By Tara Subramanian, Taylor Ward and Shirin Zia Faqiri | CNN
Schools closed and flights were canceled as Hong Kong hoisted its third highest storm warning early Friday morning in anticipation of Typhoon Saola, which is expected to brush the city later in the day and could be its worst storm in five years.
Saola lost super typhoon status as winds dropped from 240 kilometers per hour (150 miles per hour) to 220 kph (140 mph), though still remains the equivalent of a Category 4 hurricane. The storm previously impacted parts of northeastern Philippines.
The Joint Typhoon Warning Center projects that the storm will get closest to Hong Kong and China’s southern Guangdong Province Friday night but the center of the storm will remain offshore. The storm is expected to weaken as it approaches to become the equivalent of Category 2 hurricane.
The Hong Kong Observatory (HKO) issued a T8 storm warning signal at 2:40am local time Friday morning, escalating from the lower category T3 on Thursday afternoon.
During a press conference Thursday afternoon, Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary Eric Chan announced all schools would be closed Friday, which was set to be the first day of the academic year for most institutions.
Depending on the ultimate track of the typhoon, HKO has warned that higher signals are possible. The city’s highest storm warning alert is a signal T10, which was last issued in 2018 for Typhoon Mangkhut.
During Thursday’s press conference, experts suggested the storm surge for Saola could reach similar levels as seen with Mangkhut, which killed 10 people in neighboring Macau and caused significant damage in Hong Kong.
Ahead of the typhoon, Hong Kong’s flagship airline Cathay Pacific halted all flights to and from Hong Kong from Friday afternoon through Saturday morning, the airline said in a statement Thursday.
“With the exception of CX840/1 September to New York-JFK, all Cathay Pacific flights arriving in and departing from Hong Kong between 2pm on Friday, 1 September and 10 am on Saturday, 2 September have been cancelled,” Cathay Pacific said on their website.
Cathay Pacific warned of potential further flight delays and cancellations “based on weather conditions and the typhoon’s path on Saturday morning.”
Passengers will be rebooked on the next scheduled flight if their current flight is canceled or delayed, Cathay Pacific said. The airline also urged customers check the status of their flight before coming to the airport.
Hong Kong is no stranger to tropical cyclones and typhoons and generally has a good track record in recent decades of getting through even direct hits with low casualty figures.
The last T8 warning was issued in July for Typhoon Talim and three were issued the previous year, according to HKO.