Stormageddon savages crops and blasts away topsoil

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Cally DupeCountryman
Mullewa farmer Darcy Rowe finishes nightshift in the middle of a dust storm.
Camera IconMullewa farmer Darcy Rowe finishes nightshift in the middle of a dust storm. Credit: Justine Rowe

The first day of the biggest storm of the decade will be one to remember, but one many farmers would like to forget.

Ferocious dust storms deposited dirt throughout homes, sandblasted freshly-emerged crops, and blew topsoil across farms on Sunday as a rare and dangerous weather event triggered by the remnants of ex-tropical Cyclone Mangga clashed with a cold front.

Together, they created a series of storms that moved across a large part of WA— an area equivalent to NSW and Victoria combined.

Wind speeds reached up to 113km/h at Geraldton and 98km/h at Badgingarra on Sunday as the deep low-pressure system crossed of WA.

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Flattened barley at Three Springs.
Camera IconFlattened barley at Three Springs. Credit: Chad Eva

About 11,000 WA households were still without power on Tuesday and WA’s emergency services were swamped with almost 560 calls for help from 7am on Sunday until 6pm on Monday night — more than the total number of storm-related call-outs made during the whole of 2019.

Among the 100 calls for help in the Mid West and Gascoyne regions was from the owner of a vacant Wonthella house which had its entire roof torn off.

Security camera footage shows the moment the storm, caused by ex-tropical cyclone Mangga, “peeled” the roof off the Fourth Street property “like a can of sardines” on Sunday afternoon.

In Kalgoorlie-Boulder, a shed slammed into a substation, cutting off power to 15,000 people.

WA was battered by overnight storms - The offending shed that has knocked out power in Kalgoorlie. Substation in the suburb of Piccadilly.
Camera IconWA was battered by overnight storms - The offending shed that has knocked out power in Kalgoorlie. Substation in the suburb of Piccadilly. Credit: Picture: Unknown

At Three Springs, 5000ha of Chad Eva’s farm was sandblasted by gusts of up to 88km/h — toppling a silo in its wake.

Mr Eva tipped 20mm out of the rain gauge at 10pm on Sunday and at 5mm on Monday morning.

“I have never seen or heard wind like that before,” he said.

“It was just roaring, you could not see because of the red dust.

“The crops were out of the ground but they have been smashed ... hopefully there is a good root system underneath.

“It was worse at the edges of paddock, where there was no stubble cover.”

A toppled silo at Three Springs.
Camera IconA toppled silo at Three Springs. Credit: Chad Eva

The Sunday afternoon rain was welcomed by Mr Eva, but it did little to stop the dust, which blew in from other parts of the district.

“Hopefully the growers whose farms ended up on top of mine used a good bit of lime,” he joked.

At Mingenew, Geoff Cosgrove battened down the hatches but still awoke to find the inside of his home coated in dust on Monday.

The wind, so strong it infiltrated closed doors and windows, had also blown four doors off one shed and one door off another.

“The wind started blowing about 5.30am on Sunday and it got stronger, backed off for a bit, and then at 10am it really cranked up,” Mr Cosgrove said.

“It started raining at 5.30pm. I have never seen dust like that, the visibility was 10-15m and our house is entirely full of dust.

“All five shed doors burst out of their runners and laid on the ground.”

The dust storm at Mullewa on May 24.
Camera IconThe dust storm at Mullewa on May 24. Credit: Justine Rowe

The Cosgroves’ house was “full of dirt and an absolute mess” on Monday, but it was the condition of the crops in the paddocks they were most concerned about.

“Our lupins have been damaged and buried ... in the past they have been emerged and you can tell straight away,” Mr Cosgrove said. “These lupins were smaller but buried, so they might come back. But there are big areas that will need reseeding.”

The Cosgroves plan to finish the final 3000ha of their 10,000ha program this week.

They will then decide then decide whether to reseed up to 30 per cent, or 1000ha, of their lupin program.

“It is hard to estimate — lupins’ growth point is at the top, so when they get bashed around at the top they stop growing and die,” Mr Cosgrove said.

“There might be patches we need to reseed, but we will give it some time to recover. There might still be seed in the ground, so it might be a better option to just leave it be and have a thin crop.”

A dirty pool at Narra Tarra.
Camera IconA dirty pool at Narra Tarra. Credit: Ty Gronow

Mr Cosgrove said the 25mm provided some consolation for the damage to crops and farm infrastructure.

“Everything we have put in the ground will come up straight away now,” he said.

“A lot of the wheat we had put in had germinated but not emerged, but hopefully if the soil stays warm we will get some sheep feed out of this too.”

Shane Hill “didn’t want to look” when he heard the wind howling on Sunday night, but woke to find 9mm in the rain gauge and patches of sandblasted lupins and canola across the farm.

It wasn’t the 20mm the Yealering farmer had hoped for, but he said the 9mm would “do more good than the wind did bad” across white sand patches on the farm 16km east of town.

“We are not sure if the lupins will come back or not — some are looking a bit sad,” Mr Hill said.

“The canola germination was pretty ordinary but some of what was up has also been sandblasted.

“It is only smallish patches in paddocks, so we were lucky in that regard. There was a lot of dust and sand in the air, but not many of our paddocks were lifting and blowing.

“In areas with reasonable stubble cover, there hasn’t been too much damage.

“Overall, we got out of it pretty easily, but I was hoping for more than 9mm of rain.”

At Yuna, Jasmyn Allen recorded 12-16mm — a small consolation after ferocious winds sent wheat seedlings flying across paddocks and filled her home with dirt.

“Our house is filled with dirt, and organic matter ... you would never expect to see straw inside your house with all the doors and windows closed,” she said.

“It happened to brand new and old houses as well.”

Dirt inside a Yuna bathroom on May 24.
Camera IconDirt inside a Yuna bathroom on May 24. Credit: Jasmyn Allen

Ms Allen and husband Rodney awoke to “howling wind” at 4am on Sunday, which intensified and toppled a grain silo as the day went on.

By 10am, they could “barely see out the window” and paddocks “started lifting” — with yellow sand-plain soil flying through the air, leaving just a “moonscape”.

“There is just sand built up in waves across the paddock — all of our furrows are gone,” Ms Allen said. “You can see wheat scattered across the ground.”

A light shower at 2pm sparked the Allens’ hopes the wind might let up but it didn’t, with a second shower that started at 4pm stretching well into the night.

“We went to bed at 9pm thinking ‘that is a lot of wind for 7mm’, and then we woke up to 14mm,” Ms Allen said.

Organic matter inside a Yuna household on May 24.
Camera IconOrganic matter inside a Yuna household on May 24. Credit: Jasmyn Allen

“It was still windy overnight but not as ferocious, and just a light rain overnight and very calm and consistent.”

The Allens were in recovery mode on Monday, busy cleaning the inside and outside of their home and assessing the damage to the paddocks.

They still had 500ha of lupins to seed this week but were busy using a digger to move piles of yellow sand from internal roads on the farm.

“It is getting late in the season to be reseeding and we definitely don’t have a plan to reseed the whole program,” Ms Allen said.

Heavy rainfall was reported from the west Pilbara to the South West, but most areas averaged between 20-30mm.

The strongest wind gusts were recorded at Cape Leeuwin and Cape Naturaliste — the former topping 132km/h on Sunday night, making it the strongest wind recorded in May since 2005.

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