Storm safety: What to do in a storm

Living Well | Story: Sue Hewitt | Images: Rob Embury, palebluedotphotography.com.au | Posted on 08 October 2020

Don’t get caught out in stormy weather this summer. Here’s how to stay safe in a storm.

Victorians must brace for severe weather in the coming months with atmospheric conditions ripe for thunderstorms, heavy rains and strong winds through spring and summer. 

Experts predict intense weather patterns until at least December due to the effect of La Nina, a cyclic climatic phenomenon that brings severe weather conditions like heavy rain and thunderstorms with damaging high winds. 

Victorian householders got a taste of what’s to come when heavy rains lashed the state from 22 to 24 August and RACV’s Emergency Home Assist had a massive spike in call-outs for help and RACV advises people to be “storm safe” and prepare for fickle weather.  

Wide view of storm rolling on across country field


Annually, up to 10 Australians die from lightning strikes, while falling trees and branches due to strong winds cause further deaths. 

“These weather events can be very localised, but intense,” warns Zoe Malempre RACV’s head of home insurance. “The strong winds and hail that accompany these storms can cause enormous damage.”

Zoe says dangers include flash flooding, which can inundate homes, strand vehicles and pose extreme risks to families.

VICSES state duty officer Brad Dalgleish says while summer storms are often short in duration, they can be “violent” and cause massive damage

He advises home owners to check the Bureau of Meteorology website for severe weather warnings and prepare home before storms hit to minimise damage to property and people. 

He says unsecured items such as outdoor furniture, trampolines and roof tiles can become flying projectiles in strong winds, injuring people and causing property damage.

He says homeowners should call 000 if lives are in danger, otherwise check here if they need the VICSES. 

The strong winds and hail that accompany these storms can cause enormous damage.


Melbourne photographer Rob Embury, who chases storms in Victoria and the US’s notorious tornado alley, says tornadoes do occur in Victoria, such as on Christmas Day 2011 when severe storms lashed Melbourne and a significant tornado hit near Fiskville, west of Melbourne.

“Large hail is quite common in Victoria and in 2010 a severe storm hit Melbourne causing widespread hail damage,” he says.

Heavy rain can also cause significant damage during summer storms, says RACV’s Home Services trade training manager, Andy Anderson.

“We tend to find that in the warmer months there are downpours, such as 100 millimetres in a few hours, and then even a perfectly maintained home may not be able to cope,” he says.

Even a small crack in a roof tile can allow water to get inside the roof and into a home’s electrical system, shorting out power, he says.

He says gutters that have not been cleaned can overflow and drains can be blocked causing water to back up and leak into the house, keeping RACV’s Emergency Home Assist crews busy.

Driveways that slope toward a house can wash debris along with water in a heavy downpour causing flooding of courtyards and garages, he says.

Andy says sometimes strong winds will throw tree branches around, smashing windows.

He says home owners should prepare for storms by having their gutters cleaned and roof checked in advance. People should heed storm warnings and secure garden furniture and other outdoor items, park cars under cover and shut all external doors and windows.

Wide view of storm rolling on across suburban housing estate

 

 

Storms and asthma risks

The National Asthma Council Australia chief executive Siobhan Brophy says people with asthma, hay fever and other respiratory problems can be at risk when strong winds, thunderstorms, bushfire smoke, dust storms and high pollen counts hit over summer.

Thunderstorm asthma happens when a storm hits on a hot, windy day with high pollen counts. The pollen grains soak up moisture and explode into smaller particles that are easily dispersed by windy conditions and inhaled deep into the lungs.

Other airborne dangers include dust storms that can irritate the lungs and bushfire smoke.

The Melbourne Pollen Count and Forecast has daily updates of pollen and thunderstorm asthma dangers. Run by the University of Melbourne’s school of biosciences, its website has maps based on Victorian regions indicating low to extreme forecasts, as well as a phone app for information on the run.

Associate Professor Ed Newbigin says Melbourne’s pollen season typically starts in October, peaks in November and trails off in December, ending in January when grass has died off and the pollen forecasts help people prepare for bad days.

“It’s all about prevention and preparing for the season such as reviewing asthma management plans and using preventative medication more than reliever medication,” he says.

He says the 21 November 2016 thunderstorm asthma event was the worst ever recorded anywhere in the world. It killed 10 people, affected thousands of others and put ambulance and health services under enormous strain.

He says a line of thunderstorms and rain on that day moved eastward across Melbourne with strong gusts of wind pushing pollen in front like a broom, with ambulances lining up behind to pick up those affected.

“There were thousands of people with grass pollen allergies, it was chaos with the demand for ambulances exceeding supply,” he says. 

The EPA’s chief environmental scientist Dr Andrea Hinwood says bushfire smoke can create longer-term poor air-quality conditions that vary from region to region.

“To ensure real-time information gets to the community, the EPA operates an air-monitoring program through stationary monitoring devices and a network of rapid deployment mobile air monitoring units.”


 
Tips for staying storm safe this summer: 

Before the storm

  • Put garden furniture and toys away.
  • Listen to local radio for storm warnings. 
  • Park vehicles under cover.
  • Secure all external doors and windows and draw curtains.
  • Disconnect all non-essential electrical items.
  • Prepare an emergency kit with valuables, medication and warm clothing. 

During the storm

  • Stay inside and shelter away windows, doors and skylights.
  • If outdoors, seek a solid enclosed shelter (not a tree).
  • If driving, stop clear of trees, powerlines and streams. 

After the storm

  • Check windows, walls and roof for damage.
  • Call emergency services for assistance if required.
  • Check on and help your neighbours. 

The Red Cross says while we can't stop disasters and emergencies from happening, we can reduce how they affect us by being prepared. It suggests four simple steps to prepare for emergencies:

  • Know about your risks, where to get information, and how to manage stress 
  • Identify emergency contacts, meeting places, and people who can help 
  • Organise important documents, medical information, insurance and pet plans 
  •  Pack with a list to help you survive and personal items that are important to you

Red Cross has a range of resources to help including  Get Prepared app, developed in partnership with RACV, which allows you to locate local emergency services contacts and where to find information, identify a safe meeting place for your and love ones and create checklists of what to do and what to pack. It's available on iOS, Android and redcross.org.au/prepare.