It would go down in history as Australia’s most compact tropical cyclone. Gale force winds reached over 200 kilometres an hour, but extended less than fifty kilometres from the centre of the storm … which passed right over the city. The Age would describe it as a disaster of the first magnitude, without parallel in the country’s history. US satellites were the first to record a large mass forming over the sea. The next day they reported a circular centre among the spiralling clouds that were already moving onshore. It reached Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale before making landfall. Coming like Christmas. Destroying more than 70-percent of buildings in the CBD, it resulted in billions of dollars in damage and catastrophic loss of life. No one was prepared. Most of the population were evacuated in time – to Sydney, Adelaide, or Brisbane – but many remained, thinking it was simply an unusually overcast day, with particularly low clouds and strong sideways rain. We would soon realise weather never needed us to weaponise it.
Some saw it as an omen, a sign of things to come: the meteorological phenomenon born of the same conditions that would be repeated, exactly, the week after with far more devastating consequences. Hot gusty winds, preceding a strong but dry cold front, whipped 50,000 tonnes of topsoil – loosened by the worst drought in Australian history – into a vast cloud of red dust and sand. It wasn’t long before the dark mass moved on the city. Within an hour the sky was obscured. Visibility plunged to a mere hundred metres and traffic was brought to a standstill. Fed by strong northerly winds that uprooted trees, temperatures rose to a new February record … then rapidly dropped as the cool change kicked in. People caught out in the freak storm huddled in doorways, covering their mouths against the choking dust. In some areas of the state the cloud extended thousands of feet into the atmosphere. It was 300 metres high when it struck the capital. This time, we saw it coming.
Registering 5.6 on the Richter scale, the earthquake was felt over a 200,000 square kilometre area. While it wasn’t focused directly under the city, the quake moved in waves straight towards the CBD. The unreinforced masonry of mid-century buildings, combined with sea-corroded steel and alluvial foundation soils – some dredged from the main river, others underlain by former courses that had been filled in (naturally, or by man) – made the city vulnerable. It would prove a fatal combination. While the event took just seconds, the impact lasted far longer, emerging in the songs and stories of survivors. Some claimed construction – mining and housing developments – was a factor, but the idea was quickly discredited. How could Man have any impact on such an epic natural event? We focused on rebuilding. On building better.
It was the costliest natural disaster in Australia’s history, unleashing more than the 500,000 tonnes of hail, but only one person died – a lone fisherman a hundred feet from shore whose boat was hit by lightening. The Bureau of Meteorology’s inability to predict the super-cell’s extreme attributes and erratic nature shook citizens’ confidence. Officials were repeatedly caught off guard by the storm’s changes in direction and its unexpected duration. The only early clue was a slight instability in atmospheric conditions. History suggested it was highly improbable that an Easter storm would maintain such intensity or do much damage, and at first the front did run parallel to the coast … but then it veered onshore, dropping massive hailstones – some up to thirteen centimetres across – on houses and businesses. The bureau downgraded its severity when it seemed to dissipate, but we were wrong again. Back onshore it came, hurtling inland without warning. Battering the city from the north. We turned as one to face the coming storm.
The firestorm – unleashing the equivalent energy of 1500 Hiroshima-sizes atomic bombs – was Australia’s worst-ever natural disaster, resulting in the greatest loss of life: nearly two hundred people and over a million animals. The result of extreme weather conditions – included a slow-moving high-pressure system over the Tasman Sea, an intense tropical low off the north west coast, and a monsoon trough in the north that directed hot tropical air down south – arsonists were also arrested. North-easterlies came barrelling in at over 100 kilometres an hour … following hot on the heels of a heatwave that had included three days greater than 43 degrees. At its peak, the city would record its hottest temperature of over 46 degrees, with humidity at less than two percent. As many as 400 individual fires were eventually recorded across the tinder-dry state. Smoke would carry to New Zealand, and even be recorded Antarctica. Never again would we be so unprepared. Never again would communication be late or information out of date. Next time – because we knew there would be a next time – the city would be ready.
This story is part of the Future Stories project with RMIT’s non/fictionLab and creative writing program, which paired writing students with academics to produce creative responses to themes explored during Melbourne Knowledge Week 2019. Come along to Chorus of voices on Thursday 23 May, 10am to 11am to hear from the students and staff involved in the project.