From the Archives, 1983: Giant dust cloud envelops Melbourne

First published in The Age on February 9, 1983

A city chokes in heat and dust

The dust cloud hits Northcote.Credit:The Age Archives

Trees and power lines came down and daylight turned to darkness yesterday during Melbourne's worst recorded dust storm and in its highest February temperature.

Although the storm brought chaos, police and ambulance officials said it had not caused deaths or serious injury.

The storm cut power to more than 150,000 people, damaged houses, disrupted train services, ripped boats from moorings and caused Melbourne's worst air pollution in almost five years.

Winds of up to 140 kilometres an hour were reported at Point Lonsdale. At Mornington, gusts reached 100 kmh. In the city the winds reached 85.

The view from The Age rooftop mid-afternoon when the storm hit Melbourne.Credit:The Age Archives

The storm grounded Country Fire Authority planes and caused problems for firefighters across the State.

Melbourne, Essendon and Moorabbin airports were closed for about 35 minutes as the dust swirled across the city.

A weather bureau spokesman said the cloud spanned 500 kilometres from Mildura to Melbourne, extended 150 kilometres from east to west and varied between 350 metres and 3500 metres in height.

The Conservation Council of Victoria said last night that similar dust storms were occurring each week in the Mallee and had removed tonnes of soil.

Bourke Street, mid-afternoon.Credit:The Age Archives

"Much of the land denuded of soil this summer will not recover completely in this generation, if ever. We are losing the basis on which we grow our food and live," the council said in a statement.

The winds brought down power lines and clogged junction boxes with dust, causing them to short-circuit. An SEC spokesman said the worst affected suburbs were Beaumaris, Mentone, Heatherton, Airport West, Flemington, Doncaster, Knoxfield, Epping, Eltham, Fern Tree Gully and Lilydale.

The spokesman said hundreds of SEC workmen were restoring power. All areas should be reconnected by today.

A man tries to protect his face from the storm. Credit:The Age Archives

The State Emergency Service reported roof damage in Cranbourne, Edithvale, Northcote, Chadstone, Keysborough and Maidstone. Sunbury ambulance said emergency service members had put up a windbreak to allow them to work through the dust storm at the scene of a fatal accident on the Sunbury-Melton Road near the Goonawarra Golf Club.

A spokesman for the Environment Protection Authority, Mr Pat Wilson, said Melbourne's air pollution was the highest since June 1978. At 3 pm, the pollution index was at 2.0 (light pollution). By 4 pm the index was 5.4 (significant pollution).

Mr Wilson said the airborne particle index rose by more than five times as the storm passed.

A spokeswoman for Telecom Australia said that for a few minutes after the cool change Telecom exchanges became overloaded. Telephone traffic became chaotic.

VicRail said the railways system experienced "a fairly horrendous 1.5 hours" after the storm hit. The Dandenong line was blocked by a tree at Noble Park, and overhead power lines were brought down at Albion, near Sunshine, blocking the Bendigo line. Railways boom gates malfunctioned, and there were signal failures on the busy Frankston line.

In the country, fallen trees cut the Warrnambool line and the main Gippsland line was blocked by bushfires near Norwell. The VicRail spokesman said the dust made country operations difficult. "The country locos suck in the dust and it causes them to cough and splutter a bit," he said.

The Tramways Board said the storm had not affected services. However, before the change, tram-way workers protesting about the heat walked off the job at the Preston depot, closing the East and West Preston lines.

The RACV and the Country Roads Board said the storm caused few problems on the roads despite drastically cutting visibility.

On Port Phillip Bay the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard Association reported several boats overturned and some damaged.

Senior Constable Graham Fischmann, of Sorrento police, said one man swam to safety after his small boat was swept into the Rip by big seas.

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