From the Archives, 1998: Storm wreaks havoc at Melbourne Zoo

First published in The Age on February 28, 1998

Storm havoc forces zoo to close

Floods and blackouts hit the city

Melbourne Zoo was closed yesterday for probably the first time in its 136-year history after falling victim to summer’s one, last-gasp effort to wreak mayhem on Thursday night.

A fallen tree destroyed part of the cheetah enclosure.Credit:Angela Wylie

After a season of drought, fire, flash floods and drownings, powerful gusts of wind that blacked out parts of Melbourne on Thursday also destroyed 50 trees, damaged fences and dumped debris across the zoo’s internationally acclaimed gardens.

But the animals escaped injury, having been already locked up in their night compounds.

The zoo reopened at 3pm to stage one of its last twilight jazz concerts of the season after staff and volunteers worked all day to clean up. “It was horticultural disaster,” said a spokeswoman, Ms Judith Henke. “There is not an area of the gardens where there was not storm damage.”

Ms Henke said ferocious winds whipping through Royal Park just after 7 pm on Thursday took less than 10 minutes to uproot or dismember trees.

Zoo staff remove part of a mahogany tree blown into the fur seal enclosure.Credit:Angela Wylie

One falling tree broke the fence of the cheetah enclosure, but because the animals had been locked up for the night, they were protected from harm and had no chance of escape.

Another tree was uprooted and blown into the seal pool. Zoo staff were very sad to lose the tree, a mahogany gum believed to be up to 400 years old.

The pool will have to be filtered for a couple of days to clear the sawdust before the seals could return for public display, Ms Henke said.

More than 55,000 homes in Melbourne’s north-east were blacked out, taxis virtually disappeared from the city and intersections in the eastern suburbs were left without lights when the wild storm swept across the metropolitan area.

A spokeswoman for United Energy, Ms Deidre Fleming, said lightning strikes had swept through suburbs including Burwood, Surrey Hills, Mount Waverley and Glen Waverley between 7 pm and 7.30 pm.

“We seem to be in a lightning belt here and lightning hit it number of main supply stations as well as smaller assets on the system,” she said.

While most customers were reconnected by midnight, repair crews were still working on isolated areas yesterday morning, she said.

A spokesman for the State Emergency Service, Mr Peter Cocks, said volunteers had received about 200 calls for assistance, mostly from the north-western suburbs. However, most damage was minor, consisting of flash flooding, tiles off roofs and blocked downpipes.

The SES was called by police to provide emergency floodlighting at intersections in Knox and Croydon where both traffic and street lights had been knocked out, Mr Cocks said.

A Bureau of Meteorology spokesman said the storms had dropped about 12 millimetres of rain on the city, but little rain had fallen in rural areas.

In a wrap-up of summer weather, the Bureau has highlighted several unusual climatic conditions, with slightly higher temperatures than average during February and a monthly total of 69.6 millimetres of rain in Melbourne up until last night, compared with a February average of 46 millimetres.

Statistics for rural rainfall showed that several places in east Gippsland and central Victoria were experiencing a record drought.

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