12th to 16th December 1999

By Carl Smith

Click here for TC JOHN Map Animation


See notes at end for source information etc..

During the first week of December 1999, monsoonal activity was building in the region to the north of Australia, stretching across southern Indonesia, far northern Australia, southern Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. A small Tropical Low developed in the Coral Sea off Cape York peninsula resulting the BoM issuing a CYCLONE WATCH for the Cape York area, but the Low soon weakened and moved east, away from the coast. During the second week of December, intensifying activity, called a monsoonal burst by the BoM, began to concentrate on the Indonesian end of this range. From this monsoonal activity, 2 cyclones were born, TC ILSA (01S) and TC JOHN (02S). TC ILSA is the subject of a seperate report.

TC JOHN (02S) was named by the BoM around 6am AWST on the 12th of December 1999 (2200 UTC 11th), in the Timor Sea, 585 km (315 Nautical Miles [NM]) NW of Broome on the NW WA coast, with JTWC saying at 2100 UTC (5 am AWST) that an 1130 UTC Tropical Rainfall Measuring mission (TRMM) pass depicted a tightly curved convective band surrounding a 20 NM cloud filled eye and deep convection appeared to be about 25 NM southwest of the LLCC. Water vapour and 200 MB analysis indicated a developed upper-level anticyclone situated over the system, and animated imagery revealed feeder bands moving over the Eighty Mile Beach, northeast of Port Hedland. TC John was forecast to move south-southwestward within the mid-level steering flow of a subtropical ridge situated over Australia.

TC John was upgraded to Category 3 at 12:00 am WST on Monday, 13 December 1999 (1655UTC 12 Dec), and the first PRIORITY media release for broadcast by BoM PERTH was issued at 6:40 am WST on Monday, 13 December 1999 (2240 UTC 12 Dec) saying "A CYCLONE WATCH is now current for a category 3 cyclone for the coastal areas between Wallal and Onslow". At 6:00 am WST (2200 UTC 12th), central pressure was 965 hPa (MB) with maximum wind gusts of 180 kilometres per hour (110 knots [KT]) near the centre. JTWC noted that a previous TRMM image revealed a well structured banded eye feature which visible imagery showed had developed into an elongated full eye structure, and satellite imagery showed that the system continued to dominate the region with good outflow aloft and a symetric overall appearance.

Advices continued being issued showing that it was intensifying, and was upgraded to Category 4 at 9 pm WST on Monday, 13 December 1999 (1300 UTC), with central pressure of 955 hPa (MB) and maximum wind gusts of 225 kilometres per hour (120 KT) near the centre. The ongoing warnings showed the continued strengthening of TC John overnight, and during the following morning the warning area progressively increased. JTWC noted that the eye had grown to 30 NM surrounded by a concentric eyewall.

TC John was upgraded to Category 5 at 4 pm WST on Tuesday, 14 December 1999 (0800 UTC), and was located 195 kilometres (105 NM) northwest of Port Hedland and 200 kilometres (110 NM) northnortheast of Karratha and moving southsouthwest at 15 kilometres per hour (8 KT). Central pressure was 915 hPa (MB) with maximum wind gusts of 290 kilometres per hour (155 KT) near the centre. JTWC had noted at 0300 UTC that dry air entrainment was begining to wrap into the northwestern quadrant of the system.

Extract from the ABC national radio evening current affairs program PM, Tuesday, December  14, 1999  6:37 AEDT (3:37 pm WST) (0937 UTC) -
...Len Broadbridge [phonetic] from the weather bureau in Perth said what's most concerning is that Cyclone John is only moving at about 15 kilometres an hour and that means it's gaining in strength. "And what that means is that should it get very close to a town that the period of very very dangerous winds, the very destructive winds could last for four or five hours rather than, say, one or two hours which was the case with Cyclone Vance which moved past Exmouth quite quickly..."

The next advices showed the number of communities under yellow and blue alerts increasing, and then several places were under red alert. From 10pm WST (1400 UTC), the BoM issued hourly warnings, which is normal procedure when a large cyclone begins impacting on coastal communities. And JTWC noted at 2100 UTC that it had a 33 NM diameter eye, with good outflow aloft, and that the radar at Dampier imagery indicated a very strong eyewall associated with the system, with satellite imagery indicating an elongation of the system along a northwest-southeast axis, and an area of dry air south and west of the system remained evident in the water vapour imagery.

Extract from the ABC national radio news, Wed, Dec 15 1999 6:02 AM AEDT (3:02 AM WST) (1902 UTC 14th) -
...duty forecaster with the Bureau of Meteorology Ken Marriot said that because of the high wind speeds and slow moving nature of the cyclone, damage to nearby towns is expected to be severe. "The eye is about 50 to 60 kilometres (27-32 NM) across moving at 12 kilometres an hour (6.5 KT), so your looking at four to five hours for it to pass over any one particular point...".

Having spared Karratha from the worst of it's fury, TC John was crossing the coast at 8am WST on Wednesday, 15 December 1999 (0000 UTC), near Whim Creek, with very destructive and dangerous winds with estimated gusts of 290 kilometres per hour (155 KT) near the cyclone centre. Central pressure was 915 hPa (MB) with a severity category of 5. It was continuing to cross the coast near Whim Creek at at 9am AWST (0100 UTC), and the central pressure had risen to 920 hPa (MB), showing that it was starting to weaken.

Extract from the Midday National ABC current affairs program The World Today, December  15, 1999  12:10 (9:10 am WST) (0110 UTC) -
As we go to air this Wednesday, residents of communities in the Pilbara are sheltering from some of the strongest winds this century - Cyclone John is pounding the coast and nearby areas with winds approaching 290 kilometres per hour (155 KT)...
...TANYA NOLAN ... Phone lines have gone down to Whim Creek and other nearby towns, so it's really hard at this stage to get a good picture of what's actually going on up there. Even the SES personnel in Roebourne and Wickham, the nearby towns have bunkered down so the damage assessment at this stage is just really unknown.
In Karratha there have been a few damage reports, a few holes in roofs, that sort of thing and anecdotally what we're hearing from Wickham residents is that a few homes have lost their roofs, a car has been lost, trees uprooted, fences down, that sort of thing...
...A hotel is all that really exists at Whim Creek, so staff and guests at that hotel, yes, would be bearing the brunt of it right now....

The eye of TC John had completed coastal crossing by 10am WST (0200 UTC), and weakened to Category 4, 930 hPa (MB), maximum wind gusts of 260 kilometres per hour (140 KT) near the centre. The BoM had wound back it's warnings to 3 hourly intervals as TC John continued inland weakening as it went

Extract from the ABC national evening current affairs program PM, Wednesday, December  15, 1999  6:11 pm AEDT (3:11 pm WST) (0711 UTC) -
...ADRIENNE LOWTH But just as Karratha residents were bracing themselves for the worst, Cyclone John changed direction slightly, as Len Broadbridge from the Weather Bureau explains.
LEN BROADBRIDGE: This was a category 5 storm. The winds around the eye of the cyclone were approaching gusts of 290, maybe even 300 kilometers an hour (155-160 KT), and that's about as powerful as you can get anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, or fortunately really, the cyclone veered away from Karratha at one o'clock this morning when it was only 100 kilometers (55 NM) away and the full brunt of the storm therefore missed the populated towns of Dampier and Karratha.
And I said "unfortunate" and that's because we do have instruments there that could have measured the full impact of this storm but it went in over Whim Creek where we don't have any instrumentation and so we don't have any ground truth as to the full strength of this, like we did with Cyclone Vance...
...Station owner, Laurrie Edwards, describes how his car was totally wrecked.
LAURRIE EDWARDS: I had it parked out the back door there just in case we happened to abandon ship and go and sit in it and it bloody must have pressurised, or something and the passenger side and driver's side .. em, the front and back window imploded. It just sort of went "bang" and sucked into the motor car...
...ADRIENNE LOWTH: Bill MacDonald, a tugboat operator, was forced to shelter from the cyclone while at sea.
BILL MACDONALD; At the height of it there was very, very little visibility, and the roar is something that takes a little getting used to. The roar of the wind when it gets over say 65, 70 sound like - I suppose the best way to describe it is it sounds like a Mack truck running across the front deck, if you like...

TC John had been downgraded to Category 3 by the time of the next warning at 4pm WST (0800 UTC). At 0900 UTC, JTWC noted that animated satellite imagery indicated weakening in the northern quadrant and elongation to the southeast as TC 02S (John) moved inland and into a higher wind shear environment, and that it maintained a ragged, cloud filled eye, though it had been over land for the past 8 hours. Northwestern Australian radar imagery indicated the eyewall was collapsing, and dry air entrainment had served to weaken the convection along the northern boundry of the system.

The following warnings showed the continuing weakening trend, having been downgraded to Category 2 by 9 pm AWST (1300 UTC). At 1500 UTC JTWC isued it's final warning saying that animated satellite imagery indicated a rapid weakening of the system due to dry air entrainment and interaction with the land. They forecast that it would continue to track south-southeastward under the steering influence of the mid-level subtropical ridge to the east, that it had lost it's eye, and would be completely dissapated within 12 hours.

By 6am AWST on the 17th (2200 UTC 15th), TC John had been downgraded to Category 1.

Extract from the ABC national radio news, Thu, Dec 16 1999 12:08 PM AEDT  (9:08 AM WST) (0108 UTC) -
Flooding hits Newman as Cyclone John moves inland
Parts of the Western Australian mining town, Newman, are under water as Tropical Cyclone John travels inland. Some homes were flooded as 210 millimetres (8.27 inches) of rain fell on the town.
Gil Murray from the State Emergency Service in Newman expects further flooding and damage to property as the rain continues. "There are quite a number of the houses with water running through," he said. "We've had numerous calls with water inside, quite a few trees around town at the moment that seem to have fallen down." "We haven't seen any with actual structural damage except for fencing but we haven't been able to assess the full damage at this stage."
A man who sheltered from the cyclone in a large refrigerator says he is amazed so many areas escaped massive damage. The caretaker of the Point Samson Caravan Park, Russell Lewis, says its was an experience to weather the cyclone with other people in a fridge normally used for storing fish. "It was very hot in there [but] it was good," he said. "There were about nine or 10 of us in there and we just seemed to muck around and talk and we had ABC radio on all night." "It was rather keen to have that because it kept us going. It was different, I can tell you that."
The manageress of the Auski roadhouse, located 190 kilometres (about 100 NM or 120 statute miles) north of Newman, says a number of truck drivers protected the roadhouse from the cyclone using their trucks. Laurie Clancy says the truck drivers parked their vehicles in an arc to block the strong winds. "They were double trailers and triple trailers," she said. "They had quite big loads on them, carrying heavy equipment up north." "They were really a great barrier. It was a great idea and you could see the difference straight away. As soon as they were surrounding the roadhouse, it was cutting down the wind quite a lot."
The SES says other Pilbara towns escaped the full force of John's 290 kilometre an hour (155 KT) winds. But the owners of the 113-year-old pub at Whim Creek, who sheltered during the cyclone in a sea container, have a huge task to rebuild the hotel, which lost its top storey.
SES regional manager Gary Gifford says most of the repairs will be to roofs, while power and other utilities will also have to be restored.
Marlene Hooson from Mulga Downs station says the eye of the cyclone crossed her property, bringing with it 207 millimetres (8.25 inches) of rain in a matter of hours. "One minute the lawn was there and the next minute it was covered in red water and it was like, 'quick, let's get everything up as fast as we can'," she said...

Extract from the ABC national midday radio current affairs program The World Today, Thursday, December  16, 1999  12:23 AEDT (9:23 AM WST) -
...However, a huge amount of damage and heavy flooding has been left in its wake up in the north-west of Australia. The mining town of Newman has so far recorded more than 240 millimetres (9.45 inches) of rain flooding homes and roads overnight...
...TANYA NOLAN: Yes, well John, we're getting a bit of a clear picture today of the damage and we are just fantastically lucky that there's been no major structural damage. I think the latest estimate was about 30 houses which suffered some sort of damage whether parts of roofs were missing; that sort of thing, a few walls down. But nothing really dramatic...
...Whim Creek...I met Peter Ringle, the owner, and his wife, Ingrid. And yes, this is what they had to say to me.
PETER RINGLE: Couldn't go outside too often. And when I did have a look, there were sheets of iron going everywhere. Here, you couldn't hear much, just a lot of wind, noise, creaking, groaning, smashing.
TANYA NOLAN: So what have you lost up the top there?
PETER RINGLE: Well I haven't been up there yet. As you can see the top's gone. I'd think most of the top floor has gone. Without actually having a look, I couldn't tell you...
...TANYA NOLAN: And do you imagine those winds would have got up to the 290 kilometre an hour (155 KT) mark?
PETER RINGLE: I'm not an expert but it certainly was quite intensive and when you see what I saw flying around it would have to be damned good. We actually have a tractor, a back hoe, quite a big machine. It was parked strategically at the back of the pub to protect the vehicle. Now that tractor was moved back some probably 15 feet by the winds. So you know, it demonstrates it was quite strong...

The final BoM advice was issued at 9:25 am AWST (0125UTC), when Ex-TC John had degenerated to a rain depression.

Extract from the ABC national current affairs program PM, Thursday, December  16, 1999  6:35 PM AEDT (3:35 PM WST) (0735UTC) -
...ADRIENNE LOWTH: John has now been downgraded to a rain bearing depression, but as Len Broadbridge from the Perth Weather Bureau explains, it's effects are still being felt inland.
LEN BROADBRIDGE: It is weakening now from the point of view of winds. However, it is still dumping a lot of rain and that rain is sort of extending down through into the Eastern gold fields and beyond, probably.
ADRIENNE LOWTH: In fact, ex-Cyclone John has dumped more than 500 millimeters (19.7 inches) of rain on the area. About 25 homes in Newman have been flooded and residents in Wittenoom and Tom Price have spent the day mopping up after a night of torrential downpours...


Note 1: Tropical Cyclone Advices, Updates, and Shipping Warnings used as sources for meteorological information in this report were issued by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) Perth Tropical Cyclone Warning Centre and are Copyright Commonwealth of Australia 1999, Bureau of Meteorology - BoM information is used unless otherwise noted.

Note 2: BoM Perth WA issues warnings to the Australian public using kilometers for distances, kilometers per hour for maximum gust wind speeds, hPa for central pressure, and times are WST, which is Australian Western Standard Time = UTC + 8 hours. I have converted all these and added in them brackets, so changing to nautical miles (nearest 5 NM), knots (nearest 5 KT), hPa = MB, and times are also given in UTC.

Note 3: Joint Typhoon Warning Centre (JTWC), Pearl Harbour, tropical cyclone warnings were also used for extra meteorological information where indicated, and that material is copyright JTWC -

Note 4: All extracts of transcripts of ABC news and current affairs programs used in this report are © 1999 Australian Broadcasting Corporation - Some times are given in Australian Eastern Daylight Savings Time (UTC + 11 hours), which I have converted first to WST, then to UTC. Where rainfalls are given in millimeters, I have converted them to inches.

Note 5: Instrument readings for TC John are rather lacking, as it crossed the coast in a sparsely populated area about 75 km (40 NM) from the nearest weather station, however some anecdotal information from the ABC has been included to illustrate a variety of experiences closer to the centre.

Note 6: Being one of the more cyclone prone places on Earth, buildings in NW WA are constructed with very severe cyclones in mind, and the relatively low level of damage from severe cyclones in this area reflects the generally high standard of building construction practices used in the region, however, even with such high building construction standards, had slow moving TC John Category 5 made landfall at Karratha, damage would have been severe and widespread, and some may have lost their lives in the resulting devastation - only solid reinforced concrete bunkers and similar constructions could withstand the full destructive power of one of the most intense cyclones of the 20th Century for such an extended length of time.

Note 7: The arc arrangement of the "trucks" around a roadhouse was quite a good inovation to protect the place. To put this in perspective, most Australians would know that "trucks" in this region are 'road trains', which are very heavy duty trucks capable of pulling many thousands of tonnes and can have up to 6 full size trailers towed behind them - they are very dangerous vehicles to overtake. Here, they would probably be carrying very heavy replacement parts for iron ore mining machinery, so in some cases the load could be up to 2 or 3 normal traffic lanes wide and so high that they need to take a route where there are no bridges to go under. 2 or 3 trailers would be a very large and heavy load, and a number of these "trucks" would be a very effective wind break that even TC John would find very difficult to shift!


Maintained by Carl Smith.

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