Christmas 1970 was not a good time for my wife and I. We were living in Townsville and our first-born, Belinda, was about fifteen months old. My parents lived in Charters Towers, not much more than an hour’s drive south of Townsville. We intended to drive there and spend Christmas with my parents. There had been some indication from the weather bureau and repeated on the local radio stations that a cyclone was imminent. In those days of course we didn’t have the sophisticated technology to track cyclones that we now do.
When I finished work on the Friday afternoon, we loaded our ute with all the usual stuff, (including a cot for my young daughter) and headed off to Charters Towers. We hadn’t gone forty kilometres and found there was impassable water over the road and so we returned to Townsville.
As we returned to the rented house where we were living we heard from the radio that the cyclone was now imminent. The impending cyclone was called Althea. When we arrived home the winds were rapidly increasing in severity.
Before long a car trying to drive past our house stalled in the culvert that ran across our road. I tried to help by bringing a can of dewatering fluid (WD40) to enable it to restart. By this time the winds had picked up and it was a struggle to get to the car without being blown over. My offered help was to no avail and the driver (who lived nearby) scuttled off home being blasted by the ever increasing wind. Soon after the wind was such that the car was being lifted off its wheels. Although it was not overturned a number of cars nearby were rolled by the wind.
Back in the house I was facing new challenges. Quite early in the night the French windows that opened from the first floor bedroom to the balcony began to blow open. With considerable effort we managed to close them one by one and wire them up. Shortly after, I began to hear a sheet of iron flapping in the breeze. This was rather alarming. Were we beginning to lose our roof? I was soon able to ascertain that the sound came from my next door neighbour’s chook house. May be the chooks were going to have a wet night!
We ensconced our daughter in her little cot at the end of the hallway, next to the toilet and bathroom on the assumption that this was the most structurally robust part of the house. It was a frightening night.
By morning the storm had abated. As soon as it was light I got up to assess the damage. My next door neighbour had lost a fair portion of his roof. Fortunately for us the sheets of corrugated iron from his roof were lodged in our fence. They had blown off his roof and seemingly a downdraft carried them to ground. The house we lived in had fibro walls and I am sure if one of those sheets of iron had impacted on the house we would have suffered severe structural damage.
Surprisingly the sheet of iron on the chook house roof that had given me great concern the night before was still intact, having flapped away for the entire duration of the cyclone!
The only destructive effect on our house seemed to be that the letter box had blown away!
The cyclone devastated Townsville and the town was in a desperate state with the joint impacts of flooding and loss of electricity. In the first few days I worked helping a couple of people who had lost their roofs. And then going back to work, my employer, the Northern Electric Authority, put us to work helping restore power supplies and clearing some of the debris from the worst affected areas. Whilst we were a generating authority we chipped in to help our cousins in the distribution side of the business.
We had no power at home for a considerable period. The City Council arranged a service bringing milk and a little ice to those who had young children.
Three or four days after the cyclone we managed to buy a few sausages from somewhere. I remember knocking up a wooden box and using it for fuel in a little portable barbecue I had and cooking them. It was one of the best meals I have ever had!
Intense cyclones are terrifying and devastating.
Having spent a lot of our lives in North Queensland, living in places like Cairns, Cardwell, Townsville and Bowen, we experienced over the years quite a number of cyclones, but none with the intensity of Althea.
When we moved to Rockhampton in 1991 we discussed the possibility of a cyclone. I told my wife that if we lived in Yeppoon, on the coast, I might be concerned, but seeing as Rockhampton is about 40 kilometres inland, and cyclones dissipate pretty quickly once over land, we shouldn’t be unduly concerned. The locals told apocryphal stories about the “one that came up the river” some 40 years ago but that gave us no great cause for alarm.
Then around Wednesday 18 February, being an inveterate weather watcher I became aware that a small cyclone had formed in the Coral Sea and was now starting to track towards the Queensland coast. Then on Thursday it became apparent that the cyclone, still small, might make landfall close by. I watched it closely for most of the day. When we went to bed on Thursday night it was a category 2 cyclone and was predicted to cross the coast about 150 kilometres north of us. I was not greatly concerned at this stage, expecting a bit of a blow and perhaps a lot of rain. But just as a precaution before we went to bed we got out our candles and torches, and at my wife’s insistence filled the bath-tub full of water and made what preparations we could.
We awoke early on Friday morning and my wife turned on the TV only to find that the cyclone was now a category 5 storm and headed almost directly towards us! We immediately stowed all our patio furniture, our barbecue and wheelie bins in the garage.
Every hour the Bureau of Meteorology updated its information on the cyclone’s position and projected path. I watched it on the radar. By now the wind was starting to blow quite strongly and we were being swept with rain. At around 11:30am we lost power and I could no longer track the cyclone on my computer. At that stage the cyclone had abated a little to be a category 4 system and the eye was about 50 kilometres north of us.
The wind then became ferocious. It shrieked and wailed and looking out we could see the odd missile, a fence paling, a tree branch or whatever hurtling by and we prayed they would not impact on our house. We watched as our callistemon in our back yard slowly yielded to the wind and lodged on our back fence. Then frighteningly we started to hear the ominous noise of roofing flapping. As none of our neighbours (as per our Althea adventure) had chook houses this seemed to presage a disaster for someone. It is hard to describe the situation as anything but terrifying. At that stage you think if we and our house survive this, that will be a great outcome.
Finally around 1:30pm we were in the eye of the cyclone. To our great relief everything became calm. Some of our neighbours ventured outside to take stock and make what small reparations they could for the next phase. We exchange a few brief nervous words confirming their safety and security, but then the wind returned.
But as I remember with Althea, the second phase of the cyclone was not nearly so traumatic. Once the eye had passed the winds seemed to be much less in intensity and the rain trailed off significantly. By late afternoon it was done. Strangely it was still overcast, but not raining. In the past, in the cyclones I had experienced, once the eye of the cyclone had passed to the south, you are normally blessed with blue skies.
Then it was time to take stock. All our immediate neighbours had survived with only minor damage. A couple who lived across the road and two doors down had lost their roof. But the iron I had heard flapping didn’t belong to them but to a neighbour over the back and just like the famous chook house the sheet in question remained attached to the house. The couple that lost their roof had ensconced themselves in their large camper van which they use to travel all over the place and already had their generator running.
Whilst there was little structural damage to nearby houses there were trees down all over the place. A large silky oak in our next door neighbour’s yard had been severely damaged and the branches were strewn all over our cul-de-sac. I am the only able-bodied man in our complex (and that is probably overstating my capacity) so I faced the task of clearing the debris from yards and the road and stacking it for eventual removal. I don’t have a chainsaw but found with patience I could cut most branches into manageable pieces with my bow-saw. It was hot and oppressive work but I didn’t see any imperative to hurry and managed the task over the next few days.
Now after the terror came the tedium. Initially we had no water, no power, no telephone except my mobile (which was quickly running out of battery) and no internet. After two days, thankfully the water was restored. In retrospect I thanked my wife for having the foresight to fill our bath-tub before the cyclone!
I had some ice in my freezer which enabled us to keep our perishables cool. Knowing that we might not get ice for a while, we began eating our way through the perishables. I always have a couple of gas bottles so we were secure in being able to cook on the barbecue. I surprised myself with the variety of things I could cook on my modest barbecue.
In this time of deprivation I was consoled by the fact I had the foresight to have stored a bottle of Scotch. It helped me cope with the trials that were to come!
On the third day (which I understand is the norm for resurrections) our local Woolworth’s supermarket reopened. It has its own generator.
With no electricity, service stations were closed. Initially Ergon restored supply to a couple of service stations one of which is two hundred metres from my home. On the day they opened, cars were lined up for almost a kilometre. When I got up for my geriatric jog at just after 5:00am there were already a couple of hundred cars waiting for the service station to open.
Soon after, we were able to get ice to replenish our eskies. My elder son, bless his heart, was doing a regular run to help those in his neighbourhood and was thoughtful enough to drop some by for us.
Gradually the power was restored and more shops opened. The queue at my local service station soon disappeared.
There was plenty to do in the day, but nights were tedious. With no power you couldn’t read, listen to the radio or watch TV. Consequently you retired earlier than you would have normally and without air-conditioning the nights were uncomfortable because temperatures were still high. It was generally a relief when it was light enough to get up!
My younger son began coming over in the evenings with his girlfriend and an LED lantern and we took to playing cards after dinner.
But as Confucius said, “everything comes to he who waits” and finally after a week without power, electricity was finally restored to our house late on the afternoon of Friday 27 February. And now things are largely back to normal.
We are grateful we came through the cyclone without any major issues. Many haven’t. It seems as if some 500 homes in our district are now uninhabitable. Not only will this be a significant disaster for those householders but I suspect it will be traumatic for many small businesses that haven’t been able to trade for a week or more but still faced with fixed costs of rental and wages. Facing a destructive cyclone is pretty terrifying and dealing with the aftermath for many will be equally traumatic.
When I think about my own experience, I would have to say enduring Marcia was not nearly as traumatic as dealing with Althea. There are a number of reasons for this.
Firstly confronting Althea was made more traumatic because we had to nurture our first-born through the event. During Marcia, whilst we were concerned for our welfare for a couple of hours, we didn’t have the extra burden of caring for a vulnerable child. Our hearts went out to the many parents who were doing just that.
Secondly, Althea struck in the middle of the night. As frightening as Marcia was, she assaulted us in the middle of the day and that somehow made it better.
The other factor that has engaged my thinking is the extent of the damage. I am not sure whether Althea was a more intense cyclone than Marcia. (I am probably sexist but I like it when we call cyclones and ships by feminine names!) I am not sure that in those days our technology was such that we could give ratings to cyclones. But Althea caused far more structural damage. I suspect this however shows that after the lessons of Althea and afterwards cyclone Tracy in Darwin, that changes to our building codes have made a difference.
But of course you have to put everything in perspective. During the terrifying onslaught on Friday morning we knew we would be happy just to survive and with minimal damage to our little dwelling. Well we did that. Afterwards when people were complaining about no power and no water they had forgotten that they had been fortunate just to survive.
Many of my friends tried to contact us and we were grateful for their concerns. But my philosophy was expressed in one response to a texted enquiry about how we were coping. I said, “No water. No power. No phones. No internet. But, no worries!”
Thank you all for your concerns.