was coming, because just before the monsoon, the termites would swarm in their alate or flying form. If you left a light on, then they’d crawl through the weatherstripping. Dozens of them would fly around the room and then lose their wings and crawl like little worms over the floor, furniture and walls.
Then, the clouds would dump water from the sky that turn roads into rivers. I lived through many days like these, cursing myself for forgetting my umbrella. Wading through eddying puddles as if part submerged in rice paddies myself.
But typhoon season in China doesn’t tend to start until mid to late August, and some come as late as mid-September. The three typhoon seasons I lived through were all in September.
The last was the worst of all.
The Best of Typhoon Season in China: Mere Gales
I lived for two years in Putian, Fujian province and one year in the much larger city of Xiamen (also in Fujian). The best month to visit Fujian is November, when it rarely rains at all and the muggy summer heat has lifted. I don’t recommend going any later than April, and certainly not in September unless you want to see a typhoon.
And to live through a typhoon is, in a way, to live through a part of Chinese culture.
Back home, when it snows, it’s often traditional to take the day off. The reason is, England’s buses, trains and metros aren’t equipped for snow build-up, so everything grinds to a halt.
The same holds for Chinese typhoons and today, I would say, rightly so. But for my first two years in Putian, this phenomenon in typhoon season left me perplexed. You see, Fujian is sheltered by Taiwan and in Taiwan the typhoons hit hard, particularly on the East coast. But a lot of the storm’s power then dissipates into the mountains. After the typhoon has crossed the strait of Taiwan, it’s merely a gale.
We have gales back home in the UK, sometimes. I wouldn’t choose to go out in one. I would if I had to (although probably not with an umbrella). Still, I couldn’t understand how the entire city would bar up doors, stock up on pot ramen and gallons of water. Bunkering down as if preparing for a nuclear apocalypse.
In a country that runs 24/7 this is quite a thing to watch.
So, you can probably understand how I was a little naive about typhoons, or at least in China. But then, I hadn’t yet weathered a storm greater than say a force 8. And Typhoon Meranti was yet to come.
The Worst of Typhoon Season in China: Typhoon Meranti Approaches
The first I saw of Meranti was a cushion of cumulus clouds building up on the horizon. I caught sight of them from our 26th floor apartment which we’d moved into a week before.
We’d just moved to Xiamen, the cultural capital of Fujian province and a haven for expats. We didn’t actually live on Xiamen island, but the peninsula north of it called Jimei. From our balcony, we could see the strait that separated the island and the peninsulas, the two long bridges that spanned across this, and the hilly city district of Haicang far on the horizon. Above this, the clouds piled in at the kind of speed you don’t normally see clouds move. The winds were picking up and I’d heard vague rumours a heavy storm was approaching.
But we didn’t know many people in the city and we weren’t following the news. We hadn’t even started teaching at our school yet and wouldn’t for another week.
So, on September 13th 2016 we watched the sky, unaware that the largest storm since 1967 was closing in on Xiamen. The first we heard of it, in fact, was in McDonald’s. As we wondered why it was so crowded that evening, I received a text message from my Dad, warning that a typhoon was coming our way.
Of course, we didn’t think anything of it. We’d lived through typhoon season in China and had thought Chinese typhoons overrated.
That night we saw one of the most stunning sunsets we’d ever seen, the sky and rolling clouds above filled with orange and red. After that the winds began to pick up and we went to sleep that night thinking we’d awake to better weather tomorrow.
The Worst of Typhoon Season in China: Weathering Typhoon Meranti
We did wake up the next day, albeit at two in the morning. The winds made such a noise, that we couldn’t fit in another wink.
So we sat up in bed and went to get another night cap. It was then that we realized the tower was swaying, as if the floor belonged to a boat on a turbulent sea. Back and forth, back and forth.
Of course, at that point we didn’t dare open the door to peek outside. We could see plastic bags and bits of debris swirling around within an ever-changing blanket of midnight grey, illuminated by the lights of our apartment. The windows made noises like drum skins as the winds beat against them. Every so often, we’d turn startled towards a sudden snare, thinking the glass would break and the storm would suck us out into the roiling clouds.
We still had reception on our phones. My family were on holiday on the island of Mull in Scotland. It was much earlier in the evening there, so we sent a text to describe the storm a little and ask them to check the news. It turned out that the eye of the storm hadn’t yet reached us and had already wreaked havoc on one of Xiamen’s islets further south.
It wasn’t long until the electricity went. First in our building and then in the vicinity. We couldn’t see anything past our balcony in the storm, but it turned out that the wind had felled a nearby electricity pylon. Which meant we had no reception on our phones.
I opened the apartment door to the corridor then to see if the main apartment lights had gone off. I regretted this immediately, as the wind almost yanked me out into the corridor, despite being indoors, as if I’d just opened an airlock to outer space.
We got the door closed and waited patiently with a head torch on the coffee table cutting through the darkness. The building swayed and we wondered if it would be strong enough to weather the storm… if the Chinese had built it strong enough for such chaotic weather.
Soon, the winds started bringing water into our apartment. It lapped through the bottom of the weatherstripping. In waves like it would on a beach.
We scurried into action, removing all power extension cables from the floor, as more waves came forth. The flood filled almost our entire apartment floor and we mopped up what we could into a small bin and threw it down the shower drain. That was until we realized we could sweep everything over the threshold into the bathroom and down the drain.
Eventually, the storm started to subside and ,just after daylight broke, we managed to get some sleep.
Around midday, I dared to step outside and behold the carnage Typhoon Meranti had wreaked.
The Aftermath of Typhoon Meranti
The storm had stripped the plaster off the balcony ceiling, churned it up and deposited it across the floor of our balcony. Wet clumps of it, in all different sizes, strewn across our balcony. Beneath the air conditioning fan, we had an even deeper puddle in the hole in the concrete underneath it. This didn’t evaporate for days.
I looked over the balcony to see every tree stripped out of the paving on the street below. To my right, stood Jiageng Stadium, now surrounded with lakes of brown murky water. The same coloured water had filled the main road as well, in huge puddles. Fortunately, much of the flood had been diverted by the storm drains. In Taiwan and on Xiamen island, the floods were much worse.
We had no electricity, so the building’s pumps couldn’t get water up to us either. Luckily, we had enough water and food to keep us going for a day.
After that, we needed to go out and get some more. Of course, all the shops in the vicinity had boarded up so we had to walk quite a way. We clambered over fallen trees and took diversions in places until we got to the subway line, still under construction. The typhoon had ripped out the plates that flanked the building site and filled the uncovered line with a massive river.
We eventually found somewhere serving food and a man and woman in army uniform greeted us inside. They beckoned us to sit down and served us some egg and tomato soup. We wanted to pay but the staff wouldn’t accept it. It turned out that China had called in the relief army and now was serving food.
The restaurant had WiFi, which allowed us finally to send messages home and tell the world we were okay. Later we managed to find a coffee shop so we could finally charge our phones.
When we got home, the shop downstairs had opened. We bought some water and supplies (we had cook since we had gas stoves, fortunately) . We carried all this up the 26 flights of stairs to our apartment.
Our water and electricity didn’t return for two days, during which we kept our trips downstairs to a minimum.
Earlier, our mobile reception did return and we’d preserved some battery on our phone. We saw through that what Typhoon Meranti had done to Xiamen island. In one place, a statue of a golden angel stood on top a shopping mall. The storm had split that in two across her waist.
Once our water and electricity was back, we got back in touch with the outside world. Everyone had their own typhoon stories, including a couple of our friends who’d spent the night in a basement. As we told each other our stories, I started to realise how people really do stick together in the face of disaster. It reminded me of the immense kindness in this country, that I had seen and would see many times again.
But in all honesty, I never want to live again through another typhoon. I’ve learnt my lesson. Typhoon season should be taken very seriously, even in China.
Thank you for reading our story of typhoon season in China. We now live in Granada, where we’ve not yet (to my knowledge) seen a storm.
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