Twelve hours after the floodwater burst into his liquor and souvenir store, Kenny Ip took stock of his situation and understood that he had fared better than many shopkeepers in the historic Porto Interior neighborhood of Macau. Yes, Typhoon Hato, whose high water mark he measured at 2.2 meters, had destroyed most of his merchandise, but the priciest stock, the Hennessy XO and Crown Royale, had been saved by the glass display cabinet behind the counter, even if their labels had floated away with the receding storm surge. More importantly, his family was safe and his store, which had been on Rua de Cinco Outubro for 29 years, would be back on its feet in ten days or so.
Others in Porto Interior were not so lucky. When communications were restored, Ip got a look at some of cellphone footage of the storm circulating online. One video showed someone trapped by rising water in a basement, only their head visible as they scrambled to reach a submerged ladder. The water swirled with flotsam and rose higher. When neighbors talked of an elderly couple crying outside a nearby general store, the Marcearia Hong Kei Hong, Ip connected the dots. He knew the couple. Their adult son and daughter had gone down to the basement to salvage sacks of rice, Ip learned. “The water just kept going up and up,” he says “the door that connected the basement to the next floor — the water pressure just shut it. There was no way they could get back up.”
The siblings at Marcearia Hong Kei Hong, which on Saturday morning was cordoned with police tape, were two of the 10 people who died in Macau after Typhoon Hato made after landfall last Thursday. It injured more than 240 others and left much of the city without power and water for days. Debris filled the streets, and the facades of tall apartment buildings, their windows smashed, gave the city the appearance of a war zone. The devastation was so serious that Chinese troops were deployed to assist with the clean-up of this centuries-old, former Portuguese colony of 600,000.
Hato was the fiercest typhoon to hit Macau since 1968, according to Macau’s government broadcaster TDM. It also lashed Hong Kong 60 kilometers across the Pearl River delta to the east, and Zhuhai, 10 kilometers north, but neither city suffered damage close to the scale of that visited on Macau. It’s a tragedy that has exposed crucial failings in the emergency services and infrastructure of a semi-autonomous Chinese enclave famed for its big international hotels, Portuguese heritage, and glitzy casinos. (Since 2006, they have made it the world’s gambling capital.)
“There was no water, no electricity, the telephone was not working and the radio station was not broadcasting any news” João Manuel Ambrósio, the vice president of Macau Red Cross, tells TIME. “It was more than 12 hours before we could properly assess the situation and then we became aware that it was really very serious.”
The meteorological observatory in Hong Kong raised the no. 8 typhoon signal — a storm categorization that suspends public transport, closes schools and offices and tells residents to stay indoors — before 6:00 a.m. am on the day Hato made landfall. Zhuhai also hoisted a similar red storm warning at 6:00 a.m., according to China’s official Xinhua news agency. But in Macau, a less severe storm signal remained in force for a further three hours.
Only at 9:00 a.m., Ambrósio says, was the more serious signal hoisted. By that time, “a lot of people had already left for work,” attempting to reach offices and other destinations in the middle of a deadly storm that “nobody was prepared for.”
Toby Hawker, a dancer in a casino show called Viva La Broadway tells TIME he was in the gargantuan Galaxy casino complex when Hato hit. “I thought a bomb had gone off,” he says, describing the moment the main doors were blown in.
But amid the chaos, Hawker says, the casino at the heart of Galaxy somehow functioned as normal. The lights flickered, but backup generators quickly kicked in and the muzak played on. Gamblers fed coins into slots and threw chips onto the baize, apparently oblivious to the raging storm.
A typhoon the magnitude of Hato seems to turn a city inside out, smashing through the windows of homes, scooping up the contents and hurling them out onto the streets. On Saturday afternoon in the Porto Interior, excavators and teams of masked volunteers worked to clear the back streets, which were an impassable tangle of warping wooden furniture cabinets and stinking upholstery. A piano, with its wire workings exposed, had fallen, or been washed up, from somewhere.
A couple of blocks away, Amanda Ung and her Greek husband Ioannis Stogias were assessing the damage to Ung’s parents’ house. They had lost furniture, appliances, and books. A mobility scooter used by Ung’s disabled father stood in the middle of the living room. In another room, a box of sodden medicines had been rescued and piled on a counter top that had warped and bubbled like crème brulee. Although the government affiliated Macau Foundation has pledged up to 30,000 patacas (about $3800) for each damaged home, Ung says, that won’t come close to covering the damage.
Still, like other locals, Ung tells TIME the situation could have been far worse. Her father had been trapped in the rising water and Ung and Stogias — lulled by the lower warning signal into thinking that the situation was not so serious — had been unable to get back in time to help. Only the combined efforts of two domestic helpers and a neighbor got her father upstairs to safety. “Another minute, and he would have drowned,” says Ung.
On Thursday, Macau’s Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on apologized on behalf of the government and admitted that his administration had been ill prepared for the impact of the storm. He also announced the resignation of Macau’s Meteorological and Geophysical Bureau director, Fong Soi-kun. But for Stogias, nobody has been really held accountable. “[Fong’s resignation] takes the responsibility [of other officials] away,” he says. “They removed the whole subject so then people can’t say anything. Case closed.”
—With reporting by Aria Chen/Macau