Monday, 27 December 2010

Big scare no.1

Does anyone remember the El Nino scare of the 1990s? I can't remember when exactly it was but it must have been in the second half of that decade. Maybe around 1997 or 1998. It happened after Ban Hin Lee Bank had relocated its head office from downtown Beach Street to the fashionable Northam Road part of the city where many other banks had also set up their branches.

I remember that Citibank was the first bank to set up its branch office along Northam Road. It was just across the road from the Wellesley Primary School. The road being very busy, the bank later built a pedestrian bridge to connect both sides of the road. Butterfly bridge, people used to call it then. It's still there.

Then there was the white and impressive MBf Tower, close to the old Pangkor Road/Kelawei Road/Gurney Drive/Northam Road roundabout. It stood in solitary splendour until another building sprang up beside it and Ban Hin Lee Bank moved over to occupy about a third of its floors.

By that time, I was entrenched in the Information Technology Division and we had taken up the whole of the third level of the podium block. Where we sat, we had a grand, unhindered view of the Northern Channel.

But back to the El Nino scare. One fine day, someone wrote an article about the El Nino and the possibility of nature wreaking havoc on our shores. A date was even suggested that the tide would come in so high that the water would creep inshore and flood the roads and buildings. If ever there was a doomsday warning, this must be it.

Personally, I was sceptical that this would ever happen. I was telling colleagues that the day that the tides crept in so far inland, the end of the world would be near. And it won't be happening in my lifetime or theirs, I assured them.

But of course, many people took the warning very seriously. Many people stocked up on sandbags because they had also learnt, possibly from the same source that issued the warning, that sandbags would prevent water from entering their house or compound, or at least delay the flow of water. The happiest people in Penang were the traders that sold gunny sacks and the traders that sold sand.

The problem with banks is that sometimes, the people in the banks are too cautious. Overly cautious. Or gullible. Or both. Somehow, someone in the Ban Hin Lee Bank managed to convince the management that the bank should also arrange for sandbags to be piled up at the entrance to the building. Just in case. After all, the building is just a stone's throw from the shoreline. If the water comes it, it will reach the building. And get into the ground floor. And flood everything. And spoil everything on the ground floor too. So sandbags are important. After all, we cannot be too careful.

So, one or two days before that fateful day, we saw lorries delivering sandbags to the front of the building.

Now, if you have seen the Menara BHL Bank - by the way, that's the name of the building, Menara BHL Bank along Northam Road, Penang - you will have noticed that the ground floor of the building is raised about four or five feet from the road level. It is NOT a disability-friendly building and you will need to climb up a flight of steps if you want to do your banking business.

And the sandbags were stacked up on the top of these steps, see. Neatly, bag by bag, they formed a barrier against any impending water rushing in from the sea.

Of course it never happened. The fateful or fearful day came and went. Anxious people were peering out into the sea, anticipating the calamity. But it never happened. In fact, we hardly noticed any rise in the sea level at all. The houses most exposed to the sea, those on the other side of Northam Road, well, they remained dry. Not even a hint of dampness on their grounds.

The fearful El Nino phenomenon had been a non-event. But it certainly left a lot of people with sheepish grins. Especially those who had cried wolf. Especially those who had recommended buying the sandbags. Especially those who had authorised buying the sandbags. Nothing more was heard about the El Nino in the newspapers. Nothing more was heard about the author of that infamous piece. But as I said, the incident left gunny sack traders and sand traders very happy. Very happy, indeed.

Other Ban Hin Lee Bank stories here

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