It had been rainy in Dalian for several days, and on Monday morning, there was a torrential downpour. By Monday afternoon, our school cancelled classes for the rest of the day and Tuesday because Typhoon Matsa was supposed to reach the northeastern coast of China. But seemingly from the time school was cancelled, the rain and wind ceased.
Our friend Patrick, who was a teacher in the Peace Corps with us in Namibia, has been here teaching for the summer. Determined to make the most of the day off school, he called all the Chinese and foreign teachers he knew of to go out and have a good time. Nearly every Chinese teacher declined, citing the typhoon (which had by this time been downgraded to a tropical storm). It wasn’t even raining. Zac and Pat went out with some of the other western teachers who were undeterred by the impending typhoon, but I stayed home because I had a bad cold and was well on my way to losing my voice.
Right after they left, one of the Chinese teachers, Felicia, called to say she wasn’t going to go out with them after all because the worst of the typhoon was supposed to hit around midnight, and she wouldn’t be able to get home. She tried calling Pat’s cell phone, but it was out of credit. I said I’d pass on the message if I heard from them.
Later that night, I was in bed, Zac was still out, and the neighbors suddenly started getting really noisy. There were all sorts of shouting and banging going on. Out of curiosity I got up and looked out the window to see what all the commotion was about. Nothing much seemed to be happening, so I went back to bed. The noise abated for a few minutes, then grew louder. I noted that it was midnight, about the time for the typhoon to strike us, according to Felicia. But still there was no rain or wind. I didn’t know what was going on, but something was certainly going on. Zac and I often joked about this sort of thing, like the building would be burning down or something, but we wouldn’t know it because no one would tell us and if they did, we wouldn’t understand.
I watched out the window for a while, trying to surmise what was happening. I saw everyone walking out of the building, carrying just a small bag and an umbrella. I shouted, “Hello? Hello? Does anyone speak English?” a few times from my 3rd story window and didn’t get any response. But everyone was definitely leaving. I thought, maybe the typhoon is coming and we are supposed to evacuate, since our neighborhood is only about two kilometers from the sea.
I tried to contact Zac by calling Pat’s cell phone, but there was no answer. I put on a pair of jeans, grabbed my umbrella, passport, some money, water, and our little book of phone numbers and put them in a small bag. I went to the window again, and this time I turned on the light and managed to attract the attention of two older men (almost everyone in our neighborhood is retired). They definitely didn’t speak any English, and didn’t understand my attempts at Chinese, but kept gesturing for me to come down. While I scribbled a note for Zac, someone started pounding on my door. I opened it to discover a plump Chinese woman, who gestured for me to come out and lightly pulled my arm to indicate the urgency. I grabbed my bag and left with her.
Once outside, I noticed many policeman, flashing lights, and a yellow “caution” ribbon drawn between our building and the next one. My chubby friend pointed to our building and held her arms up vertically, then rotated them horizontally, like an imitation of windshield wipers. I quickly realized that she was telling me our building was going to fall over. She pulled me over to the yellow ribbon and pointed to where part of the retaining wall below our building had collapsed. Our neighborhood is made up of apartments built up on a hill in a terraced style. All the rain had caused the soil to lose strength and part of the wall to collapse.
Someone who spoke English told me that busses were taking everyone to a school to spend the night, since if it rained more, the building wouldn’t be safe. I couldn’t leave without Zac, so I commandeered someone’s cell phone and called another friend who I thought might be out with them. It was strange that such a big event should happen on this night. Zac and I are almost never separated from each other. Justin answered his cell phone and handed it to Zac joking, “Uh-oh, Zac, you’re in trouble. It’s the wife.” Once Zac was on the phone, I said, “Zac, our apartment building might collapse. They’ve evacuated to building.” Zac, instantly sobered, replied, “What? Our building collapsed?” “No,” I shouted over the bar noise, “It MIGHT. The police won’t let anyone back inside. Where are you?” He said everyone was at JD’s, a club near Olympic Square. I thanked the cell phone owner, politely escaped my portly friend who wanted me to get on a bus and go to the school, and took a taxi to Olympic Square.
All of this happened quite fast. From the time I woke from the noise to the time I got in the taxi was only about ten minutes. Once in the taxi, I had some time to think and here is what I thought: All of our money is in the apartment along with our laptop. The computer was insured, but our school pays us with large piles of cash and we never bothered to open a bank account. What if the building does collapse? What if the typhoon does come, with more rain and high winds and our building falls over?
We stayed at the bar for a while, and the other teachers, though drunk, were sympathetic to our plight and offered us places to stay for the night. We ended up staying at Pat’s. I didn’t sleep very well that night, wondering if our building had collapsed and if looters had found our money and computer. But the typhoon never came.
On Tuesday morning, we took a taxi along with Pat back to our apartment. To our infinite relief, the building was still standing. The police had the area cordoned off, with little effectiveness, since people were everywhere. We called Felicia and explained the situation to her, then handed the phone to a policeman so she could ask him in Chinese if we were allowed to go back in. They talked for a while and the policeman handed the phone back to me. Felicia reported that he said it wasn’t guaranteed totally safe, but they were allowing people to go back in since it hadn’t rained any more. We went and surveyed the collapsed wall. We determined that it was far enough away from our building and, barring any more rain, would probably not cave in anymore.
All day today, and into the night, they’ve been working on the wall with a track hoe. The Chinese authorities are very efficient and seem to have the situation well under control. Looking back on last night, I can appreciate how quickly they responded to the situation and sent police and rescue workers to the scene, and had a place for the evacuated residents to go. We went out to check the progress several times today. The whole neighborhood is on the street, watching the work. With the absence of any more rain, everyone is staying in the buildings tonight. In the beginning, I was interested in the possibility of a typhoon, but in the end, I’m quite glad it never really made it all the way up to Dalian.
This link has some pictures of the flooding in Dalian on Monday morning.