February 10th 2011
Report from “Cyclone Alley” Magnetic Island
Readers will have noticed Magnetic Times’ absence of late which has related to Internet access problems and, of course, a cyclone called Yasi. Although our solar powered home office still has very limited power we are pleased to report back with a story we’d loved to have published sooner; about our experience and those of some of our friends during Yasi. We'd also like to add that there is now a major community clean-up being organised for this weekend. The details follow at the end of this story. We would also like to warn readers that this story does contain some coarse language.
Report from “Cyclone Alley” Magnetic Island
“They’re still out looking for Rhett and Scarlett,” giggled Rosie Gordon of Nelly Bay after we’d finally made our way through the smashed and twisted remains of her front garden the night after Category 5, Cyclone Yasi (a Fijian word for "sandalwood") - the biggest in living memory to belt into Queensland, had visited. It was the sort of humour that captured much of the post-Yasi attitude on Magnetic Island. One of huge relief that, while Yasi had certainly scared us, nobody was dead or seriously hurt and only one house had lost its roof and, then, only part of it.
While great preparation, better building codes and a force of wind clearly less than that needed to knock us down to blood and rubble - Magnetic only entered the outer “destructive wind” area as shown by the, affectionately named, BOM (Bureau of Meteorology) site’s tracking map - we certainly had our stories to tell. So here goes.
Act 1 for Yasi was, of course, preparation. With a concrete block bathroom/laundry bunker already part of our building we felt well placed to hold out. Only problem was that one window space in the bathroom section had been left as that, an open space, to enjoy the view to the garden. With all the thoughts of preparation swirling through my mind I decided that the best job for me was to construct a galvanised steel shutter to block it and secure the whole space from wind from any direction. I set about the task on Tuesday with great determination and a belief that I was investing my time the best way I could. When this thing was made we would surely be impregnable. I worked the saw, the drill, the snips until my back and side muscles, which had mostly loafed in recent years, made standing up straight again, a forlorn hope. But I’d made it and, rough as it was, it fitted - sort of.
In the meantime, my far more strategically-minded wife, Penelope was stowing stuff and making our more prized or less-dangerous-when-flying possessions safe from harm to themselves or humans. All our essentials for health and sustenance she packed and organised while I groaned on the ground over hardwood and steel.
By night’s fall the text messages from our Mayor and the pre-recorded generic warnings were beginning to accumulate like plaque in my message bank. MI’s SES co-ordinator, Murray Wither’s rang with an evacuation message we couldn’t post to the website having line problems already. Penelope’s boss, Frances, had already been in touch, advising of final options if we wished to leave the Island. It was clear, this thing was going to be huge.
Our location at Bolger Bay was deemed to be in a low lying area subject for storm surge and we should, according to the cyclone emergency officialese, “self-evacuate”! Later I took a call from Brendan our Senior Constable from the MI Police. He’d been ringing all people thought to be under 4 metres above sea level advising self evacuation too. I explained that we were over 6 metres and should be fine. Then the connection dropped out and I heard no more. But I’d rung around the Bay to see what the neighbours were thinking. We’re a fairly self reliant mob out here on the West Coast but I was particularly worried for our friends Bill and Elena on the beach at West Point. Nobody was leaving at least until we knew more in the morning but I'd rung another friend, Viv in Nelly Bay to see, whether she could put us up, if need be.
With my birthday Ipad I was up at 5am and checking to discover that Yasi was now a Cat 5! That is winds pushing 300kms and the track map was moving slightly more southerly, towards us!
Years before, when interviewing a cyclone disaster expert from Darwin, who was incredulous at the lack of public cyclone shelters here on Magnetic, I’d learned that after, gruesomely tragic, Cyclone Tracy, the Darwin authorities had cranked up the building codes so that houses should withstand Cat 4s. “Of course” he said, “If it goes to Cat 5 then it will be just like Tracy all over again.”
Now we had to make a tough call. Should we leave the safety of our bunker here on the well-protected lee side of Magnetic and risk a storm surge that could flood us inside or head for the more exposed slopes of Nelly Bay and Viv’s emergency hospitality. With a certain sensation building in my bowels I was learning the full meaning of “self-evacuation”. We decided to run away!
We were pretty organised but when it comes down to it, what do you really want to keep? Certainly the work computers and hard drives were essential but what about books and clothes and precious objects? In that blurred time I found myself reaching for a wedding snap framed in the finest of kitsch seashells and a copy of James G. Porter’s “Discovering Magnetic Island”. I don’t know why. Surely we were discovering enough of the place but it is surely the best book written yet about our Island home.
We trundled out along the muddy track, the car as full as a phone book, and stopped briefly to see what, neighbours, Wally and Wendy were up to. They were reluctantly heading out too. When I told Wally we were heading for Jean Street in Nelly Bay his rough-hewn fisherman’s countenance strangely softened. “They call it Cyclone Alley along there you know” he said gravely. “When (Cyclone) Althea hit, all the houses along that side of the hill blew away.” Earlier he had described the sensation of being in a serious cyclone by rubbing the tips of his index finger with his thumb saying, ”Your arse will be twitching like this”. Wally shook my hand warmly and wished us luck and that self-evacuating feeling returned.
At the time we were starting to wonder if life might ever be the same. Could this really be it? Would there be anything left? Would we become Magnetic boat people looking for a new home in Australia?
Arriving at Viv’s, however, was a real pick-us-up. Viv’s house was as strong as any of the recent era and, better still, had a large concrete block area downstairs. We were joined by our long time partner in journalism, Wendy Tubman who’d self-evacuated from the lower reaches of Nelly Bay.
Soon the unofficial, public holiday from mundanity wove a spell of sorts that had us all quipping and merrily setting about the construction of the first cubby I’d helped build since 1968. We shoved desks and found tables and, better still, a futon bed frame and mattress, something I believe to be far more comforting above me than below.
Pen Sheridan and Wendy Tubman self-medicating at
the entrance to the cubby
Act 1 ended abruptly when what had been an ordinary windy day suddenly ratchetted itself many notches and a howling rain-laden blast sobered our frivolity.
I’d left Penelope at the Island Clinic, her work place, where she had been buying out the supermarket of the luridly coloured bottles of Power/Gatorade for boosting electrolytes for a possible influx of patients. But after this quick-served cyclonic entree I dashed off to collect her.
The Clinic - which once featured in a Reader’s Digest, Cyclone Althea, thriller yarn when the then Director of Nursing, Cecily Steptoe, bravely fought the elements as the building broke up - is just a stone’s throw from the water and we were happy to head for higher ground.
As entrees should be, ours was quickly over but the main course was surely soon to arrive out of the Coral Sea hot pot.
We were all impressed and proud of our completed cubby and sat down to enjoy the pleasures of a cyclone party where comfort food like Tim-Tams and other forbidden faves are officially sanctioned even for the weight worriers among us.
The sky was flat, pale slate behind the many swaying trees in Viv’s lovely tropical garden but from one vantage point we could spy the top of the ridge between Nelly and Arcadia where the main course was just beginning to be served.
Beauty and terror can be close companions I thought as I watched the wretched eucalypts thrash and flail themselves at Yasi’s will in a wild voodoo dance; all arms and torso while fixed at their feet.
Viv took a call from another mate in Horseshoe Bay. Horseshoe was being hammered and it seemed that the funnel effect of the wind coming through the gap in the hills from Arcadia was knocking down trees in all directions. Our Horseshoe friend was hoping to get out and come over to join us but soon realised there was no way this could be done without risk. He retreated to his bath where he covered himself with a mattress.
Night fell and we listened to local ABC radio. Yasi looked to be more or less still aiming for the Innisfail/Mission Beach area and with mates up that way we couldn’t help but feel dread for their awful predicament.
The wind grew and I thought of the big bad wolf and hoped that this house of bricks would be enough for his howling blows.
The power went and we lit our candles.
The mobiles were still working then and we were all taking calls from family and friends, some in tears and others just wishing us the best. It was kind of strange. I don’t think any of us actually felt quite deserving of the attention. We weren’t watching TV and I suppose we were in a kind of quiet eye of a media cyclone that had whipped up attention across Australia.
Later, Queensland’s Premier, Anna Bligh came on the radio and with a visceral interest in her concise updates we learned that waves as high as 9.5 metres were being recorded off Cape Cleveland across the Bay from Magnetic. Inside the Great Barrier Reef this was a record and we wondered what on Earth was blasting in to the Island’s exposed bays and beaches.
One couldn’t fault the sincerity and lack of self-importance about Anna Bligh that night. Since the floods her character or at least our perception of it has been reset. We could actually see her on the job as a working leader. The talent she has demonstrated, day after day, in understanding and explaining the technical details of the disasters while pulling no punches but showing a genuine compassion for those experiencing them, was masterful.
Anna signed out with a message that all Queenslanders were feeling for us and I believed her. We kicked back a little, had another red or three and decided to actually try out the cubby for lying down in, if not sleeping. We did our best and each of us claimed we heard another snore at some stage which was lucky because the downstairs location insulated us well from the terror-laden screaming gusts many others spoke of. At one point somebody said, “Well it’s better than being bombed.”
Meanwhile, Rosie was busy cheering her mates with a text she was passing on which read: “What did the cyclone say to the coconut tree? Hang on to your nuts, this is no ordinary blow job!”
Her pal Lis was sheltering with partner Charlie in their bedroom in Winifred Street - a cul-de-sac named in honour of another big cyclone. But Lis wasn’t at all up for a laugh. Yasi’s screams had unnerved her to the point she texted back, "I'v lost my sense of rumour" - she was laughing later but the misspelling underlined her state at the time.
Just around the corner more friends, Tony and Carolyn, huddled under their front stairs. Tony had fashioned a solid timber wall on the southern side and some lesser timber sheeting on two others but found the prevailing wind mostly coming from the east where their wheel barrow become an object of new-found respect - on its side to form a wall which could be moved with the wind’s direction. They were soaked but safe and later found a missile shaped branch lodged through their roof.
Up the street Matt and Kitty were hunkered down in their hallway. “It was like listening to a wraith” said Matt.
The night blew on and Viv’s back door blew open upstairs and a glass window at the front popped out. Nothing smashed but the sideways rain leaked through to our bunker. We scrambled with torches and makeshift buckets. The drips obligingly avoided our cubby and we lay dry while I began to detect that the wind had shifted to the north west and, although less ferocious, there were more and sharper bullets of air screaming across the bay towards us.
Somewhere there I did sleep without perhaps realising it. After such a very long night there was light in the sky and the wind noise was definitely lower. We peeped out and took a few steps towards the smashed, twisted and shattered remains of Viv’s charming garden. The strong scent of eucalyptus, thrashed from the trees, lent a clean, antiseptic, flavour to the moment and I looked for downed power lines and tree limbs which might still fall then waded through the mass of sodden greenery past a little sign on Viv’s tree which read “Bus Stop”.
I found the street and in every direction fallen limbs and trees littered the view but nowhere could I see any serious damage to a dwelling. “The roofs are all still on,” I said to somebody and began to think, we were not the only lucky ones.
I haven’t learned yet what the wind speed reached that night over Magnetic Island but my guess is we may have experienced a high category 2 or lower level 3.
Viv's garden the morning after
The job at hand was now to clear some paths but there was an adversary waiting for us all. Their homes trashed, unlike ours, green tree ants, were taking up defensive positions and busily reorganising their colonial outposts. Many branches were antways with heavy traffic ready to stop and crawl up and over the busy humans then bite en masse. We’d lift and drag branches then stop and squash the accumulated ants time after time. We are lucky indeed that green tree ants don’t sting so much as embrace you with open jaws.
Soon another neighbour Tom Vaudrey was out with his own front end loader making the road passable and generously clearing Viv’s driveway.
Tom Vaudrey was on the job in minutes - generously helping out
The wind was still gusting and locals were tentatively moving about but as the gales retreated we ventured further. Penelope went off to see if Rosie was OK in Mandalay after her texting had ceased in the night - presumably after Lis's missive. In the area she discovered one poor soul, Annie, who had had a very large tamarind tree fall through her kitchen just metres from her bed. Annie had said it was the scariest thing she'd ever experienced.
I'd set off elsewhere with my camera.
The wind was still howling at the Presto Breakwater and the waves were again smashing and chewing into Nelly Bay beach.
Nelly Bay beach from the presto Breakwater A spectacular shore break at Nelly Bay
Later a group of us, including Rosie who was just fine, toured the Island and discovered the heavy sand deposits over the Horseshoe Bay foreshore but, out in the thick of it, were local ladies partying in their relief that Yasi left us alive and basically unscathed.
Horseshoe ladies know what to do after a cyclone
It was good to hear that the team from Magnetic Island Transport had already been down to open up the street but the fact that sand and sea had washed into the shops was stark reminder of just how easily a storm surge on a higher tide would have swamped much of Horseshoe.
The sand at Horseshoe's foreshore was up to the
cooking plate of the public barbeque
One cannot however overlook the fact that some really beautiful trees have been lost. One many will recall is the big poplar gum behind the shaded playing area at the MI State School. Another beauty, a massive paperbark at Picnic Street in Picnic Bay succumbed. In fact the paperbarks or melaleucas were transformed by the wind which tore away their outer bark revealing themselves like naked old men, their fleshy pink skins exposed for all to see.
One big, downed, paperbark in Picnic Street with old companions hanging on A fallen poplar gum on Mandalay Ave Damage to the Gibb's house in Horseshoe Bay
There was however to be a major structural casualty, apart from the extensive damage to the 18 month-old home of Lyn and Colin Gibbs in the Sandals Estate in Horseshoe Bay. It was the serious damage to magnetic’s foremost architectural icon, the Picnic Bay Jetty.
Part of the jetty head The jetty walkway
The jetty head is badly smashed with half its timbers gone to expose its east-facing pylons. The walk along its length is shattered in parts and there will likely be pressure to see it removed for good unless Islanders again are prepared to demonstrate their passionate commitment to its preservation.
So while the Island-based Ergon team are working extra hours reconnecting the power and while the Townsville City Council and City Water crews are restoring the roads and have returned our water we can be thankful for a great deal. Firstly that Yasi was not too intense in our area and that we are part of a wealthy, relatively well-organised country capable of swiftly fixing the infrastructure we rely upon for our high standard of living. Yasi would have brought certain death and much greater destruction to a poor third world nation.
Given the type of damage being mostly to vegetation it is very likely that in just a few weeks the trees will have regrown most of their leaves and the mess will be mulched and Yasi’s trail quite difficult to find.
Looking across Picnic Bay
We may have sheltered in so-called, “Cyclone Alley” but cyclones are infinitely variable in their specifics and the damage across Magnetic was similar or worse than Viv’s poor smashed garden in many areas.
As I finish this story a press release from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) arrives. It is titled, “Queensland climate becoming more extreme says AIMS researcher”
Dr Janice Lough, an expert in climate change science who examines rainfall patterns extracted from coral growth rings going back for centuries, explains how her latest research on the subject supports predictions that tropical rainfall will become more variable in a warming world.
“Queensland rainfall is characterised by very high variability. Extreme wet and extreme dry events have always occurred. But now we have evidence that those events are occurring more frequently than in earlier centuries, often with devastating effects,” she said.
While Yasi spared us a repeat of the ghastly flooding experienced in south-east Queensland, the warning climate scientists have been making: that climate change will bring more frequent periods of extreme wet and extreme dry periods is indeed sobering.
One might hope that our premier, whose superb leadership during these immediate crises has been so well demonstrated, will apply the same rigor to what the experts are warning as the longer-term threat. With a coal industry as powerful as it is in Queensland it will take even greater courage and heart. Anna Bligh showed us she has those qualities and we were impressed. Yasi’s satellite image was huge - as big as Queensland - but this correspondent hopes, ever so much, our premier will continue the fight for us all in the even bigger picture beyond Yasi.
Story: George Hirst
Pictures: George Hirst & Penelope Sheridan
Yasi Clean-Up info:
Magnetic Island's Community Development Association President, Lorna Hempstead AM, has advised that Sunferries will transport free-of-charge anyone from the mainland who wishes to come over to assist with the Clean-Up. Either Saturday or Sunday and catch the 7.45am or 8.45am from Breakwater. To gain FOC ticket - be over 18; show photo ID; and be dressed for work and bring your hand tools as detailed on the leaflet (below)
Most importantly PLEASE register with the Council database asap. Link
Lorna also commented, "We would also appreciate encouragement for people to visit older/single/less fit/ incapacitated neighbours and ensure they know how to register FOR help".
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