We should prepare now for more stormy futures

It began slowly, but suddenly. A loud thump against the bonnet of the car, which we thought was a stone, followed by another, and then a bombardment of huge hail dropping from all sides of the car. It was Monday, just before 4pm, and a colleague and I were driving to an appointment in Roodepoort when we were caught up in what has been described as one of the biggest storms to hit Gauteng in recent years.

It lasted a lifetime, or so it seemed, even though the clock indicated the first rush of hail, which transformed the landscape almost immediately, was over within 15 minutes. This was followed by another hailstorm about 30 minutes later. By that time, we were safely at our meeting venue, but could hardly hear each other as the hail made thunderous music on the roof and windows of the building.

I have lived in Gauteng and travel there often, so had become used to thunderstorms and summer rains, but I had never been caught in a hail storm before and it was scary. I am surprised there was not more damage to the hired car, apart from some dents caused by hail stones, some of which were easily the size of golf balls. At one point, I thought the windscreen would be smashed.

At times I could not see where we were going, but there was no safe place to turn off, only trees, and we know it is not safe to park anywhere near trees in a storm. So we stopped and started until we got to our meeting, where we felt safer. I only told my colleague later how scared I was.

A day later, my fears appeared almost silly when I saw the flooding people in KwaZulu-Natal were experiencing and I read that what appeared to be a tornado had flattened homes in other parts of Gauteng and at least five people had been killed in Gauteng and 11 in KwaZulu-Natal. I saw the pictures of the devastation and I counted my lucky stars.

All the time, I thought about the drought in Cape Town and how we could do with the rain - without the hail, thunder and flooding, of course.

What is happening with the weather is not surprising, given the warnings of climate change of which we have been warned of for years, warnings that always seem to fall on unresponsive ears.

I remember when I first lived in Gauteng more than 20 years ago. You could set your watch to the weather, especially in summer.

We would take my daughters for swimming lessons at a local pool after school and knew we would have to take them out of the pool just after 3pm because a thunderstorm would be approaching.

The storm would last about 15 minutes and then the sun would return. My daughters would then make their way back into the swimming pool.

It is difficult to convince people about the dangers of climate change, and those who appear to be convinced are in a minority. It looks unlikely we will be able to save the planet and its people by changing behaviours, unless this is regulated, which requires convincing governments and international agencies.

It is also difficult to dictate to the weather how it should behave.

But what can be done is to prepare for the worst.

What the bad weather in Gauteng and KZN showed is the poor quality of infrastructure in those provinces. That roads could become flooded so easily might indicate a poor drainage system. When holes appear so quickly in Gauteng roads may indicate the use of inferior materials in constructing these roads.

The Western Cape is not off the hook here.

Whenever there are major rains in Cape Town - and we have not had any for quite a while - roads and, in some cases, entire townships get flooded.

I am not trying to downplay this week’s storms, but I feel that if we had prepared properly the situation could have been much better and at least some of the devastation avoided.

Governments are good at reacting after the fact, declaring disaster areas - whether it is because of weather or, in the case of Cape Town townships, gang warfare - but they are not good at preventing and minimising the catastrophes that necessitate declaring disaster areas.

Planning is important, as well as proper execution of plans.

Perhaps the storms are telling us more about the government’s inability to handle crisis than we are prepared to admit.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 14 October 2017)