No warning: Freak windstorm takes Canberra by surprise as major clean-up gets underway

Originally published in The Canberra Times (January 14 2017)

A sentimental tree Fran Bopping planted more than 40 years ago with her late husband ended up crashing into the front room of the woman’s house in Macgregor during Friday’s short but intense storm.

Mrs Bopping was driving home from Goulburn during the freak weather event and was shocked to see the trees felled in her suburb. It wasn’t until she turned the corner into her street that she realised part of her home had been crushed by the old tree, which had snapped at the roots and come down on her front room.

“They’ve all got trees down, I thought ‘How terrible for them’. Then I came around the corner and saw mine down,” she said.

Mrs Bopping wasn’t the only Canberran surprised by the ferocity of Friday’s storm.

Residents of the territory received no official warning the strong winds, which left a trail of damage through the city and surrounds, were on the horizon.

Temperatures dropped nine degrees in nine minutes, trees were uprooted and homes damaged, while thousands were left without power.

After a scorching 39.6 degree day in the capital, the storm hit suddenly just after 4pm. The Bureau of Meteorology had not previously issued an extreme weather warning for the area.

“Although conditions were expected to be windy in Canberra, forecasters assessed that any damage would be confined to higher elevations and this was reflected in warnings issued,” a bureau spokesperson told Fairfax Media.

“As the showers approached and moved over Canberra, none of the recorded measurements suggested winds strong enough to damage property.”

ACT State Emergency Service acting chief officer Stephen Carter told Fairfax Media the service had received almost 800 calls for help since Friday’s storm.

A major clean-up was underway on Saturday, with 20 crews out around the territory.

Mrs Bopping was one such call. She applauded the SES volunteers who worked late into the night and were expecting to head back out on Sunday.

“They’re doing a great job under great difficulty.”

Mr Carter said the severity of damage would be assessed over the coming days.

“It’s a significant number of jobs and it’s had an impact on a significant number of people,” he said of the storms.

In Queanbeyan, a motorcyclist was transported to Queanbeyan hospital on Friday evening after a near miss with a falling tree.

A police spokesman said the rider swerved and fell off his bike after a tree fell on the road in front of him. He said the rider, who had minor injuries, was lucky to escape without serious harm.

Mr Carter said no other serious injuries had been reported.

The National Capital Authority reported damage across the Parliamentary Triangle with about 250 trees damaged or felled by the strong winds. A large tree fell on parts of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, however no one was injured.

The spokeswoman said there was a “significant amount of debris” floating in Lake Burley Griffin and warned lake users to beware. Aspen Island was closed temporarily due to damage to trees, which were causing concerns for public safety.

In other parts of the capital, around 16,000 Canberrans struggled through power outages.

ActewAGL said the storm had caused “major damage” to its electricity network, bringing down power poles and damaging service cables at homes.

Late on Saturday afternoon, 2000 people remained without power across the territory and were advised to prepare for another night without electricity as crews continued repairs.

Mr Carter said he expected most of the major storm clean-up would be completed over the weekend, but there could be ongoing work for those returning from holiday.


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