Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Great Sydney Hailstorm of 1947

New Years Day 1947 looked to be like a typical Sydney summer day - hot and humid but with conditions moderated a little on the coast by the very welcome afternoon north-east sea breezes so eagerly anticipated by the locals.

Afternoon thunderstorms are not unusual for Sydney around this time of the year, and they usually begin with an increase in cloud - a type of formation called “cumulus” - over the Blue Mountains to the west of the city. Sometimes these will eventually develop into full-blown storms, which then move across the Sydney basin around mid to late afternoon.

So when cloud began to increase from the west during the late morning, it all appeared as if afternoon thunderstorms were again “on the cards”. However, there was something different in the way this storm was developing.

The Bureau of Meteorology was at that time located at Observatory Hill, which is near the south-west pylon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The official Bureau report noted:

“The first definite indication of cloud development at Sydney occurred towards 1300 (1pm) when cumulus commenced to build in the west and south-west. By about 1400 (2pm) this covered the south-west quadrant of the sky and appeared to be moving east, but keeping south of the city. The underpart of the cloud was mottled and serrated or curtained, rather than mammilated, and looked angrily black, while false cirrus tufts were discernible at the top”.

The cloud continued to increase across the city and become more and more menacing. The Bureau report continued -

“Shortly before the rain commenced at the Weather Bureau, shallow cumulus was observed moving from the north-east below the main cloud structure, which was coming from the westward, and between this and the overlying cloud, considerable turbulence was apparent. At this time there was a terrific noise which appeared to come from the Harbour Bridge as though several trains were passing over. It was definitely not the sound of hail or rain to the south, and it is reasonable to assume its origin was in the cloud”.

However, unknown to the Bureau at this stage, the storm had already blasted a trail of wreckage across south-western Sydney, tracking on a line from Liverpool to the southern parts of the CBD. Billiard ball sized hail sliced through rooftops, battered cars and injured pedestrians.

Left: The track of the storm across the Sydney Basin
(Click on image to enlarge)

However the full fury of the storm finally broke as it crossed the eastern suburbs, with huge hail falling through Surry Hills and the Rose Bay – Bondi area. Because of the hot temperatures, as well as the fact it was a public holiday, large crowds were swimming and sunbaking on Bondi Beach, and many injuries resulted as these unprotected people were caught in the open and pelted with hail as large as oranges.

Left: Plaster casts of the hailstones taken at the time by a dentist at Earlwood shows their massive size. (Click Image to enlarge)

The Sydney Morning Herald quoted Mr. H. Lacey, a returned soldier who was sunbaking in Bondi Beach at the time. “I thought I was back in the firing line overseas. When the hail began to fall it rattled like machine gun fire. People were lying on the ground and others were bleeding from arms and shoulders”. Fifteen year old Edna Menzies, the niece of the then leader of the Opposition and future Prime Minister, Mr. R.G.Menzies, was knocked unconscious by a hailstone “as large as a cricket ball” whilst swimming at Clovelly. She was rescued and taken to hospital, remaining unconscious as she was loaded into the ambulance.

People waiting for trains on Central Station ran for cover as hail punctured the platform rooves above them and showered them with debris. The skylight running along the entire length of the old indoor area of the station was smashed and “jagged pieces of glass up to four inches square fell among a crowd of about 100 people”.

The clock face above the station was smashed and nearby Crown Street Women’s Hospital received a badly damaged roof, terrifying both staff and women in labour. Some automobiles of the day had canvas (or “soft tops”), and many of these were holed by the hail, injuring the drivers and passengers within. Windows of trams operating across the eastern suburbs were shattered by the ice, showering passengers with broken glass.

Left: The front page of the Sydney Morning Herald,
January 2nd 1947. (Click image to enlarge)

The Sydney Morning Herald led with the story on Page 1 the next day, under the banner headline “Ice Storm Lashes City and Suburbs” and recounted a long list of the injuries and damage. Some 350 people were treated by ambulance men and hospitals as a result of hailstone impact and flying debris, particularly glass from broken windows. “For nearly three hours, ambulance wagons travelled backwards and forwards from eastern suburbs beaches with the injured” the Herald reported. Other victims were “picked up in doorways bleeding from head wounds caused by the lumps of ice and by flying glass from hundreds of broken windows”.

Fantastic scenes occurred at the Rose Bay Flying Boat Base as hail smashed the hangar roof to pieces and turned the surrounding ocean into a Pearl Harbour of churning white water. By coincidence, Bob Rice, a Sydney Sun photographer was on location and took an amazing photograph, showing the extent to which the ocean was churned up with hail, producing a dense sheet of splashes as far as the eye can see.

Large hail mashing down across the Rose Bay Flying Base, January 1st 1947. (Click image to enlarge)

Finally passing across the coast and moving out to sea, the storm left behind it a devastated city, with widespread structural damage, many personal injuries and mounds of ice that remained intact for many hours after. Numerous trees, including large swathes of Centennial Park were stripped of their leaves, producing a dank smell of rotting vegetation across the city.

Interviewed the next day, the acting State Meteorologist, Mr Newman, said “The approach of such a storm could not be forecast accurately, but it is possible that because similar conditions are expected to prevail today, that a repetition, not quite so severe, can be expected”. Happily, this second storm did not eventuate.

Sydney was staggered by the enormity of the incident, as there had not been even a remotely similar storm in living memory. Hundreds of houses had severely damaged roofs and because it was only some 18 months following the end of World War 2, there was a severe shortage of building materials. This meant that some roofs were to be left covered by tarpaulins for several years after. This, in turn, resulted in a steadily rising damage bill, as these roofs leaked whenever the tarpaulins were dislodged by strong winds and rain.

Weather forecasting in those days was severely hampered by the lack of radar imagery and satellite photography now available to the modern day weather forecasting team, and rapidly developing systems, such as thunderstorms, were difficult to deal with.

Also, the ways of distributing weather warnings were very limited and for “short term” events, such as those involved with an approaching thunderstorm, radio was the only way.

However, this was the era before portable and car radios were generally available, and this meant for those not at home, weather warnings were not easily accessible. This is a far cry from today’s situation where information is distributed through portable radios, mobile phones and SMS messages. With new technologies, involving the next generation of mobile phones, it is now possible to view current radar images surrounding all the capital cities on a mobile phone screen, and this means that the general population is now far better informed.

As far as the Bureau of Meteorology is concerned, weather forecasters now have available “state of the art”, regularly updated radar and satellite photography, and this enables accurate identification and tracking of thunderstorms to be undertaken and warnings issued - before a metropolitan area is threatened.

It was widely believed that the New Years Day storm of 1947 was a freak event, unlikely to ever happen again, but just over 52 years later, history repeated itself. Against all the odds another similar storm devastated eastern Sydney in 1999.

Reference: Australia's Natural Disasters, Richard Whitaker, New Holland Publishing
ISBN 1877069043

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