This an extract from the forthcoming Winter issue of theWeather magazine. Join theWeather Club to read the whole article.
I would say it was the hailstorm from hell. It was 14th April 1999. I'd been in Australia a number of years doing different things, but at that particular point I was a professional didgeridoo player and teacher at a music school in eastern part in Sydney. We had invited a very famous didgeridoo player called Charlie McMahon to come and do some teaching, and he'd turned up in a brand new car. It was great.
Sydney gets a few of these storms, and they're normally preceded by a really strong wind – a 'southerly bluster' it's called – that comes out of nowhere. Tonight however that hadn't happened: we'd been told earlier there was a storm front that was moving up the south coast of Wollongong, but with no sign of the bluster, we weren't too worried. We were well into our didgeridoo lesson when we heard the first 'pop'.
""Pop, pop, pop,"" it went – big blocks of ice, the size of cricket balls, and at first it wasn't even clear it was a weather event. It was like someone was chucking ice from a building. When we all stopped playing and looked out the window, we saw the entire place was being destroyed. Roofs, cars – the magnitude and power of the storm was just phenomenal, and it basically wiped out a lot of the eastern suburbs. Many of the roofs just folded – people had ice coming into their homes – and the air just filled with the sound of car alarms as the hail attacked the windscreens.
Charlie's new car was a complete write-off – it looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer and pounded it, the dents were so big. The next morning the aerial photos just showed a sea of blue from all the blue tarpaulins that had been put over the damaged roofs. In the end, the actual storm only lasted about half an hour, but the cost to the area was huge – 1.7 billion Aussie dollars in total – and many of the people who were affected were hit again by the fact they didn't have insurance. Thank goodness the storm came in the evening, and no one was outside, as it meant there were no deaths and very few injuries. I dread to think what would happen if that sort of thing hit you.
Australia is a country that experiences a lot of extreme weather events like this, and the chances are climate change will increase the likelihood of them occurring. It was fortunate that this storm occurred in April, when it's dark in the evening and people tend to be indoors, but the conditions that produce hail can occur at almost any time of year. If it had been barbecue season, for example, it would have been a very different story.
For me, the sight of it raised a whole lot of stuff about what vulnerability meant. Even though in Sydney obviously people could deal with it, there were still those people who were poor and who didn't have insurance. And even if you're rich, in a storm of that magnitude you're still very vulnerable. You walk outside and you car is as mangled as the next person's. Extreme weather is a huge leveller.
It's events like that that make you aware of your own insignificance. Although it was terrifying when it first started, because there was just nothing we could really do but watch, my fear quickly gave way to utter fascination. Really, it was very beautiful. The storm dropped an estimated 500 tonnes of hailstones, and the ice was piled high. After the storm lots of people went out and collected the stones as a memento – they've still them in their freezers. It meant a lot of analysis could be done after the event.
That's the amazing thing about the weather. We can deny and ignore it up to a point, but when something extreme like this happens we're powerless in the face of it. It was instant, it was destructive, no one could blame anyone – it really was just the power of nature. All we could do was look on.