Weather News

Cyclone Vance remembered 20 years after the category five system devastated Exmouth

By Irena Ceranic and Kendall O'Connor, Friday March 22, 2019 - 15:45 EDT
ABC licensed image
Cyclone Vance destroyed more than 100 homes and left 2,000 people homeless. - ABC licensed

As news broke that a ferocious cyclone — of the highest possible intensity — was heading straight towards the seaside town of Exmouth on March 22, 1999, Helen Jarvis packed a small suitcase with treasured photographs and some clothing and left behind the 10-metre caravan she called home.



Ms Jarvis stayed at a friend's house as the category five system made landfall, producing record-breaking wind gusts which obliterated much of the town.

"We all huddled into a bathtub, the next-door neighbour and his wife came over and there were four of us in this one bathtub," she said.

"We heard a loud bang and water was coming in the front door, so we pushed towels and whatever we could under the front door and came back to the bath tub.

"When it was over we went outside and it was just disastrous.

"It turned out I didn't have a home to go to when it was over, because it was gone. I lost everything."



Community spirit keeps residents going

It was the generosity and benevolence of the local community, coupled with the relief that no one was severely hurt, that pulled Ms Jarvis out of an initial state of shock.

"The town rallied together," she said.

"It was bittersweet to me. It would have been really frightening, except you had company. It was the community spirit that kept us going."

Exmouth was unrecognisable in the aftermath, with more than 100 homes destroyed, and tourist operations — the lifeblood of the town — badly damaged.

Many residents left Exmouth until essential services were repaired.



'You don't ever want a cyclone'

Trish Deering, her husband Gary and their eight-year-old son took refuge in the Exmouth SES building when Vance hit, worried their newly built home could not withstand the storm.

Their home was damaged, but Mrs Deering considers it lucky no one was killed given how badly ravaged the town was.

"When the all clear is given and you actually start looking around and seeing what damage is done and what isn't around anymore, you start going 'wow we've actually been really lucky to have made it through this, this could have been so much worse," she said.

"And then you start dealing with not having power or running water, it's hot and it's humid and you've got no air conditioning."

Mrs Deering said the implementation of cyclone plans and the efforts of local emergency services who door knocked ahead of time to ensure residents were prepared, helped avert a bigger disaster.

But she warned people, especially those who had not experienced a cyclone, not to be complacent.

"You get people who are new to town that go, 'Oh I'd love a cyclone' and any of us who have been through it go 'no you don't, you don't ever want a cyclone'," she said.

"Having said that we'd all love a bit of rain at this stage, but I think the people that haven't been through it can't really imagine how horrendous it is."



Vance wreaks havoc far and wide

Cyclone Vance still holds the record for producing the strongest wind gust on mainland Australia, packing a punch at 267 kilometres per hour at Learmonth Airport.

But its impact was felt much further afield as it carved a path of destruction through inland WA before making its way through the Great Australian Bight — its remnants bringing gale force winds to parts of South Australia and Victoria.

"When it was moving through the Exmouth, North West Cape area, about 10 per cent of the buildings in Exmouth suffered severe structural damage," said Bradley Santos, the Bureau of Meteorology's severe weather manager.

"There was also heavy rain, but most importantly a significant storm surge which caused severe erosion of the beach front and the marina at Exmouth.

"Water and power supplies throughout the Gascoyne and Goldfields were disrupted because Vance actually moved through central parts of WA and then moved into the bight and impacted Victoria and South Australia, so it was a very significant system that produced quite a bit of damage."



Vance caused flooding in the southern Goldfields, forcing the closure of the main highway and the rail link to the eastern states.

It crossed the Exmouth coast as a category five system — the highest strength possible — making it one of the most powerful cyclones tom hit the state.

"It's certainly one of the most significant systems to ever have impacted Western Australia," said Mr Santos.

"It is quite unusual for a cyclone to not only cross the coast as a category five system but then to impact the Gascoyne, the Goldfields, the Eucla and then into the Great Australian Bight and to affect South Australia and Victoria."



Authorities warn against complacency

So far this cyclone season, which runs from the start of November to the end of April, Cyclone Veronica is the first system set to make landfall in Western Australia.

It may be approaching the back end of the season, but Mr Santos says the threat is far from over.

"Historically the February/March period is often the busiest, but we can get cyclones right through [to] April, and only a couple of years ago we saw cyclone Quang impact the Exmouth area very early in May," he said.

"It is still is cyclone season, people need to be prepared and then when a system is approaching the coast refer to the latest forecast and warnings from the [weather] bureau, and advice from the Department of Fire and Emergency Services."

The north-west Australian coastline between Broome and Exmouth is the most cyclone-prone region of the entire Australian coastline, with Exmouth weathering the effects of more than 50 cyclones since 1910.


- ABC

© ABC 2019

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