Monday, January 31, 2011

Cyclone Yasi: the uninvited QLD guest

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)

19146acyclonesIn 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.

And it means business.tcyasi

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:

IDQ65001 (3)

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. 


Red Bakersen said...

You never forget the big ones, do you? For me, it was Hurricane Floyd (

For as long as I live, I will never forget September 16, 1999. I didn't make it home that night. I lost my car and had to sleep at a friend's house, wearing borrowed clothes.

It was the only time in my life I can remember being afraid of a storm. Every alternate route I could think of to get home was blocked by a fallen tree or flooded roadway. In my desperation to get home, I drove through a couple of flooded roadways but I got too cocky. The last one proved too deep; I had to abandon my car in rising flood waters. You haven't lived until you've crawled out of your car's window because the door won't open from the water pressure. It's even more exciting when you can't swim and have a fear of water from almost drowning two years prior. :(

Believe it or not, that's only about half the story. It's probably about time I chronicled the whole experience, huh?

My thoughts are with the people in the north. They've been through more than enough with the floods. They certainly don't need this. No one does.

P.S. - Croupier? Respect. ;)

Sonia said...

Well that explains your obsession over the last week with the cyclones.
Of course never having lived in Cairns or Qld I find it hard to understand but your post gives a great account of what these things are like. As if things havent been hard enough for the poor people of Qld.
There have been times that I have daydreamed of making the move up north but now there are 2 things holding me back. Cyclones and conservatives!!!

Anonymous said...

I'm in Ayr, about 90k south of Townsville and believe me, I'm anything but blase about this bugger. Thanks for your concern, Greg.

Anonymous said...

Hey Greg, South Australia, Canberra, Cairns... you really have been everywhere. I'm writing from Mackay. Without doubt, there is a heightened awareness about Yasi - something verging on panic, if my wife's friend's comments on Facebook are any accurate barometer of public perception. Expect to see the Bruce Highway clogged with folks bailing out.

We were in Brisbane during the floods and it goes without saying that social media like FB and Twitter did a fantastic job at reporting concerns, news etc (in particular, hat tip to the QPS FB page).

Here, still 48 hours from the event, it's troubling to see normally reasonable people comment away like headless chooks. Council websites are crashing as people try and download the flood and evaculation maps, people worry that there is too much conflicting information ("BOM says this, but the local FM radio station says this ... who are you going to believe?"), etc...

But yeah, I'm a bit nervous.

PS - Croupier? Time to update Twitter avatar to Clive Owen, surely.

PPS - where is that American Tabloid review?

Rod Hagen said...

This one has the makings of a true monster. the predicted central pressure at or about landfall according to BOM is now predicted at 926 hPa. Tracy was 950. Larry was 940. Lower is , of course, worse.

Its wind field is vastly larger than either of the aforementioned cyclones. It will carry a huge quantity of water with it. It is likely to produce an extremely large storm surge. In the similarly sized 1899 Cyclone Mahina dolphins were found 15 metres up cliffs. Mahina still remains Australia's worst ever peace time disaster, responsible for the death of over 400 people.

This one isn't going to be fun.

You will find a couple of good vids about Yasi and its likely future from a US military meteorologist at

Greg Jericho said...

Anon - American Tabloid left me a bit cold to be honest. Felt like every page someone was getting beaten with a lead pipe.

I enjoyed Elroy's LA Quartet, but this one was just a bit too violent for me. (Maybe I've gone soft in my old age :-) )

Red, respect for being a croupier? None at all. One day I'll write about it...

Cheers Rod - that site is excellent.

Ms Fifikins said...

Thanks Greg! We must have overlapped our time in Cairns- we arrived and Larry was our first experience. I have no idea where this one will cross, but it will that is for certain and possibly continue inland some way.

You worked at the Casino in the good old days! There are folks who are currently 'celebrating' their 15 years!

Anonymous said...

Anon here again.

Funny you should say that about American Tabloid. Strange but true - my cyclone/flood prep consists so far of moving my books upstairs. One paperback falls out while on the move - American Tabloid, bookmarked to Chapter 83. Looks like the lead pipe was in effect for me too during my second reading.

Anonymous said...

We all worried about Cyclone Bianca here in Perth. All we got was a few hours of drizzle.

That said, i was out on a dive boat at the Abrholos Is a few years ago running a trip when one crossed the coast Nth of Geraldton. Barometer on the boat got down to 986 but we were well tied up in a lagoon. Spent the time on the rear deck drinking G&T's. Skipper had the engines running for a few hours when it was at its worst in case something let go. Had to wear a dive mask to go up and check the mooring lines every 10 mins throughout the day. Swell on the trip back after it blew over was pretty good.


Jesse Robertson said...

For those that want more pretty picture, I'm just watching it come in via satellite here.

Greg Jericho said...

Thanks Jesse - that is truly scary to watch.

Sonia said...

This is a quote from my friend in the Solomon Islands "The big winds have passed and the rain is pelting, pelting, pelting like fire hoses from the sky. The seas are frothy, brown and angry. It's so dark, it looks like dusk and it is lunchtime". Here it comes.
Jeez how obsessed are we with the weather. If its not floods or cyclones , its searing heat and bushfires.
Stay safe you poor buggers

Sir Ian Crisp said...

I hope Yasi changes course and spares the people of Qld. I notice that the BOM is reporting that large chunks of coal are contained within Yasi's vortex so Bob Brown will be on safe ground blaming coal mining for this destructive weather system.

Red Bakersen said...

Much respect. I could never do it. Would love to hear your experiences. I imagine they're quite awful. ;)

Dermott Banana said...

What on Earth has Queensland done to deserve the 2011 it's got?

rf said...

Over here in Broome we suffer from the same cyclone ennui as you describe - so many cyclones sail down to the Pilbara coast and never really look like threatening us. There's almost a feeling of disappointment when another one slips by.
Love the 'Cat 1 - that's just a storm with a name!'
This Cyclone Yasi though? I think I'd be leaving town pronto. Only 200km to Perth and safety!

rf said...

er, I mean 2000km from Perth