12 January 2005

Forecasters water down doomsday predictions

In Upington, residents can literally fry eggs on their car bonnets, it's so hot.

In KwaZulu-Natal, heavy rain and mist affected many parts of the province, and an MEC had to be rescued from the Drakensberg.

In Johannesburg, the SA Weather Service warns of more thunderstorms during the rest of the week.

This follows Saturday night's storm which caused flash floods that killed a woman crossing a low-water bridge, as well as a motorist.

In the Western Cape, farmers want the province to be declared a disaster area because of the drought that ruining crops, reducing herds and causing tough water restrictions to be imposed on residents.

While prophets of doom are calling these extreme weather conditions a sure sign of the end of days, weather experts are taking a scientific approach.

On Monday, Evert Scholtz, a forecaster with the SA Weather Service, said conditions were the result of different weather systems moving over the country.

"Thunderstorms are not unusual for this time of the year in Gauteng because we are in a summer rainfall area, but Saturday night's storm was severe," he said.

Scholtz, who was on duty on Saturday, said he had tracked the storm by radar.

"Just before 10pm it was south of Krugersdorp. I sent out a warning and then in the next hour it had moved up to Lanseria Airport. By the time it hit Pretoria, it lost some of its intensity but some areas reported receiving up to 40mm of rain," Scholtz said.

"The problem is that you can't really see most summer storms long enough before the time; we can only pick them up on the radar.

"On radar you can see the storm moving but we don't really have the facilities to warn people," he said.

Scholtz also warns of the possibility of accompanying lightning strikes and flash floods.

"Lightning is a very serious problem. Every thunderstorm, with or without rain, can cause a lightning death."

"The American weather service put out a warning at the beginning of their summer that lightning is still the biggest weather-related killer. I think it is the same in South Africa."

"And people don't realise the danger of flash floods. Even if rain does not fall in the area of a bridge it could cause flash floods lower down," he said.

Johannesburg Emergency Services spokesperson Malcolm Midgley says that since the rainfall season started they have been exceptionally busy responding to emergencies caused by weather.

The number of drownings since the start of December stands at more than 40, and because of this, police will intensify their watch on Gauteng's bodies of water at weekends.

Residents have had to put up with not only floodings and lightning strikes, but also power outages, disruptions to cellphone and land-line services, uprooted trees and delayed flights at airports.

On Saturday, Vodacom subscribers were temporarily without a service following the storm, said Dot Field, spokesperson for Vodacom.

She said the cellphone company's building in downtown Johannesburg caught fire after it was struck by lighting and the Vodacom service was temporarily affected on Sunday. Service was restored later on Sunday, Field said.

Telkom customers in some areas in Gauteng also experienced service disruptions on the weekend.

Within days of each other, Johannesburg International Airport felt the might of Mother Nature when, on November 31, a freak rain and hail storm caused flooding.

Stormwater pumps positioned on the border of the airport precinct could not cope with the massive deluge of water, causing flooding in the lower basement parking area.

The massive amount of hail caused some drains in the domestic terminal to become blocked.

Then, just a few days later, on December 3, another freak rain and wind storm hit the airport, this time causing damage to a few aircraft on the airport aprons, which had been shifted by the heavy winds.

Damage had been caused to three air bridges. The storm caused major delays. "We had never seen anything like it," Airports Company South Africa spokesperson Jacqui O'Sullivan said.

Only minor delays were caused on Saturday.

Scholtz reiterated his warning to Gautengers to expect more thundershowers. "We are expecting rain almost every day over Gauteng," he said.


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