By Ben Blaschke
A Commission Against Corruption (CCAC) investigation into the typhoon forecasting procedures of the Meteorological and Geophysical Bureau (SMG) has found “serious problems” with the bureau’s internal mechanisms, including the stunning revelation that storm warnings were often decided by former Director Fong Soi Kun alone.
The investigation, which came in the wake of Typhoon Hato – the devastating T10 storm that struck Macau on 23 August – followed allegations that the SMG had failed to issue adequate storm warnings due to concerns over its potential impact on the city’s gaming industry.
Mr Fong was sacked just 24 hours after Typhoon Hato hit.
In its final report, the CCAC found that, “When it comes to predicting the impacts of typhoons on Macau and making decisions on the issuance of typhoon warning signals, the SMG did not have an internal mechanism for collective discussions and analyses. Instead, the former Director was usually the only one that made judgments and decisions. Both of the typhoon forecasts for ‘Nida’ in 2016 and ‘Hato’ in 2017 were made in such a way.”
The investigation also found that the SMG held daily weather briefings to discuss weather conditions for the next seven days but that the Director did not attend. It alleged that on the afternoon of 22 August, the Director had already finalized the forecast for Typhoon Hato and that the briefing lasted just five minutes.
“CCAC believes that there were serious problems in the SMG’s typhoon forecasting procedures and decision making mechanism,” it said. “First, it lacked a sound mechanism for internal meetings and discussions. The decision making solely relied on the meetings involving very few people or even the personal judgments of the former Director.
“Second, there was no comprehensive disaster warning mechanism. Considering that the decisions were made only through phone calls and the internet at home, the leaders of the SMG could not stay vigilant against unexpected situations.”
According to the government’s Commission for Reviewing and Monitoring the Improvements of the Response Mechanism to Major Disasters, established in early September, Typhoon Hato caused at least MOP$11.5 billion worth of damage to Macau. It also caused major disruption to the city’s gaming industry and forced MGM China to delay the opening of its new MGM Cotai integrated resort – originally planned for 4Q17 – until 29 January 2018.
Among the investigation’s key findings were culture problems within the SMG that discouraged frontline meteorological technicians from putting forward their views on weather patterns and forecasts. In particular, Mr Fong “regarded that the forecasters were undoubtedly less experienced than the leaders and the chiefs. Besides, their analyses might not be on point.”
“In the CCAC’s opinion, the weather conditions during a typhoon are ever-changing. Therefore, with only the reports by the chiefs and the use of a computer to monitor and make judgments, it is hardly possible for the Director to catch up on the updates about the typhoon in a holistic and timely manner,” the report stated. “Moreover, even though there was room for improvement in the professionalism of frontline forecasters, the SMG leaders should have understood that it is wise to listen to ideas from different perspectives. They should not have simply disregarded the opinions of the frontline forecasters.”
In regards to the bureau’s culture, the report said “staff members and chiefs of the SMG told the CCAC that the atmosphere, system and culture of the bureau hindered the forecasters from expressing their own views. Even when they brought up suggestions about forecasting such as issuance of typhoon warning signal, their suggestions would not be valued or adopted by the leadership.
“Moreover, the leadership even stated that the frontline forecasting staff had no power to raise any suggestions of issuing typhoon warning signal.”
It found that the Director would often work from home, making forecast decisions based on information from computer readings and relaying those decisions to his Deputy Director and other staff by phone.
The SMG would also be left crippled if there was a power failure or if the Director was unable to be contacted.
“Since the Director was the only one who had the power to make decision to issue typhoon warning signal, when he was out of contact or could not be reached timely due to any reason, the Deputy Director, the Chief of the Meteorology Division or even the forecasters on duty could not make the decision to issue a warning signal. This would definitely result in delayed or incorrect forecasts,” it said.
As a result of its investigation, the CCAC has outlined five recommendations for the SMG as follows:
– The SMG should set up a specific mechanism of discussion meetings which the meteorological staff are allowed to join in order to analyse and discuss the conditions of typhoons and their effect on Macao.
– The SMG should set up an emergency forecasting mechanism to be applied when a typhoon signal is issued and a rotation system for the leaders, chiefs, forecasting staff and other staff members to stand by in the office.
– The SMG should standardise the factors to be taken into account and the criteria to be applied for the issuance of typhoon warning signal and it should be followed by all personnel of the SMG and understood by the media and citizens.
– The SMG should take an initiative in revising the Instructions on Tropical Cyclone Situations approved by Administrative Order no. 16/2000 in order to perfect the stipulations about typhoon forecasting and typhoon warning signal issuance and the specific guidelines about the relevant criteria.
– The SMG should improve the management of personnel and equipment. The leadership should shoulder their responsibilities to promptly follow up and deal with the problems concerning the internal management.