cumulonimbusWe don't get Tornadoes here

Australians are funny about tornadoes. Most of us have a strong belief that they don't occur here. It's hard to shake. Sure, we have violent thunderstorms. Hailstones as big as cricket balls. Violent winds that blow down trees over wide areas. But no tornadoes. They only occur in America -- like in the movie Twister. In America but not here.

We get tropical cyclones. They call them hurricanes in America. Everybody here who's old enough remembers when Cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin on Christmas Eve in 1974. But suggest that winds from a violent thunderstorm that destroy property or take lives might be a tornado, and everyone talks about damaging wind gusts or mini-cyclones. Never tornadoes.

We have dust devils. They're know locally as willy-willies. Most of us who have driven out in the Bush during a summer drought have seen them. Columns of swirling dust being sucked high into the clear blue sky. My brother even ran into one, once. He says it was cool inside. Plenty of people have seen water spouts descending from storms out to sea. But tornadoes? No. We don't get tornadoes here.

I grew up with this belief too. A year or so ago, I learnt otherwise.

We drove down to the coast one morning in mid April. We were visiting my wife's parents who live in Merimbula. It's a picturesque holiday town set in the Bush, on an inlet from the Pacific, in the south eastern corner of the continent. The day was already warm when we left. The Autumn sun still had a kick to it. As we drove south from Canberra, there were signs of castellatus in the sky, indicating unstable weather. Thick wisps of cirrus were moving in from the south west. A cold front was on its way. Violent thunderstorms were forecast for the south east of the state for that evening.

But the day was sunny and pleasant and we enjoyed the three hour drive down. Winter would be here in a month or so, so the warmth was welcome.

We reached Merimbula in time for lunch. The house is built on a ridge, half way down from the hilltop to the lake shore. The view is spectacular. It looks out over the lake to the south, across to the sandy spit known as Fishpen, and beyond to the Pacific Ocean. In the distance you can see the hamlet of Pambula Beach. It also gives an excellent view of approaching weather.

CumulonimbusBy mid afternoon the clouds had started to build over the mountains to the west. By late afternoon the clouds were thickening and starting to move over us from the north west. The local AM radio station was being interrupted by bursts of lightning static. Thunderstorms were on the way. It would be a boisterous night.

turbulenceWe heard the first rumble of thunder around six o'clock. The sun had set and the clouds were bringing darkness earlier than normal. There followed more flashes of lighting. The air was still but the delay between lightning flash and thunder was diminishing. A big storm was approaching. Perhaps more than one.

gathering stormWe ate the evening meal to the accompaniment of the lightning and thunder, and bursts of heavy rain. With the dishes cleared away, we turned the television on. This was more to distract us from the increasingly fierce storm outside than because there was anything worth watching. It would probably have been smarter to leave it off and avoid electrical damage from a lightning strike. No-one would admit they were worried.

After a while we stopped paying attention to the television and talked about the storm. It was violent indeed. The wind came in great gusts, its roar blurring into the continuous boom of the thunder. The tall eucalypts were being torn back and forth violently by the wind. Every few seconds they were lit in ghastly brilliance against the blackness of the sky, or silhouetted against the lightning-lit clouds.

As the storm reached its peak, during a particularly violent gust, we heard the heavy tiles on the roof lift and clatter back into place, as if some giant vacuum cleaner had briefly sucked them up and released them again.

But then the peak passed. After another hour, the storms had subsided. The main centre had moved south and east. Gradually the wind decreased in strength and the lightning moved into the distance. The rain stopped. The remainder of the night was quiet, the stillness broken only by the chirp of crickets and distant frogs.

The next morning I was woken at seven thirty by the telephone. It was my mother calling from Canberra. She sounded worried. "Are you allright?" she asked.

"Of course I'm allright", I replied. "Why shouldn't I be?"

"The tornado", she answered. "We just heard it on the news. The Merimbula tornado".

"What?? What tornado??" I was startled.

"It was on the radio. They said that Merimbula was hit by a tornado last night at about eight. Over a hundred houses smashed to bits and damage everywhere. It went right through the middle of the town."

"Good heavens" was all I could think to say. I collected my thoughts. "Well, there was an exceptionally violent thunderstorm last night. And the wind rattled the roof tiles briefly at one point. But so far as I know there's nothing damaged around here."

I reassured her that, yes, we were fine and nothing was damaged nearby, and we were quite safe.

I went out onto the deck. It was a fine bright sunny autumn morning. Not a trace of the previous night's violence. None of the nearby trees were damaged. There were a few small branches scattered about here and there, torn from the upper limbs, but nothing that couldn't be explained by a normal vigorous thunderstorm.

I went in and turned on the radio. Lots of reports of the tornado. It was the main item on the state and national news. They interviewed people caught up in it. Everyone called it a mini-cyclone. They wouldn't call it a tornado. Funny about that.

Miraculously no-one had been hurt. A lot of houses had been destroyed, the bowling club badly damaged and a motel completely wrecked. It had hit Merimbula from the north, gone through part of the town, disappeared before it reached the main street, then had come ashore again at Pambula Beach, a few miles south, where it had mangled a caravan park, gone up the hill and had left a trail of devastated houses, before disappearing into the Bush.

We decided to go into town and see for ourselves. The roads were closed in several places, so we had to work our way around back streets to get into the middle of town. There were yellow State Emergency Service vehicles everywhere, and the place was crawling with people in SES uniforms. There were also plentiful signs of recent devastation. Trees smashed, their trunks torn in half. The main town car park was covered in building debris. Smashed timber, roofing iron all over the place, and yellow fibreglass insulation draped over power lines. Immediately above the car park were the remains of a motel, its entire upper story removed and spread around the district. People had started to collect the debris into a huge pile.

We walked up the hill, past all the mess. Everywhere you could see the damage. Road signs twisted and bent over sideways. Trees decapitated. The bowling club had been damaged badly. Roofing lifted, windows smashed, the lawns on the bowling greens neatly rolled up into giant Swiss Rolls and dumped over a ten foot fence into the adjacent tennis courts. We heard somebody say something about a woman who had been sitting in the clubhouse in the evening, drinking. Suddenly the window was sucked out and she started to follow, dragged by the vacuum. Somebody with presence of mind caught hold of her by the legs and stopped her from disappearing out into the night. Another version of the story said it was a man, not a woman.

More stories about narrow escapes were spreading among the people surveying the damage. One said that a man had been watching the storm from his balcony to the north of the town. Right in the damage path. Suddenly half a dozen large heavy potted plants just below him were sucked up into the sky, pots and all, never to be seen again. He wasn't touched. His house was wrecked.

We walked past the club to look over the valley to the north. There was a clearly marked trail of damage through the houses on the north of town. It was quite narrow, only two or three houses wide. You could see more yellow SES vehicles dotting the landscape. The houses appeared to have been totally mashed.

We left town and drove across the bridge over the inlet to Fishpen, where we'd heard there was more damage. A few great Coastal Banksia trees had been uprooted and torn to bits.

Then we headed down to Pambula Beach. The damage was just as great here too. Houses shattered, people picking their way through the rubble of what had been comfortable homes the day before. We felt like voyeurs and didn't stop to gawk. Again the path of the damage was very clear.

Late that morning the radio was broadcasting interviews with experts from the Bureau of Meteorology. They were cautious about the cause, and said that they would need to survey the damage patterns before they could agree whether it had been a tornado or not. Or possibly more than one. The trails of damage did not follow a straight line. Either the funnel took a sharp zigzag after it hit Merimbula and before it hit Pambula Beach, or there were two separate events.

Nobody I spoke to had seen a funnel cloud: the storm had been far too wild and the rain too heavy. But I had no doubt. It was certainly a tornado.

Some months later, the Bureau of Meteorology published its yearly summary of violent weather events. The Merimbula storm was listed. As a tornado. Officially there were at least two funnels. It has since been classified as an F2 tornado on the Fujita scale.

We don't get tornadoes here? Nonsense.


Copyright © 1997 David Nicholls. This document may not be reproduced in any form without explicit permission in writing from the author