January 31, 2013

So Oswald was an 'ex'-tropical cyclone, was it?

As predicted, ex-Tropical Cyclone Oswald dumped huge amounts of water over South East Queensland and northern New South Wales during the Australia Day holiday weekend. 'Dumped' is the way Australians describe serious rainfall in these subtropical parts: it gives a much better idea of how much water falls out of the sky than comparisons with stair rods, sheets or cats and dogs.

Oswald first made landfall on Cape York (Queensland's 'pointy bit') and was then expected to track south as a weak category 1 system* or tropical low. Cyclones are normally energised by travelling over warm ocean, but Oswald turned right over 2000 kilometres or more of land. Brief mention had been made earlier in the week of the possibility of the storm strengthening into a category 1, and potential trippers were advised to 'reconsider' their plans. The Aussies are brilliant at advance-warning people about potentially devastating weather events and advising them how to prepare; but, despite flood maps being issued for Brisbane – no authority was going to be caught napping after 2011 – I suspect not many people expected to 'cop' it in quite the manner they did.

Anthony Cornelius – a meteorologist at Weatherwatch, a private forecasting service founded in 1976 – drew some interesting conclusions about Oswald in the Courier Mail a couple of days ago**.
'If Brisbanites ever wondered what it would be like to be in a tropical cyclone, then they can tick it off their bucket list because, make no mistake, the region was effectively hit by a category one system.'
I have tried to find out from the Bureau of Meteorology whether or not the storm was officially reclassified, but I can't reach anyone today. I will keep trying.

I hasten to add that I wasn't in Brisbane, where wind speeds of up to 130 km/hr were predicted at 14.10 on Sunday. We'd headed 190 kilometres south for the long weekend, to Ballina in New South Wales. Our weather app told us that winds would gust up to between 70 and 80 km/hr in Ballina, but at 16.48 the weather bureau forecast gusts of up to 140 km/hr in the Northern Rivers region. Ballina is situated at the mouth of one of those Northern Rivers – the Richmond. The rain was so hard it made everything look misty (and photographs rubbish), and the palms leaned in a way I've only ever seen on footage of tropical cyclones in Far North Queensland. Gulls were grimly hunkered down. I was staying in one of the lovely attic rooms in an historic manor house, but it shook as the wind roared and I tried to sleep that night.
The Northern Rivers are big rivers: the Richmond at Ballina is a wide and mighty waterway (looking upstream from North Wall, below; and Ballina Bar, below but one). Next day we were to experience it in a far different mode. Monday morning dawned as wet and windy as the previous day. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, as we know, but we decided to head back to Brisbane via an inland route. I felt we would escape Oswald's remnants quicker, and before we reached Kyogle on the Summerland Way that seemed to be the case. The wind was much reduced and the rain confined to heavy showers by late morning. At Kyogle, which I'm sure would look even better in sunshine, the SES was launching their craft on to the swollen Fawcetts Creek, which flows into the Richmond and was almost up to the Barry McPaul Bridge.
By the time we were up in the Border Ranges, the Richmond was careening at a frightening pace. Suddenly I realised what all those warnings were about; the ones that try to prevent motorists from attempting to cross creeks in spate. I was awestruck by its power; I couldn't avert my eyes. I was unable to make out where the track came out the other side.
We continued onwards and upwards, and were held up by fallen-tree removal before crossing the NSW-QLD border and dropping down from the Scenic Rim to Rathdowney on the Mount Lindesay Highway. Here the Logan River wasn't yet cutting the highway but standing flood water over low-lying land was for the moment too deep to cross. We turned down the Rathdowney-Boonah road but now the troublesome Logan blocked our progress. Back in town, we followed others through the flood, only to be stopped a little way beyond by water as far as the eye could see. Only a council truck carried on: he had to put the 'road closed' signs in position.
'Sit it out in the pub. The water will have gone down in a couple of hours,' a large Queensland policeman recommended.

But wouldn't it be getting dark by then? Neither of us fancied driving through water we couldn't see properly. So, it was back up the mountain, which ex-Tropical Cyclone Oswald was still crossing. We couldn't pootle any more: we were headed in the opposite direction from home and time was going on. At Kyogle the creek was lapping the bridge and the road to Murwillumbah was closed. On to Lismore, where the centre was underwater and the Bangalow road was closed. There was nothing else for it: we returned to Ballina, ten hours after we'd left, and joined the Pacific Highway to Brisbane. There were still torrential downpours, and in places I'd never seen the highway so deserted. It took 13 hours to do what Google Maps estimates will take three hours 40, or two if you go up the coast.

Earlier, we'd noticed an alternative route to Brisbane. On this day, however, all routes proved risky. 
Safely back in Bris, I awoke next morning to discover the true extent of Oswald's impact.

** http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/opinion/if-townies-wanted-to-see-a-real-cyclone-oswald-was-it/story-e6frerdf-1226563753632


  1. Glad you did not take the Lions Road as it has at least eight causeway crossings. The source of the Richmond is up there and can be scary as it tumbles over the causeways and down the mountain. You would not have got through. You did well to get back over Mt Lindesay as more trees came down and sides of the road washed away. Quite an experience for you - happy to know you got out of it safely and that you appreciate the power of these rivers when they are in full flood.

  2. Aha, that's interesting. It sounds a bit like the Condamine River Road. I must go back and do Lions Road another time, when it's bit drier. (Finding the sources of rivers is another obsession of mine.) We saw where Lions Road came out on the Mt Lindesay Hwy, which was just a few metres before we came to a halt north of Rathdowney. We could see the first crossing and it was impassable.
    Well I was worried about going back over the mountain because the storm was still there.
    It was a bit hairy but an experience, as you say, and one I probably wouldn't have missed for the world, despite the long drive.
    As ever, thanks for your comments.