HAMNET Report 2 April 2017

Cyclone Debbie caused major damage, torrential rain and power cuts to tens of thousands of homes this week. Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull has activated a disaster response plan. With up to 250mm of rain forecast on Wednesday, authorities pleaded with people to stay off roads to avoid being stranded in floodwaters.

“We’ve already had two instances of people who were caught in a vehicle,” said Queensland Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Katarina Carroll, adding flood rescues were now her “biggest concern”.

Her warning was reiterated by Mr Turnbull, who said nature had “flung her worst” at Queensland. Cyclone Debbie made landfall between Bowen and Airlie Beach as a category four storm, whipping gusts of up to 263km/h, and started moving inland as a tropical low storm.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said three people had been confirmed injured, but that number could rise. She also expressed concerns that injured people were unable to contact emergency services.

Troops have arrived, the helicopters are overhead and Queensland has swung into full recovery mode.

At Ayr Fire Station, emergency workers were packing up their kits and waiting to be deployed. They expected to be airlifted to one of the remote towns cut off by the storm. There, they’d knock on doors and check on people – provided of course that the doors had not blown away.

Another fireman explained how he was itching to get out and help, even if just to give a comforting hug to someone who might be shell-shocked by the cyclone. Even in a massive emergency operation like this, it is those small gestures that make a difference.

Queensland Deputy Police Commissioner Steve Gollschewski said the worst-hit towns included Bowen, Airlie Beach, Proserpine and Collinsville.

“Those areas and the Whitsunday Islands remain difficult for us to contact and to get into,” he said.

Cyclone Debbie made landfall at close to its peak intensity, Dr Jeffrey D Kepert, head of the Bureau of Meteorology’s High Impact Weather Research said. Crucially, it was also very slow-moving. That “can be more damaging because the duration of strong winds is longer. As structures experience a longer battering, things like metal fatigue set in, leading to more damage. Also, more of the rain falls in the same area rather than being spread out, leading to a greater flood risk”.

Fortunately Debbie missed some key population centres, but the extent of damage remains unclear. Although tourists were hit hard, their hotels were “likely to have higher foundations” and be built more solidly than many ordinary homes near the coast, said Associate Professor David King from James Cook University.

Thank you to BBC News for that report.

Keith Lowes, KZN’s HAMNET Regional Director sent me a report and photos of a huge fire in a plastics warehouse last week.

The fire was reported to Ethekwini Fire & Emergency Services control centre at 09H42. The caller further stated that the company handles plastic products. The first Rescue Pump was despatched from the Jacobs fire station and arrived on scene at 09H50.  The officer reported that the building was already well alight and fire had penetrated the roof structure.

As further supporting Rescue Pumps arrived, a serious water shortage was experienced on the site and the fire continued to spread.  An assistance message at 10H30 from the officer in charge requested all available water tankers within the Ethekwini Region to be despatched to the incident.  The size of the  warehouse is approx. 900 metres by 600 metres.

The incident received international press coverage and local social media was abuzz with updates and images of the incident.  It also created quite a lot of panic and uncertainty regarding toxic smoke clouds and the possibility of evacuation.

By 19H00  with the spread of fire still not contained, a message reporting that 100 tonnes of fertiliser product, of which 40 tonnes was volatile, prompted Ethekwini Disaster Management to consider possible evacuation of what was proposed to be a 3-4 Km radius around the site.

Keith Lowes, ZS5WFD, had been monitoring his Fire Department radio and had been in discussion with his Deputy Provincial Director Dave ZS5HN, with a view to setting up an emergency net on the local Highway Club 145.625 repeater.

A WhatsApp group created for the recent Tour Natal Motor Rally was receiving numerous messages from HAMNET members, reporting their availability to assist, in addition to call-in’s on the repeater.

A local HAMNET Emergency WhatsApp Group was born during this incident, and  proved to be very effective.

At 20H30 Keith notified the Disaster Management Control Centre of HAMNET  member’s availability to assist with the evacuation should it be required, and that he was proceeding to activate ZS5DCC at the centre.  Dave ZS5HN co-ordinated the available stations on the repeater from his home in Amanzimtoti.

By 21H45, ZS5DCC was operational and  15 Hamnet members were available to assist if required.

Ethekwini Transport Authority had been informed by Disaster Management of the possibility of large scale evacuation and a fleet of busses had been placed on standby.  Sites had been identified as possible holding areas for the public at the University of KZN sports grounds, the Bluff Golf Course and Cato Manor sports grounds.

An update provided by Ethekwini Fire Chief Enoch Mchunu at 22H30 indicated that they had prevented the fire from spreading towards the fertiliser, and that evacuation of the surrounding area would not be required.

The JOC was stood down for the night at 23H30.

The use of WhatsApp is a very useful tool to keep members in touch with what is happening.  Keith has since created a “social” and an “Emergency” WhatsApp group. He thanked all those members who offered their services should the evacuation have been implemented. Thank you Keith for the comprehensive report.

As, usual, we finish our report with a quick look at the dams. On average, the country’s dams are 74% full, stable from last week, and better than the same time last year, by 19 percentage points. However, the Western Cape’s levels continue to drop, by yet another point to 26%, compared to 27% last week, and 32% this time last year. The City of Cape Town’s water department is considering increasing water tariffs, and reducing the allocation of free water to owners of low-cost homesteads, with a view to increasing capital to manage the shortage, and possibly to installing small scale desalination. It doesn’t get much more serious than this.

This is Dave Reece ZS1DFR reporting for HAMNET in South Africa.