Behind glitz of casinos, typhoon exposes Macau's infrastructure woes

MACAU (Reuters) - The glitzy exterior of Macau crumbled after a super typhoon steamrolled through the gambling center, exposing critical infrastructure flaws and overwhelmed emergency services.

A man holds a shovel as People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers walking on a damaged street after Typhoon Hato hits in Macau, China August 25, 2017. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Macau, a former Portuguese colony until 1999, was battered this week by Typhoon Hato, one of the strongest on record. At least nine people died, many are still missing and half the city remains without water and power.

Once a sleepy enclave, the Chinese special administrative region over the past decade has seen opulent gambling palaces like the Venetian and Wynn Macau multiply, but critical public infrastructure has failed to keep pace, residents said.

“It’s a long-time story of incompetence and a lack of caring to find a solution,” said Jose Coutinho, a lawmaker in the Macau legislature, referring to lack of progress in tackling infrastructure problems. He added that with casino revenues booming, there was little pressure to do anything different.

Sewage and power systems were still paralyzed Friday, more than 48 hours after the typhoon hit Wednesday, as the city sweltered in temperatures that hit 31 degrees Celsius.

At Macau’s only public hospital, Conde S. Januário Hospital, airconditioning was limited to sections. Queues of people could be seen in the main reception area while the emergency ward was packed with patients, particularly the elderly.

“The situation is very urgent” said Jeffery Hong, who had volunteered to help out at the hospital, as he donned gloves and a mask outside the emergency ward.

The overburdened hospital, with its cracked white walls, contrasts sharply with the glitz of the city’s 37 casinos, particularly the Grand Lisboa, located a short walk away, which were also struggling to get up and running Friday.

A new public hospital for Macau is in the planning stages but authorities have given no concrete timeline for completion. Other developments, meanwhile, like a light rail service for the teeming city are massively delayed and over budget.

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Furious residents also said that Macau, home to 600,000 people, was woefully underprepared for the storm and that the government acted too late in issuing warnings about the typhoon.

On Friday, Chinese soldiers made a rare trip out of their barracks to help bolster Macau’s relief efforts, with much of the city still reeling.

Some 500 residents also turned out to help clean up the city and streets, which were clogged with toppled trees and debris.

At Macau’s main ferry terminal, no flushing water was available in the toilets. Outside, where tourists waited for buses to take them to the casinos, a car with its windscreen shattered had tipped off the end of an overpass into a flooded street.

“Many old people who work on the streets are in hospital so we need to help clean up,” said Hong, the volunteer at the hospital.

Macau’s public facilities need a desperate upgrade, said Sophie Lei, founder of the KW Charity Association, as she lamented deaths that she said were easily avoidable.

“I am so shocked that people drowned inside a carpark and this happened in one of the richest places,” she said, referring to several people drowned while trying to rescue their cars.

Macau’s government, flush with tax revenues from the gaming industry, has accumulated a massive budget surplus and doles out an annual cash handout to residents. Expenditure on public infrastructure has been less than half of government revenues, however, and economists have been calling for higher public spending.

Corruption and inefficiency has also dogged the government. In 2007 the former secretary for transport and public works, Ao Man-Long, was jailed for bribery, money laundering and abuse of power. In July, Ho Chio Meng, the territory’s chief public prosecutor until 2014 was jailed over the illegal awarding of 2,000 public contracts.

That has made many residents cynical about the reasons for the disastrous aftermath of the typhoon.

Wong Kit-wah, who came to Macau in the 1970s and now works as a construction contractor, blamed corruption for the territory’s lack of preparation for the storm.

“Although this is a natural disaster the losses shouldn’t be so massive,” he said.

Raimundo Rosario, secretary for transport and public works and one of a new slate of government officials put in place in 2014, has been struggling to complete all the new infrastructure planned by the government previously scheduled for 2019.

Casinos in Macau, which have been relying on back up generators, were trying to get back to business Friday.

At the Grand Lisboa, the airconditioning had started to work but most restaurants remained shut. Some hotels had stopped checking in new guests due to a lack of power and water.

“Its like we have gone back to the stone age,” said a casino executive who declined to be named due to company policy.

“People have to queue on the street for water? It is unbelievable to have no power and water more than 48 hours after,” the executive said. “How can the government claim we are a first world city?”

Reporting by Farah Master; additional reporting by Venus Wu