ThinkingShift’s wild night

June 10, 2007 at 9:27 am 7 comments

Nasa imageFrom the media, you may have picked up news about severe storms lashing the Eastern coast of Australia – specifically, the Newcastle area, which is where I live. Friday night (June 8th) was THE wildest night I’ve ever experienced. I thought I was in a hurricane (not that I’ve ever been in one).

It had been raining all day but around 9.00pm that night, the winds started to pick up. After four hours of driving rain and winds whirling trees and debris around, 1.00am was probably the worst time. We had winds of up to 120km per hour. I was really worried about a beautiful, large ghost gum to the side of our house – we’re in ‘the bush”, in a two-storey home, the top storey of which sits high in the tree canopy. The old ghost gum was swinging left and right, grimly holding on; gum trees around our house were being buffeted this way and that. But it was the noise: rain pounding down on the roof and verandahs; the cacophany of sound: a mixture of faithful old trees bending and creaking; bird cries; branches flinging sharply against glass windows. My elderly mother (recently discharged from hospital having been on the brink) scared to death in her bedroom, imagining that the verandah in front of her room was about to collapse and take her with it.

And all of this in the pitch black – more than 100,000 homes suffered an electricity blackout, including ours. Out came torches casting an eerie glow over an already eerie scene going on outside the house – an ebony sky being lit up by bright, angry flashes of golden lightning; gum leaves swirling upwards; a poor water-drenched possum valiantly making its way across our back verandah seeking shelter from the tempest.

Our companion during this time was a local radio station. Many had been knocked out by the blackout, but one was still broadcasting (I think it was 2HD). Gathering around the old battery-powered radio, we listened to constant updates: elderly women phoning in, alone and frightened that their house was about to collapse; families ringing in to say that trees had fallen across major roadways sometimes with live electricity wires entangled; news of a poor Maltese terrier practically up to its neck in a backyard swirling with water, its pet bed floating (the owner arrived home in time to save the terrier and dry it off). We heard of a young girl who had been at a sports match in Sydney and had caught the Sydney to Newcastle train home (possibly the same one I usually catch). A train in front was hit by a rock; the passengers were forced to get off and walk 2km in the blinding rain; her parents worried to death because they couldn’t reach their daughter by mobile phone.

By about 3.00am, it was quite calm. In fact, I found it a bit too calm. Someone phoning into the radio station asked whether this was a hurricane and whether the calm was the eye of the storm. The gale force winds had died down and lightning only occasionally lit up a dessicated landscape. We heard nothing: no emergency vehicles whizzing their sirens; no cars going by our house. Just spooky silence.

Around 5.00am if I remember well, it started to rain again but we managed to get some sleep. The morning light revealed a torn landscape: we’d lost screens off windows; our water tank was in danger of sliding down the hill, maybe taking our house with it (we’re on a steep property); leaves and branches embedded in window screens; a couple of poor dead birds. The sky was a murky, dirty dark grey colour, threatening to burst its seams at any minute.

From our house, we can just see the ocean off Newcastle, where the bulk carrier, Pasha Bulker, was in real trouble at Nobbys Beach.The $40 million ship was holding 780 tonnes of oil and fuel on board and was being repeatedly pounded by heavy seas. If it broke up, a marine disaster would take place. We could see the angry waves thrashing against the coastline, cresting with white froth – a bit like a cappucino. So far the Pasha Bulker is holding up.

And then we heard about the human tragedy that had taken place: a man swept into a stormwater drain; a family of five, including three small children, dead following the collapse of a section of road, which opened up a giant fissure; a 29-year old man killed when a large tree crashed onto his car; a retired couple who made a tragic decision – to cross a bridge over a swollen creek.

The Newcastle area was declared a natural disaster area. And in times of disaster, people band together and help. We heard of managers at a large shopping centre (usually the target of complaints due to shopping centre extensions) helping elderly people home; workers and volunteers working tirelessly to assist the injured and distressed; someone who dived into a whirling, flooded drain to pull out a 15-year old boy. The heroic and selfless spirit burning brightly. But natural disasters can also bring out the worst in people – thieves broke into an abandoned ambulance and stole radios and medical equipment.

The TV showed us images of debris and rubbish floating in roiling waters that used to be a main street in Hamilton; a white car being carried away by a torrent of dirty water, the tail lights flashing red as the driver desperately, but fruitlessly, tried to apply the brakes; massive floodwaters threatening the township of Maitland (which is currently bracing itself as the Hunter River may breach its levee tonight). Hundreds of people homeless; pets lost; possessions ruined.

People are comparing this disaster to that of the Newcastle earthquake of 1989. It’s the first natural disaster I’ve experienced. Despite all my years of adventurous travel to places like Nicaragua; the USSR pre-collapse; and Rwanda amongst others – I’ve thankfully never been threatened or felt scared. I had to experience this in my own country I guess.

I haven’t seen anything written on this yet, but I wonder whether this unusual weather is caused by global warming. I was slammed for a post I did recently on global warming, on one of those community based internet news websites. I was referred to as “one of those whining greenies who falsely believe in GW” (or something like this) – the hilarity of this was the person making the comment has a website devoted to “modern drinking”, with such gems as “wisdom for winos”. So maybe this disaster was caused by some unusual weather aberration; or maybe it’s one of the first signs of global warming for the Eastern coast of Australia. And I wonder how well equipped our emergency services and infrastructure is to cope with future climate change impacts. Certainly, there was a great effort on the part of all emergency services, but what if this is just the beginning?

Bizarre I’m sure to have a photo of the space shuttle Atlantis launching off into the darkness of space, but it reminds me of heroism, the sort we’ve seen displayed by everyday Australians during this awful natural disaster in Newcastle. So it seems fitting – good luck Atlantis.

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Entry filed under: Climate Change, Natural disasters, Reflections.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. gcaptain  |  June 10, 2007 at 12:04 pm

    One of my jobs as a ship’s officer working in the Gulf of Mexico is weather avoidance and I had the pleasure of tracking hurricane Katrina. Global warming and public attitude towards preparation for major disasters play a role in tragedy…. the question is; how significant is each part of the larger pie?

    We have some coverage on the human factor over at our mariner’s blog: http://gcaptain.com/maritime/blog/

    -John

    Reply
  • 2. thinkingshift  |  June 10, 2007 at 12:26 pm

    Hi John

    The video of the helicopter rescue of the crew is amazing, thx for the link!
    Kim

    Reply
  • 3. Lyle Stone  |  June 11, 2007 at 1:30 am

    We have been having an interesting time up here on the Central Coast. Half our suburbs are still out of power, but the water has gone done now.
    I’ll try promote this post on my blog.
    There are a few images over at my blog of the damage caused if you want to check it out.

    Reply
  • […] There is an interesting blog here about the storm damage that hit Newcastle from ThinkingShift. […]

    Reply
  • 5. thinkingshift  |  June 11, 2007 at 1:40 am

    Hi Lyle

    Hope things are getting better on the Central Coast. The worst of the storm for us was June 8th but June 9th was pretty wild too. News reports I’ve just listened to are speculating that it might have been some sort of mini-tornado. I’ll check out your blog and thx for visiting Thinkingshift.
    Kim

    Reply
  • 6. James Dellow  |  June 12, 2007 at 7:48 am

    Glad to hear you survived the weekend and are still blogging! A colleague in Newcastle is still recovering from having no power and went to work just to use the facilities 🙂 Of course, where I am further south in Wollongong we got off pretty lightly (this time at least). However, I saw a few people getting very wet down at the harbour – see http://www.flickr.com/photos/scttw/535709079/in/set-72157594540438643/

    Reply
  • 7. thinkingshift  |  June 12, 2007 at 7:51 am

    Thx James :)- wild surf in the Gong for sure. Let’s hope there’s no repeat of this weather for a long time.
    Kim

    Reply

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