Dust storm

The dust storm coming in from the west

The magnificent force of nature where I grew up is best demonstrated by a dust storm.

A tsunami of red sand billowing towards you from the west, gathering dust particles from wheat and sheep paddocks, blocking out the sun and giving a rosy haze to the sky is quite spectacular. From the vantage point of the family home, perched atop a red sand dune is truly quite awe-inspiring.

A few years ago a major dust storm crossed Australia from west to east and arrived in Sydney carrying the legacy of our deserts. This caused widespread amazement and many photos of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House bathed in a red hue. But where I’m from, this isn’t so unusual. Granted, it’s not an everyday occurrence, but you get a handful of big dust storms each year that make you hurry home to close the windows.

The dust storm dominating the sky

I was with my parents in the truck on Good Friday and as we travelled back home, we drove into the dust storm. The sky darkened and the windswept red rivulets of sand across the highway. As we turned off the highway we started to come out the other side od the dust storm. The mirrors were filled with a stormy red sky and in front of us lay a wide expanse of blue with some wispy white clouds.

“We’d best get home quick to close the windows,” my parents said.

Arriving at home we ran to make sure all the windows were closed and take the clothes off the line and then we were enveloped in the storm.

Water tank in the dust storm
A water tank stands sentinel during the dust storm

There is something so ethereal about the light and a quiet eerieness to a dust storm, there is a palpable sentiment to the westerly winds carrying the desert. I wandered around the house, searching for the best lookout point and occasionally coughing at the gritty sand that was drying out my mouth.

As I’m about to move to a hilly green seaside town in Colombia, I really appreciated the red sand show nature put on for me.

Adrenaline of fear

I met some English guys at the pub in Louisville and in the pouring rain I drove two of them to Wick’s bar where were going to get pizza and party into the night.

I half-heartedly conversed with them as my concentration was required on the roads which were like rivers, and were it seemed to take an eternity to drive the two miles there.

My knuckles whitened and gripped Esmeralda’s steering wheel harder as a weather warning for tornadoes came over the radio. No sooner had we driven past the bar did I hear the tornado sirens wailing in the streets.

I quickly parked Esmeralda behind a bank and post office, not caring if it was a towaway zone and said to the guys “We have to get out now!” and jumped out. The two Poms didn’t understand my haste and ten metres from the car I screamed at them to get out of the car so I could lock it.

“These are tornado sirens, we have to get inside NOW!” I bellowed like a fishwife.

I was petrified. I had visions of the tornado raging through the water-filled streets sucking me up along and slamming me with debris.

I ran about 20 metres to the street corner and barely checking the traffic, crossed the streets at a sloshy run holding my hands up in a ‘stop’ command to any vehicles thinking of crossing my path. I didn’t stop until I got to the safety of the bar and then turned to see the guys still standing on the other side of the street, bewildered and looking lost.

We asked a couple in a booth eating pizza if they were tornado sirens in the street and they were so nonplussed as they said “yeah” with a shrug of their shoulders. I was still packing shit. My legs were jittery from the adrenaline that had pumped through them in a state of fear just moments before.

At the counter I asked a girl about the sirens, my voice incredulous as it asked “Is that a tornado warning? Is there a tornado?” My eyes were wide with fear and she laughed it off and said oh-so-coolly “Yeah”. I asked if we were going to be okay and her reply was a not particularly comforting “Yeah, if it gets really bad we have a big basement.”

The guys clearly weren’t afraid as they were more worried about getting drinks. We had to go through to another section where you got all the beer and pizza you wanted for $10.75. The tornado warning and sirens were still on my mind and I ended up having a big conversation with the bouncer checking IDs about it. He finally calmed my nerves as he gave me all the info I was after. Apparently the tornado had touched down in Louisville earlier that afternoon (while I was in the safety of my motel room) and had taken the roof off a sports stadium. He said the danger was over and the rains were just what follows. Only after this conversation did I start to feel less shaky.

I think, even though I wasn’t right in middle the storm, that this is the most scared I’ve ever been.

Hurricanes and tornadoes

I have no idea what a hurricane or tornado is like. I only have footage from television to inform me on this count.

So when Astra invited Movie Lass and I along to an artist’s talk at the Annenberg Space for Photography exhibit titled Extreme Exposure we decided to go and were fascinated by Mike Thiess’s presentation and commentary as a photographer and videographer of hurricanes and tornadoes.

We heard the story of how he documents these massive storms to show people why they should be evacuating and he gets right in to the eyewall so as to get the full brunt of the weather conditions rather than the relatively ‘gentle breezes’ of the outer zones where most film crews are getting their news footage after going through a major hurricane as a teenager in Florida.

We saw so many photos and video clips of hurricanes, the before, the during and the after, however I was most in awe of the tornadoes. The photographs of tornadoes are incredibly beautiful and totally blew my mind with the colours and contrasts and cloud formations. However seeing photos of Greensburg, Kansas tornado in 2007 where the entire town was torn apart and flattened, and seeing trees that looked like they’d gone through a mulcher had a great impact on me in terms of the severity and relentlessness of these storms. I don’t know how I could live in tornado alley where this type of threat is always a possibility.

In Australia we’ve had our share of major disasters this year with the floods in Queensland and Victoria and the cyclone in Northern Queensland, but for me, coming from a town where the major storm events are massive red dust storms and irregular floods, the idea of such strong winds is really foreign. But I now have a much greater appreciation for them.