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All hail the Howarth elevator

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It’s been 20 years since Brisbane was hit by its worst hailstorm ever.

I recall looking up on the afternoon of Friday, 18 January 1985, and seeing a very menacing dark green sky as I left the Royal Brisbane Hospital car park to head home during peak hour.

I didn’t get far in the traffic before I had to pull over as the storm struck and visibility was immediately reduced to zero, with the rain (and hail) bucketing down.

The sound of hail stones as big as cricket balls hitting the roof of my 1980 Chrysler GH Sigma was deafening.

Thinking that I might protect my panels with some towels, I bravely ventured out of my vehicle, only to make a hasty retreat after copping a blow to the head from a large chunk of ice.

I might have thought twice about braving the elements if I’d known that 55 millimetres of rain had fallen in 10 minutes, and that wind gusts of up to 187 kilometres an hour were being recorded at Brisbane Airport.

The wind was so strong that the hail was being driven horizontally, and my car was being hit from all angles.

The damage to my vehicle was not immediately obvious that night, but in the morning light my car looked like it had taken hundreds of blows from a hammer.

I recall that it cost $4000 to cut off my roof, replace the bonnet and boot and put body filler in the hundreds of dents all over my $8000 car.

The cost to the community overall was $300 million ($900 million in today’s money).

Twenty per cent of Brisbane’s cars and 20,000 homes were damaged in the storm, and 2000 homes were un-roofed.

Repairs to vehicles took up to a year, as there were simply not enough spare parts in Australia to fix the thousands of cars that had been damaged.

Automotive repair methods have changed considerably since 1985, with stronger and thinner metal panels and modern flexible paint.

Nowadays there is a fair chance that most, if not all, of the dents to cars caused by hail can be repaired without body filler or re-painting.

One of the techniques used is to pull the dents out by attaching a stick with a dab of glue to the divot and applying a heat gun or freezing gas or compressed air to pop it out.

But the most common high-tech method of fixing a dent is to push it out from behind with a pointy stick.

I should have known that this was possible, because I’d been a surgical registrar and I’d elevated the depressed zygomatic arch many times with a Howarth elevator using the Gillies method.

Of course, these days the pointy stick is a bit more sophisticated than a cut-off garden stake. Modern automotive pointy sticks have a magnetized rotating ball on the end which allows the operator to see exactly where the stick is internally situated by placing a ball-bearing on the outside of the panel.

Repairers have a highly practised technique, with most repairs using a circular motion from the outside to the centre.

All of this is only possible of course if the metal (and paint) isn’t stretched (too much).

Late last month (Thursday, 27 November) Brisbane copped another massive hailstorm during peak-hour, and another $200 million dollars’ worth of damage.

I’ll be out there with my Howarth elevator to lend a helping hand if needed.

Hail facts:

Hail forms when an up-draft of air in a storm causes water to freeze and solidify and fall back to Earth.

A cricket ball weighs 160 gm.

A 7.2 cm (cricket ball) sized hail stone weighs 195 gm, and will fall to Earth at 48 m/sec or 173 km/h.

Being hit by a large hail stone can be deadly.