Severe Tropical Cyclone Vance 17-22 March 1999




A bigger version of this beautiful image can be seen  here.

The chase is on.... on 20 March 1999, at about midday, it became obvious that Cyclone Vance, already a Cat 3 and growing was heading toward the West Australian coastline.This is always the most stressful time in stormchasing because as you go through all the usual logistical nightmares of organizing flights and vehicles at short notice you know that the moment of no return is fast approaching....the time when you go or you dont go, the final moment for boarding the last flight out of New Zealand that will connect with all the subsequent flights into the strike zone, the moment when the storm will hit before you can get there, it's outer rain bands flooding and closing all roads into the area and causing airports to close.
Another problem is that the remains of Cyclone Elaine had hit the area several days earlier , causing  major flooding and road washouts in the area that I was about to head into.
Of course the storm may change direction and not hit land at all, like so many others in the past have done. Arriving in Port Hedland at 1300WST on the last flight before the airport closed, I get off the plane into the sticky tropical heat, it is 32 degrees .....cyclone weather. More hassles, there are no four wheel drive vehicles avaliable, the rescue services have booked them all, there is a cyclone coming, I am told,
I look surprised, (You never, of course, tell rental companies that you are about to drive their car into a maelstrom of flying metal, or use it as a submarine. However, I have never damaged a car yet although in Cyclone Vance one of the side mirrors was blown off !, not bad really when a 10 ton truck in a nearby street was blown over, I can tell you though, that a Ford Falcon will go through water up to the windows, and when the water gets deeper you simply chain it to a big truck and tow it through the river, as they say,...whatever it takes to get the picture!) After a 790 kilometre drive I have to make another decision... will it hit Exmouth or Onslow, I only have one chance at being in the right place before the rain comes ahead of the main event. If you are 100km away when it hits you may as well be 10 000 km away, the closer I get to ground zero the more tense it becomes, will the police close the road?, will I go to the wrong place? A check with the Cyclone Warning centre in Perth and my dad, back in New Zealand who also has an interest in weather and looks at the data on the internet. I get the answer ....Exmouth is in Vance's direct path and it is now a Cat 5. I arrive in Exmouth at 2200 on the 21st, the town of 2500 people is deserted, I find a hotel, the guests say the owners have fled, (although they sent me an e-mail a year later to tell me that they were there throughout the cyclone),  the staff from a nearby air base are sheltering there and I get to stay in one of their rooms. Great, a few hours sleep before the show begins.
I wake up at 0800 on the 22 March and look outside, its blowing 50-100 kmh and raining hard, a call to the Cyclone Warning Centre......"I am in Exmouth..what's Vance doing?" ..."well he's still a CAT 5 and the eye will come straight up the harbour!" I will never forget those words... I am in the direct path of the strongest part of the most powerful storm that nature can generate, meteorologists call a storm like this "the perfect storm" because they simply dont get any bigger, I didn't know whether to jump up and down with excitement or flee out of town, A CAT 5 cyclone or hurricane is the most powerful weather event on earth, the energy released by this monster could generate enough power to supply the whole of the USA  with electricity. In a few hours Exmouth will be the most dangerous place on earth and I will witness the most powerful cyclone to ever hit the Australian mainland. In situations like this I have a saying...In the next few hours I am either going to get some awesome video footage or I am going to end up dead. Well, I did get that awesome footage, venturing outside to experience 270 kph winds and having part of a restaurant roof fall on my head and having to crawl back in to the hotel with a rope attached. At one point while going out to the car to charge batteries I was blown right across the hotel courtyard and into a pile of fallen palm trees!  Then while trying to get back inside I remember lying on the ground during some particularly savage gusts holding onto the underside of the car which was bucking wildly like a light plane in severe turbulance thinking...this is what it is all about...stormchasing.....there are lots of people doing it but few of then will ever experience this kind of awesome power.The other school of thought was that no matter how many more storms I chase I am unlikely to ever see something like this again, a CAT 5 is the mother of all storms, one by which all others are measured against and anything less will be ho-hum now. The noise was like having a jet engine going full bore in your ear and the rain felt like bullets. In about 3 hours it was over, the residents that remained in Exmouth ventured out to a scene of total devastation. Caravans that were chained to concrete pads were simply blown away leaving only the floor behind, the whole area resembled a war zone with some buildings reduced to matchwood while others were piled on top of each other, many vehicles were overturned and boats wrecked.
Perhaps the most graphic example of the power of the wind was the power lines, the poles were made of railway iron or steel I beams made of 10mm steel, these were bent over like they were made of rubber.
The only down side was that after it was over there was no power, no phones, no water, and no food so I had to settle for tins of cold baked beans and water filtered from the swimming pool,.... a stormchaser should always carry a good filter, if necessary you can even get drinkable water from the toilet cistern.
The next day the media arrived in force.....why they did not do this before the cyclone hit is beyond me.
"Just go down to the airport and get the debris off the runway" the  CH 7 pilot asks, no problem, I round up a few locals who seem eager to help and a truck, (they must have assumed the plane was carring relief supplies) and we clear, measure and mark 400 metres of usable runway, the news, after all, must get through. I wait around for about an hour , amusing myself fixing my flat tyre in the pouring rain, then I ring the pilot to find out where he is.... that being a feat in itself...cellphone reception was poor so I had to stand on the roof of the car in the middle of the runway to get reception, like one of those silly mobile phone adverts. The pilot had decided to land at the military airfield 30km down the nice, I told him I had cleared a beautiful 400 metre strip.....he then informed me that he would have needed 900 metres to land......oh happens!
So there you go...a day in the life of a stormchaser.....
Copyright Geoff Mackley 1999

View the Bureau Of Meteorology tracking map of Cyclone Vance's entire life

View the Joint Typhoon Warning Centre tracking map of Cyclone Vance soon after it formed

View the Australian Bureau of Meteorology news release 23 March 1999


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