Sunday, March 7

Australia: Record rains of "Biblical proportions" end Brisbane's ten-year drought as mini-cyclone unleashes chaos on Melbourne. (UPDATE 3:10 AM ET)

Bureau of Meteorology forecaster Wasyl Drosdowsky said the hail that hit in one suburban area was up to 10 centimetres (four inches) in diameter. '(It was) tennis ball size roughly,' he said. 'As far as we can tell, that's close to the biggest hail we've seen in Melbourne.' As the city readied for further violent storms on Sunday, once-in-a-century floods were peaking in the state of Queensland in the country's northeast, parts of which have been in drought for almost a decade. Townships in the state's cotton-growing south were cut off by rising flood waters and in St George the Balonne River reached 13.5 metres (44 feet), its highest level since records began in 1890. -- AFP

Office workers across Melbourne escaped injury as waterlogged roofs collapsed, and in what might be read as a cosmic editorial statement the Bureau of Meteorology was one of the affected buildings. Mercifully it was a Saturday so while many caught outside at a big horse race and Melbourne's Moomba festival reported welts and bruises from wind-lashed hail that ranged in size from marbles to golf balls to tennis balls, there were no deaths and nobody was seriously injured.

AFP reported that the mini-cyclone, with winds clocked in excess of 62 mph, struck Melbourne at 2:50 PM (Australia time) today, dumping 19 millimetres (three-quarters of an inch) of rain in just 18 minutes on Australia's second city, and brought an inch (2.5 centimeters) of rain in less than an hour. The hail was so huge and blanketed the ground so fast that Melbourne looked as if it'd been hit by a snowstorm.

"It was a very dangerous thunderstorm," said the weather bureau's senior forecaster Richard Carlyon. "We don't often see storm cells like that." One report mentioned that the storm was the worst Melbourne had seen in 38 years. However, many residents reported that the "shock and awe" storm was like nothing they'd ever seen.

Up in Queensland state, a cliffhanger emerged in a series of towns as record rains fell. Earth Times reported:
The 3,000 people of waterlogged St George in Australia's formerly drought-affected northeast were gleeful Saturday after learning the Balonne River would not top a record set 120 years ago, when it peaked at 14 metres. A fresh high-water mark would mean more evacuations and put 80 per cent of houses at risk of inundation.

"You have got no idea how relieved we are," Mayor Donna Stewart said after the river peaked at 13.5 metres. "It was just absolutely wonderful news that our community was safer than they thought they were going to be."

St George, 513 kilometres west of Brisbane, is the latest of a string of country towns threatened by water barreling down rivers that had been mostly trickles over the 10-year drought.

"Outside my window is something resembling the Mississippi River," said St George resident and local member of parliament Barnaby Joyce.

Joyce had sympathy for thousands dealing with sodden furniture and ruined electrical appliances but urged his constituents to take a long-term view.

"Water is money, water is cotton, water is grapes, water is wheat, water is cattle," Joyce, a former accountant, said.

The volume of water has been of Biblical proportions, with veterans of many floods saying this year's wet had beaten all records.

A record for the amount of water falling in a single day over the region set in 1956 was smashed last week.

Keith de Lacy, the chief of 93,000-hectare cotton farm 490 kilometres west of Brisbane, said the property's massive water storages were filling up fast.

Already, there is enough irrigation water for one-year's cropping. "It's just brilliant," de Lacy said. "People are cheering and walking around with smiles on their faces."

Many farmers in central Queensland have survived the drought only though going into debt. The billions of litres of water now powering down the region's rivers will help shift bank balances back into the black.

The floods cannot come soon enough for de Lacy's Cubbie Station, which is being chased by bankers for 320 million Australian dollars (288 million US dollars) in mortgage arrears.

Like a ball on a pinball machine, the water cascades down the river system, inundating towns as it goes.

Theodore, just south of St George, is the next with an urgent flood warning. Theodore homes and shops are being sandbagged as the Dawson River heads towards 13 metres. An evacuation centre has been set up and householders are expected to stay up until the all-clear is given.
That's a heck of a way to escape foreclosure. Back to Victoria state: The Herald Sun yesterday:
Thousands of people were stranded across Melbourne last night as the city was thrown into chaos. It began minutes after the storm hit, with roads and public transport networks shut down. ... [S]treets looked like rivers moments after the downpour as the city's infrastructure failed because of flooding. Many people caught in the rain could only watch in awe as cafe stools were swept away from footpaths, stairwells became waterfalls and sirens sounded from emergency vehicles through the city as the storm passed over. Hundreds of shops were forced to close immediately due to flooding, roof collapses and broken windows.
Melbourne is the most populous city in the small state of Victoria and also the second most populous city in Australia. The city is located on the large natural bay known as Port Phillip, with the city's center positioned at the estuary of the Yarra River (at the northern-most point of the bay), according to Wikipedia.

More violent storms are on the way for the region. From the West Australian on Saturday:
Melburnians should expect another dose of nasty weather on Sunday, with rain of up to 100 mm forecast. ...
The storm forced the cancellation of the NAB Cup AFL football game between Brisbane and Geelong.

In an ironic twist, the game was only rescheduled to Melbourne at the last minute because of poor weather all week on the Gold Coast, where the match was supposed to be played.

Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster Scott Williams described the weather as a "super cell storm," the likes of which are only seen in Melbourne about once every five to 10 years.

"What you get with the super cell thunderstorm that we've had is that the clouds actually do rotate around a centre of low pressure," he said.

"It is like a mini-cyclone."

The SES received more than 2500 calls for help, with 1,000 coming from the Knox area, in Melbourne's outer east.

By about 8pm (AEDT) only 500 of the jobs had been cleared and spokesman Andrew Gissing urged people to be patient.

Thirty thousand CitiPower and Powercor Australia customers in the central business district and inner suburbs lost power, with 8000 still without supply about 9 pm.

Metro spokesman Chris Whitefield said delays across the entire train network were about 40 minutes.

Trains on the Sandringham line were suspended and buses replaced trains on sections of the Alamein, Belgrave and Pakenham lines. ...

Mr Williams said it was likely there would be more storms across the state on Sunday, but they would not be as severe as Saturday's deluge.

"Tomorrow I think there is a good chance that we'll get some severe thunderstorms once again," he said.

"It's pretty much the whole state. We're under a major tropical air mass with a low pressure system coming in from the west."

The weather bureau later issued a flood warning for the Upper Murray, Mitta Mitta, Kiewa, Ovens and King catchments.

By 10 pm on Saturday, the SES had received more than 3100 calls for help, with almost half coming from the Knox area, and about 1000 of the jobs had been cleared.
If you've been reading closely you might wonder how long before the storm struck that Melbourne meteorologists had known about a "major tropical air mass with a low pressure system coming in from the west," and whether planners for the big outdoor events on Saturday had paid attention to signs that a cyclone could be brewing. However, I suppose that kind of weather pattern is so unusual in Australia that people there can be excused for being caught off guard. There will be less excuse if the weather doesn't let up and the Queensland residents in harm's way aren't evacuated to safety.

Report from ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corp.) three hours ago:
Thunderstorms are moving across Victoria as the state recovers from yesterday's wild weather which left a trail of destruction.

Melbourne is still mopping up after heavy rain and hail up to 10 centimetres in diameter pelted the city causing flash flooding and building damage.

The weather bureau has issued a severe thunderstorm warning for northern and central Victoria and the storms are currently moving across the state.

The weather bureau's Ted Williams says an intense storm has just passed through Shepparton, but is weakening as it moves south.

"We haven't had any reports of much in Victoria, but a little bit earlier in the day it was going through Deniliquin and we have had a report of very strong winds and some tree damage there," he said.

"And just looking at the radar there's a strong possibility of large hail as well."
And so far, a "magnificant response" from St George's community to the storm: the "evacuation centre has worked well and all their planning really paid off." The bad news is the price tag for the storm in nearby areas. From AAP via The Sydney Morning Herald:
Once-in-a-century flooding has caused hundreds of millions of dollars damage in southwest Queensland, with authorities focusing on a number of hard-hit communities after the town of St George escaped the worst.

St George, the township at the centre of one of the state's major cotton-growing regions, was spared a potentially ruinous river level peak of 14 metres on Saturday.

But the record-breaking flooding is causing problems for the townships of Thallon, Bollon and Dirranbandi, south of St George.

The water has breached the levee at the Moonie River at Thallon, and road access to all three regional communities has been cut off.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said the damage bill from the flooding was expected to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Without a doubt, this will be a damage bill in the hundreds of millions of dollars," she told reporters as she toured St George on Sunday.

"There's been major cuts to highways, we have seen railway lines washed away.

"This is a massive water event which has smashed all the records known here in the southwest.

"All this water ultimately is going to mean great things for local primary producers but there is a lot of pain to be felt in these communities before we can see total recovery."

Ms Bligh, who was also set to tour the Dirranbandi area on Sunday, said all shires across the southwest region would be eligible for disaster relief assistance.

She said the costs of the damage would be shared by all levels of government but urged people to dig deep and donate to the state government's flood appeal. [...]

The community of St George had been preparing for the Balonne River to reach 14 metres on Saturday evening, which would have inundated 80 per cent of the town.

But the level was subsequently downgraded to 13.5m - still the highest level since recordings began in 1890.

Balonne Shire mayor Donna Stewart said St George had escaped the worst and the town should be back on its feet in a week.

Ms Stewart said the main priority now was Thallon, Bollon and Dirranbandi.

Ms Bligh said additional SES resources would be brought in to help St George on Sunday afternoon and over the next couple of days, and authorities were also focusing on assistance for residents of Thallon.

"Overnight Thallon had a very serious influx of water which has breached their levee and we'll be looking to ensure that they can be assisted in their recovery as well," Ms Bligh said.

Twenty-five homes in St George were inundated with water and about 40 of the town's 2800 residents displaced by the flooding moved to a make-shift evacuation centre at the showgrounds.

"This community has had a magnificent response, their evacuation centre has worked well and all their planning really paid off," Ms Bligh said.

Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce, who lives in St George, commended the work of the community and all levels of government.

"We've been working flat out sandbagging and helping people in the emergency centre," he said.

But efforts would now be centred on Thallon and Dirranbandi because the river levee had been breached.

"The problem we've got is trying to get access to there," he said.

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