Notebook: Mateship under strain as Sydney settles down to life under tarpaulin

For a few days after the great hailstorm that devastated the city, everyone pulled together. But now the 'whinging' has begun in earnest

THE NIGHT of Wednesday 14 April will long be remembered by the people of Sydney. That was when the sky fell on Australia's oldest and largest city. Raw-boned, cynical Sydney has seen a few sights in its time: floods, fires, shoot-outs, even plagues. But none quite like this, when lumps of ice the size of cricket balls crashed from the sky, leaving wrecks of houses, cars, trees and anything else in their paths.

No one has given the hailstorm a name yet, which is strange, because it has been officially declared the worst natural disaster in Sydney's history. Hollywood could make a movie out of it, but the title Ice Storm has already been taken. Last week it was pronounced the third-worst natural disaster in Australia, after an earthquake that rocked Newcastle, north of Sydney, in 1989, and Cyclone Tracy, which flattened Darwin in the Northern Territory in 1974. A total of 77 people died in those two disasters. Apart from a lone fisherman who was struck by lightning, no one died in Sydney's ice storm. But, more than a week later, everyone is still talking about where they were when it struck.

I was on the 19th floor of an apartment building called The Elan at the top of Kings Cross, right in the heart of town. The Elan is the latest example of the sort of structure that has transformed Sydney from a low- slung city of sandstone buildings, planned on British lines, to a place that could be anywhere. The Matrix, a new Hollywood fantasy thriller starring Keanu Reeves, was shot among Sydney's street canyons last year for precisely that reason. Up at bird's eye level on the 19th floor, as our hostess was about to serve dinner, the view from her balcony turned black without warning. Wind hit the tower and dark clouds rumbled across Sydney Harbour at the bottom of the hill. Then, with a deafening roar, the hail struck.

Sydney had been having a late (southern) summer of hot, humid weather for which we were now paying. All that moisture was sucked into the sky where it froze into droplets that grew bigger until they were too heavy to be supported by the storm's powerful updrafts - and then fell, reaching a speed of 125mph by the time they hit the ground.

Below us lay Sydney's Piccadilly Circus, the intersection that is usually the busiest and most chaotic in this city of four million people. Within minutes, it was eerily deserted. Where the cars went, I have no idea. But, for possibly the first time in more than 200 years, humans abandoned this crossroad to nature as the streets turned into thick beds of ice.

The storm lasted for an hour. When I arrived home nearby, the lights in my street were out and have remained so ever since. Only next morning did the city realise what had hit it. My apartment building, somewhat older than the Elan, lost 200 tiles from the roof. But somehow we were not flooded, unlike thousands of other buildings where rocks of ice crashed through the roofs and took ceilings below with them. A retired English woman who lives near me said the noise reminded her of living through the Blitz in London.

A friend's work colleague was on her way home in a taxi during the storm, when the back windscreen was shattered. She screamed. The driver pulled over: "You'd better get in the front, love." She did, then the front windscreen was smashed. She sought refuge in a pub, which promptly caught fire when the hail caused an electrical fault.

John Stoddart, a production designer, slipped down the stairs of his Victorian terrace when the hail smashed a skylight. He was about to leave for Vienna with Bruce Beresford, the director, to start shooting Alma Mahler, a film about Gustav Mahler's wife; instead he's recovering from a three-hour operation on his broken foot.

Sydney's response to the disaster says much about the strains on the old Australian ethos of "mateship" at the turn of the millennium. At first people took it in their stride, tradesmen worked around the clock to cover roofs with tarpaulins before more rain fell and volunteer bush-fire brigades from country towns rushed to help their city cousins. Insurance companies took over warehouses to receive damaged cars, wrote cheques on the spot for owners of written-off vehicles and gave them their taxi fares home. But then the tarpaulins ran out, and the old co-operative spirit turned sour. People started blaming the weather bureau which, it emerged, saw the storm coming but thought it was heading out to sea. Instead, it turned at the last minute and dumped on the most densely-populated parts of Sydney. But how would a weather bureau warning have saved 20,000 damaged cars that had no place to hide, and twice that number of wrecked roofs? Then they blamed the hapless head of the State Emergency Service, who initially declined an offer of help from the army because he thought soldiers did not know how to tie down tarpaulins. The army moved troops into Sydney only a week later, when a fifth of the damaged buildings still lay exposed to the elements.

From Botany Bay to Bondi Beach, Sydney's rooftops, mine included, resemble a quilt, a mosaic of multi-coloured tarpaulins. That's how they'll stay for at least six months, the minimum waiting time for repairs. The total damages bill is close to A$1bn (pounds 500m). Construction and roofing companies are making a killing. The city is in a sniping mood. Today is Anzac Day, a national holiday when Australia honours its war dead. Perhaps the Anzac ceremonies will help Sydney put its turbulent ice storm into perspective.


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