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Canberra hailstorm damages valuable research as record number of emergency calls lodged

By Niki Burnside and Kate Midena, Tuesday January 21, 2020 - 17:18 EDT
ABC licensed image
Hail blanketed the ANU during yesterday's destructive storm. - ABC licensed

The destructive hailstorm that tore through the national capital damaging cars and property yesterday has been labelled a "catastrophe".



The ACT Emergency Services Agency received a record 2,000 calls for help when the storm swept through,

Campbell Fuller from the Insurance Council of Australia said the storm had been declared a "catastrophe", and confirmed nearly 15,000 claims had been lodged in the ACT and Queanbeyan so far.

This declaration means insurance claims will be expedited.

"The insurance council's catastrophe declaration means those claims are prioritised by insurers, so insurers will be looking at how best to help those customers and help them as quickly as possible," Mr Fuller said.

"It is certainly a very angry summer and we're not even midway through the disaster season yet."

National institutions closed



The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) was among the institutions hit worst, with large holes seen in the roofs of a number of their glasshouses where experiments were underway.

Chief operating officer Judi Zielke said the storm damaged about 65 of their glasshouses, destroying years of research.

"We're very fortunate that none of our staff were hurt," Ms Zielke said.

"Those 65 glasshouses of course held a lot of research and we're really feeling for our scientists at the moment that are so dedicated to their work and have spent years working on some of the projects in there.

"Unfortunately, most of those projects will be totally lost."

The vast majority of the work being conducted at the CSIRO was aimed at improving crop sustainability and researchers had been growing wheat, barley, legumes and cotton in the damaged glasshouses.

Many of these projects had been underway for more than two years.



"[They were] largely focused on environmental research — how to reduce the amount of water, chemical and fertiliser use," Ms Zielke said.

"For projects that potentially might have been close to the end of say two or three years work, that is really distressing.

"But I'm sure we'll overcome and continue to improve our work going forward, but it is a great loss, and of course not just to CSIRO but also the companies and farmers involved in those projects."

Meanwhile, all areas of the Australian National Botanic Gardens have been closed until further notice due to storm damage.

The National Museum of Australia closed immediately following the storm, but reopened on Tuesday morning with restricted access to some areas.

The Australian Academy of Science's heritage-listed Shine Dome, which houses Frank Fenner's manuscript collection, also sustained serious damage.

The copper roof tiles were dented and skylights smashed during the storm, forcing staff to form a human chain to move the boxed archives to safety.



The Australian National University's main campus was also closed on Tuesday, with "all but essential staff and those staying in residences" directed to stay at home while clean up and repairs took place.

"The decision to close the campus was not taken lightly, but safety is paramount and we need time to make the campus safe and assess the damage," a statement said.

"Whilst some buildings and grounds appear unaffected there may still be some hazards that need to be assessed and managed."

The closure came after the university was forced to shut for a number of days earlier in the month due to .



Wildlife injured during storm

Peter Beutel from the National Capital Authority said hundreds of animals in the Parliamentary Triangle perished during the storm, which saw golf ball-sized hail stones and strong winds tear through the city.

"We lost pigeons, peewees, baby magpies, galahs, possums, we took a swan to the vet yesterday," he said.

"The animal toll is extraordinary."



Mr Beutel also said over 300 flying foxes — which are a protected bat species — died during the storm.

"We took five binloads of grey-headed flying fox from Commonwealth Park," he said.

"The people from ACT Wildlife have been taking as many [surviving ones] as they can.

"Unfortunately the bats were already stressed due to the drought, so they're full up. They're taking a shipment to Wollongong, just to spread the load.

"It's very distressing."



ACT Wildlife's Marg Peachey said the scene greeting them at Commonwealth Park was "devastating".

"The trees were stripped of leaves … once we got to where the bats were, there were so many hailstones on the ground still," she said.

"There were a lot injured, a lot hanging on really low branches that had fallen with them, it was just devastating.

"We had to sift through the undergrowth and find them all."



The main injuries to the bats were broken humerus bones, which rendered them unable to fly.

"The rehabilitation process will be long," Ms Peachey said.

"Judging by their behaviour this morning, they are really in shock. They're lethargic and unresponsive.

"They'll be staying here for a while, or even they might require euthanasia."


Private property damage still being assessed

Late on Monday, many people were still waiting for the State Emergency Service (SES) to visit their homes, where the giant hailstones had damaged roofs and caused flooding.

About 300 workers, assisted by the Australian Defence Force and ACT Fire and Rescue, responded to calls for help through the afternoon and into the evening.



SES Acting Chief Officer Jeff Butler said they are mostly plugging roofs, boarding over windows and clearing trees.

"We are fairly optimistic we'll be able to get over this over the next couple of days," he said.

"We've spent most of the night going through the jobs trying to come up with a priority list of what we need to start knocking over today.

"We're getting extra teams out in the field today we're going to try to get teams out 24 hours a day for the next couple of days."


In Belconnen, Christine Stevens was at home when the storm struck.

Her house, two cars and vegetable garden were all damaged.

At 6:30pm she was still waiting on emergency services to come to her home and fix her roof, where water had leaked through and damaged light fittings.



"I was scared, I can tell you," she said.

"I rang SES straight away and they said they'll get here when they can."

Ms Stevens said she was hoping one of the cars, which had stopped working since the storm, would recover from what she suspected was water damage.

In the meantime, she was hoping the rain would hold off until her roof was assessed.

"In the short-term, I hope they can put up a bit of tarp or something," she said.


- ABC

© ABC 2020

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