Two die as storm fury lashes Victoria (+ multimedia)

Last updated 08:36 03/04/2008
Fairfax
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Victorians were left wondering what had hit them last night after fierce winds that reached speeds of up to 130km/h, dust storms and rain caused widespread destruction across southern Australian state.

More than 200,000 houses were left without power, and some without roofs, as suburban and country train services were severely disrupted and traffic restricted for up to three hours on two of Melbourne's key arteries, the West Gate and Bolte bridges.

A woman in her 50s died when a wall collapsed into a laneway in Mentone.

WorkSafe authorities were also investigating whether the extreme conditions were involved in the collapse of scaffolding in Dandenong, which left a 48-year-old construction worker dead.

The weather, which ripped through Warrnambool and the south-west of the state in the late morning before hitting Melbourne in the afternoon, brought down hundreds of trees and powerlines, in some cases sparking spot fires. Telephone services were also disrupted.

Big seas wrecked boats along the coast and in Port Phillip Bay.

Melbourne's evening peak-hour traffic came to a standstill as two lanes on West Gate Bridge were closed and trucks and motorcycles banned from crossing it. Traffic on the Bolte Bridge was restricted to 40 km/h and the Domain Tunnel was kept to just one lane.

Glen Waverley trains had stopped running by late afternoon because of power line failures and at least five other lines were hit hard. V/Line country services were also disrupted.

Connex spokesman John Rees said there was likely to be a knock-on effect for today's morning peak travel period.

"It's going to be difficult because a lot of trains will be in the wrong place (overnight) but we'll be working through the night to sort it out as best we can," he said.

The weather bureau said the wild weather had its genesis in cyclone Pancho that rounded the south-western corner of Australia and was blowing out to sea before intensifying and causing mayhem across south-eastern Australia. South Australia and Tasmania were badly affected.

The bureau's severe weather expert, Kevin Parkyn, said the magnitude of the storms was unusual for the time of year.

The remnants of the cyclone had "filled in a little bit" before it moved across Victoria, magnifying its impact.

A burst of cold air from above the Southern Ocean had collided with seasonally warm northerly winds to trigger the event.

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The State Emergency Service took at least 2200 calls by yesterday evening. At the height of the storm the SES took distress calls at the rate of one every seven seconds, as some gusts reached hurricane force.

Colac recorded a northerly gust of 132km/h at 1pm and its strongest winds for more than six years, according to private meteorologists Weatherzone.

Gusts just shy of 120km/h were recorded at Warrnambool, Mount Dandenong and Melbourne Airport. Winds were also fiercest in Victoria's Alps with Falls Creek recording 100km/h-plus wind gusts.

An ambulance spokesman said the woman, 57, who was killed had been walking in a laneway in Florence Street, Mentone, when the wall fell on her, burying her under rubble.

The roof of the Caulfield General Medical Hospital was also badly damaged in the storm but no injuries were reported.

In western Victoria, roofs were blown off houses in Port Fairy and Edenhope, and 10 people were taken to hospital following a three-car accident in a dust storm near Buangor, outside Ararat.

The winds forced yesterday's race meeting at Sandown to be abandoned after just two races.

John Hart, the commodore of the Mornington Yacht Club, said the winds tore through at 72 knots with five-metre waves crashing over the pier.

Twenty-three boats were smashed on to the rocks or beach, while a large motor boat sank at its mooring and a jetty was damaged.

"It was the worst seas ever seen at Mornington," he said, estimating the damages bill at about $2 million.

Metropolitan Ambulance Service paramedics reported widespread minor injuries.

At least three people were struck by tree branches, receiving injuries ranging from facial cuts to a broken leg, while two elderly women were injured when they were knocked over by the wind. A 30-year-old man was hit on the head by flying debris on Southbank Promenade.

An 89-year-old man received injuries when blown from a roof at Bulleen and a 22-year-old man received an electric shock in Elizabeth Street, Coburg North, when powerlines came down on the telephone box he was using.

Firefighters were called to a fire at a Telstra pit in Moorabbin, which affected phone services in the area.

Strong winds, showers and hail are forecast for Melbourne and suburbs this morning, followed by a fine afternoon.

- The Age

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