Looking back at Typhoon Kompasu

***Update – So much for that!***
***Update – In less than a week another typhoon, Typhoon Malou, is heading directly towards Korea with the same trajectory as Typhoon Kompasu. Regular update available here!***
Just before five o’clock in the morning on Thursday, September 2 we were woken abruptly by violent winds that shook the apartment and rattled our rather big and bulky double sliding windows. The night before it had started raining around 7pm and continued at a steady pace long after we went to bed, but this wasn’t unusual especially this year with unseasonal weather patterns. Both of us sat up in the bed and looked out the window half expecting to see where the wind was coming from. The windows had been wide open since mid-June as a means of keeping a draught running through the hot summer evenings, and now we definitely had a draught.

Typhoon Kompasu (which is the Japanese word for compass) had landed in Korea and launched into the usually typhoon free north-west coast of South Korea, the most densely populated region in the country, and also the world. According to statistics, with the exception of Bangladesh, it’s the only country in the top thirty with an area of over 50,000 km² and with a population nearing 50 million people. South Korea is a tiny bit bigger than the Republic of Ireland, but around the same size as Northern Ireland. Seoul itself (population 10.5 million) is the largest city in the OECD, and if you add in Incheon (around 3 million people) and the rest of Gyeonggi province (over 10 million), so having a storm with 150 kmph winds roar through about an hour or two before rush-hour was bound to have its consequences.

We were certainly unprepared. I had seen brief glimpses of the oncoming storm in Jeju, Korea’s autonomous Island province, where large waves characteristic of a large incoming storm were crashing against man-made breakers and lighthouses which were no doubt well used to typhoons. Jeju is the region in Korea which has had more typhoons than anywhere else and they have affected Jeju on the international stage also; in the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan, Jeju’s brand new World Cup stadium came under the cosh of a Typhoon which pulled the roof off the the main stand.

The television coverage of the incoming typhoon did little to worry me in fact, as at this time of year they are frequent and usually land on the south coast and the biggest effect on Seoul and its suburbs is two or three days of rain, the mountains that fill the centre of the country being good enough to take the sting out of their swing.

For example, at the start of August while we were out in Gangwon-do on the east coast another huge storm made land in Korea. As we were in Gangwon-do we didn’t really feel much of it, but it did ruin our ten day break what with incessant rain for several days. As herself reported to my mother on the phone a few days later, ‘we had a typhoon so it rained a lot and we came home early…oh no, it wasn’t that big only five people died’.

Seoul however has rarely tasted the true force of a typhoon, its location on the west coast shelters it, the rain shadow of the majority of the country is usually enough to keep it safe, but not this time. For the first time in fifteen years (ten if you read other sources), the typhoon headed straight for Seoul.

Kompasu passed by Jeju and looped around up through the Yellow Sea and curved in, fortunately diminishing in intensity slightly as it made landfall with winds of around 35 metres a second, which I’ve been told is very fast. It was the equivalent of a Category 3 storm by the time it touched down in Gyeonggi-do.

The path of Typhoon Kompasu

Not really sure what to do with the whole apartment shaking, we shut the windows and that cooled everything down a lot. Fortunately most modern buildings in Korea are built of solid concrete and that would generally keep it safe from strong winds. Herself stuck her head out the front door at one stage to see what the carnage looked like but didn’t hang around long, just witnessing the big patch of empty ground next to the apartment that up until the day before had long high grass and weeds growing which was now flattened from the wind. She came back in promptly, confidently informing me that it was ‘fairly mad outside’ (I love having a Korean wife who speaks like an Irish person).

We couldn’t get much more sleep. By eight o’clock the wind had died down a good bit so I threw on the ould raincoat and made a quick dash for the car to make my way into work. There’s something about driving in Korea that really confuses me about driving habits of styles, but, from sitting in the driver’s seat and not actually going out and doing some statistical results based research, when the weather gets worse people generally seem like they drive worse or with less care. It could also be the fact that I drive with more care when the weather’s crap and seem to notice the less cautious driving of my fellow drivers. Fortunately I don’t work in Seoul and my morning drive is short and sweet, but it didn’t take long to spot the damage.

Once I left the main road through Yeongtong just before the Shampoo Niteclub (which is a massive building, you can’t miss it!), there’s a petrol station on the corner that usually causes all sorts of confusion with people coming and going; today confusion reached its peak. The large GS logo sign outside had collapsed right into the middle of the street and the cops were out trying to regulate getting it moved and needless to say everyone tried to do a camel through the eye of a needle job of it. Long story short, everyone got through eventually. After this the streets took on an another look.

When I first made a dash for the car I noticed the rubbish and debris that had been blown all over the streets but didn’t think to hang around and examine it with more detail. Now on this quiet tree lined street I had a chance to really take it in. There were branches and leaves everywhere and I slowed down in case the road was quite greasy. The road was emptier than usual and as I eventually looped around into Kyunghee where I worked all signs of the Typhoon seemed to have vanished. Everywhere seemed kind of empty. That is until I stepped out of the car.

*Reflection: Is it me or am I mad to think that it’s a bit ridiculous, in sailing terms, to like, have your sail up all the way through a storm, or something like that? What I’m trying to say is, I got out of the car and what do I see but loads of students in a Top 10 Korean university walking around in high heels, mini-skirts or bleached white runners and perfectly pressed khaki pants all clutching umbrellas feverishly with the usual tug and push to battle against the wind. Now maybe it’s a matter of life experience but on a shitty day with mountains of wind and rain in Ireland, no one carries an umbrella and no one wears high heels, mini-skirts or nice trousers on day like this. Throw on the ould jacket, put the head down, and worry about having a wet head when you’re inside, not in the middle of the road with oncoming traffic. Don’t people look out the window first thing in the morning anymore? I know herself does after spending a few months living in Ireland…maybe we could make it mandatory life points/cop-on training to send kids over to Ireland so they have to sense to dress for the weather?*

(Disclaimer: Generally, I don’t bitch and moan, I accept Korea and Koreans for what they are as I know Ireland has enough of its own problems, but the antics on this morning… baffling would be the understatement of the year!)


Anyway, between the jigs and the reels, less than half of my students turned up for their first class of the semester. I wasn’t surprised.

Gradually throughout the day I learned what had happened. A typhoon had landed right on top of Seoul and Suwon. Massive winds caused huge traffic and transport problems in the capital. It was so bad that trains couldn’t even run and thousands were left stranded looking for a way to make it into work.

Korea is not a country that sits around waiting for things to be fixed and the city promptly responded by dispatching almost three hundred busses to help ferry people to and from locations in already heavy traffic. I can imagine the patience level of the average driver that morning. The majority of the damage was ‘minor’. What this means is that some buildings, like that petrol station, had signs pulled down or windows broken. There wasn’t any flooding and only a small amount of electricity was lost and was quickly resupplied. The Korean association of SMEs has responded and promised the equivalent of $25 million dollars to help with repairs and reconstruction. It must also be added that regrettably three people lost their lives in the storm.

In the countryside the storm helped to increase the problems that the considerable amounts of unseasonal rain have already brought. Damage to farms has been large, especially on fruit and vegetables, and their costs are expected to rise even further. The government dispatched almost 30,000 helpers to help tidy up after the storm, and most of this help has been diverted towards rural areas were ruined greenhouses, farm buildings, falling trees and not forgetting lamentation for uprooted ‘Anmyeon Pine’ trees, a native tree used in the construction of national monuments such Gyeongbuk Palace and the old Namdaemun Gate before it was burned down in 2008.

Photographs appeared on the newspapers online of cars crushed by falling trees and the chaos at the subway stations. I got the sense that the newspapers were trying to sell a story of a brief flirtation with a disaster of Katrina like proportions, but they were lucky. Searching for info on the event I came across some analyses from non-Korean sources, which gave a more realistic and comparative take on the oncoming storm. That being said, it was still a very serious storm and definitely something to be taken seriously especially considering that this was the first typhoon the land on the capital in fifteen years. Small storm or big storm, Seoul and Gyeonggi-do were far from prepared for something like this.

After stepping outside at noon to go and get lunch the sun came out. Literally, a big bright blinding sun screamed down with little or no clouds to screen it, and the heat was extreme. I think that was the hottest I’ve felt the sun this summer, and as far as I’m concerned it has been a really really hot summer, hotter than any I can remember in Korea. Was this to do with the moisture or an after affect from the typhoon (i.e. it washed away all the pollution that usually screens us from the sun)? I didn’t hang around to question it that long.

Driving home from work later that day I took better stock of the situation. All down the roads there were debris and signs that the wind had made a big dent on the local landscape for the time being. Already local council workers and people were out with brooms sweeping up the leaves, putting them in bags and trying to bring some order to the place. Much work had already been completed. As I entered our neighbourhood the damage was more easily recognisable; there is a lot of building going on at the moment and many of the building sites with the placards and fences that surround them had been literally flattened! The tall modern, and mostly empty it must be added, buildings that dominate the landscape that had big bright banners advertising space to rent now had flags fluttering in the strong wind still lingering after the typhoon.

Munhak Stadium in Incheon after Kompassu (Courtessy of Yonhap News)

As I said, with the exception of the few people moving around tidying up their own problems, everywhere I looked carried an eerie air, an atmosphere of emptiness or absence, like no one had lived here for several months and they were now gradually moving back and tidying up the bits and pieces that had been dropped in a hurry. There was no sense of catastrophe, as I said most of the buildings are made of solid concrete (and despite the ‘meteorologists’ in Korea who suggest that winds over such and such a speed can demolish a building made of concrete), everything looked, from a structural point of view, fine.

The next day, a Friday, myself and herself decided to go for a hike or exuberant long walk, at a nearby mountain. Walking up the steps to start, we wondered what the damage would be like. As a testament to the Korean spirit (or the national obsession with hiking – there were probably a few nutters who went hiking in the middle of the typhoon), there was already a definite path trodden into the leaves that had been furiously blown from all the trees around us. It just didn’t look like the typhoon had landed the day before. It was exciting walking along the trail, over the branches and leaves pulled from the trees, and occasionally a tree or two would block the way. To the side there were trees fallen all over the place, but being on a mountain side they were quite sheltered. Again, the damage was superficial and less than expected.

I think the things that caught me most about this typhoon is the reaction to it, especially afterwards.  Basically, I found that the wind and rain came and people seem to have gotten on with business. In the Joongang Daily and Chosun Ilbo, the storm didn’t even register as the lead story, being relegated below the more important issue of finding a new Prime Minister[1] to represent the National Assembly.

I really got the sense that the rain and wind will come and go and we just have to move on otherwise we’ll never get anything done. Unless you’re stupid then you shouldn’t really be too bothered by it. Yeah the wind is blowing around 150kmph or more, but you just have to deal with it. That’s why we’re alive, and that’s how we got to be alive in the positions we are in today. Not by sitting in a cave hiding from the wind but by getting out and cleaning up and moving on so that we can keep making progress.

The weather in many places makes us, but if we are to sit around waiting for the weather to change and dominate us, as opposed to getting on with the job regardless of the heat or amount of rain, than we will just stagnate. On an environmental point briefly, global warming/climate change is a serious issue, but we can’t stop it. We can’t, the ball has been set in motion, and all we can hope to do is try to reduce and adapt to its effects. What is as important now is to make the proper preparations for the drastic changes that are affecting our planet, and by preparations I mean preparing ourselves for colder winters, hotter and wetter summers, less or more expensive fruit and vegetables, and better ways of making our own local society more efficient and ready for situations that could affect us drastically.

Living in Ireland for a long time has helped me to realise that sitting around complaining about the wind and rain isn’t going to make it come down any less. You just have to go out there and get wet, and if you’re lucky, hopefully it will dry up, and sure if it does it does; remember though if it never rained you’d be giving out about that too, and if it…ah you know what I mean!

[1] The Prime Minister doesn’t have the same role as he/she would have in Ireland or England. I think the role is kind of a leader of the house or something like that.


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