I lived in Cairns for 11 years from Jan 1995 to Jan 2006. During that time my wife and I, like most who live in the north for any length of time, experienced a couple cyclones and numerous cyclone warnings that didn't eventuate.
The first one we went through was Cyclone Justin in March 1997. As relative newcomers to cyclone country we prepared for it with ultra due diligence. We taped the windows, stocked up the pantry with canned goods, filled the basins with water (in case the water supply was cut off) and tied down everything we could find in the little courtyard of our townhouse.
The cyclone hit early in the morning, and when it crossed the coast – hitting the northern beaches of Cairns it was a Category 2 cyclone. Rather fortunately, our townhouse in Redlynch (a town about 20 km north west of Cairns proper) was perfectly situated so that the winds blew parallel with the building. It meant we could have our back door open and watch the trees all bending to the left and not have too much concern that our place was in danger. The eye passed and then after ten minutes or so the trees were all bending to the right. It was very exciting to us cyclone newbies, and we were on the phone to our parents explaining what was happening like it was some great adventure.
Of course it wasn’t – while Justin was not a severe cyclone when it crossed the coast, it still did lead to 7 deaths in Australia and 26 in PNG.
For us however the biggest problem was the lack of electricity. One thing people watching from the south forget is that cyclones hit in the summer or early autumn, when the temperatures are pretty bloody hot, and so you can be sitting around in 32C heat, with 95 per cent humidity and no air conditioners, no fans and no fridge (the days after the recent QLD floods were much like this).
I was working at the Cairns Casino at the time, and unusually was on day shift. And so the next day when the casino opened (the casino was often the first thing opened after a cyclone) I was in there dealing blackjack to the many people who had thronged there – some because they were gambling addicts who we had had to push out the door a few days earlier when we closed due to the coming cyclone, but others were there because we had power and beer on tap.
That day Cairns and the tablelands that feed the Barron River which flows just north of Cairns city had around a 12-15 inches of rain, and thus by the time my shift was over the roads home were all blocked.
The casino management, bless them, put those of us who were flooded in up at the associated casino hotel – in the top suites no less. My wife happened to have been in town when the roads were closed, so the both of us enjoyed a nice night in a top hotel all due to the cyclone.
So I can’t say it was an overly bad experience.
For the next few years there were warnings of cyclones that then turned out to sea or became rain depressions, and thus we – like many – developed a kind of ambivalence to cyclone warnings. Yeah we tied down things in the back yard, but we didn’t get too worried unless the cyclone was at least category 2 – Category 1? Pah, that’s a storm with a name.
It was all a bit stupid really, and we took it to the logical lengths of stupidity so that by the time 2000 rolled around and Cyclone Steve came rumbling in, we were around at a friends place having a “cyclone party”. By this time we all had the internet and so were able to track it in on the Bureau of Meteorology site while we drank our beer and ate of barbecued chops. It was actually a perfect February day (Feb 27), and we couldn't believe that such a fierce storm could only be 150km away, only 100km away, only 75 km away, only 50 km away only, hey where's all the power gone and why am I now having trouble standing up?
The winds picked up literally in an instant. One moment we we all just chatting and laughing and thinking maybe it’s not going to hit; the next moment we were all quickly rushing to get home.
We drove home beating the front by minutes – we walked in the door, switched on the lights and then the power went off and the winds came. We found out the next day that a massive tree had fallen over and blocked the road we had just driven only some 5 minutes earlier. It was a worse cyclone in many ways than Justin – Justin had had nice constant wind, this one came in strong gusts – as though the sky was trying to rip out the trees with short violent tugs. The way the boughs and branches were flying around I was truly worried about the thought of a tree coming through our bedroom windows. A tree did fall on the carport, but fortunately there was no damage to our car – only the fence.
No one died in Queensland from Steve, but it took roofs, and brought down masses of trees – the damage bill was around $100m.
One thing about cyclones is that due to the damage to vegetation, the Cairns council would tell people just to dump the branches etc on the footpath out the front of your home and the council would come and clear it up. Suspiciously after such times it seems quite a few people would decide to also do a bit of backyard maintenance that may not completely have had to do with the cyclone. If there was one perk from a cyclone, this was it – free green waste disposal.
And that was it for our cyclone experience (apart from the near misses and never cames)
In 2005 Cyclone Ingrid hit north of Cooktown, but in Cairns we didn’t feel it, so that doesn’t count.
Two months after we left Cairns, one hit that makes everyone realise just how complacent we can be about cyclones – Cyclone Larry. This was a Category 4 cyclone when it crossed near Innisfail, and it actually felt odd that I had missed it – I almost felt guilty that we were no longer there.
Because of Larry, the worry about cyclones is now much more heightened than it was in those carefree times of the early 2000s when Cairns kept getting missed. But a quick squiz at the map of cyclones in North Queensland from 1906-2006 shows that it never is good to get too comfortable. The place is a magnet for the things.
Earlier this week it was Bowen’s turn to get hit – Cyclone Anthony came for a visit. It was a Category 2, and thankfully no one was greatly hurt, though there will be damages to vegetation and a few roofs.
And so we would all like to think that Queensland has caught a break - that a cyclone that could have been horrendously destructive came and went and hasn’t done much more than blow down some trees.
But no. No break has been caught, because coming via Fiji is Cyclone Yasi.
Have a look at the size of that thing.
Let’s compare it to Anthony:
Anthony is the little white patch on the QLD coast.
Yasi is the thing that looks the Earth equivalent of Jupiter’s red dot.
Now the good thing is just because it seems to stretch in diameter from Brisbane to Cairns doesn't mean both Brisbane and Cairns will be in a Cyclone – though it may mean that they’ll both get lots of wind and rain from the storm.
So do we need to worry about it? Where is it headed?
The answers – yes and anywhere from Cairns to Mackay, but Townsville is looking a good bet:
What is also looking like a good bet is that it will be a Category 4 – the same as Larry. Here’s how the Bureau of Meteorology describes Category 4:
4. Severe Tropical Cyclone
225 - 279 km/h
Very destructive winds
Significant roofing and structural damage. Many caravans destroyed and blown away. Dangerous airborne debris. Widespread power failures.
Now let me tell you, that is scary. Cyclone Larry, Cyclone Tracey scary.
You think – oh caravans are light, they wouldn’t take much to get destroyed. But then ponder “blown away”, and then ponder a caravan flying through the air and think how light it would seem then, especially it is was about to crash into the side of your own house.
After Yasi hits no doubt politics will come into play, and the costs and the flood levy and everything else will be debated – God help us Warren Truss will probably suggest it’s all a symptom of Labor wanting to pork barrel ALP seats.
But for now, I just say to those in the north – keep safe, and here’s hoping the worst thing you’ll need to do is clean up your backyard.