We are rememberng cyclone Yasi today, a year after it roared ashore in the Cassowary Coast region. Its central pressure of 930 hpa and 300 km/h peak wind gusts made it a marginal category five system. In other words, it could have been worse – but not much worse.
The ABC had decided it would not broadcast from our Sheridan St building, on what management told us were safety grounds. These concerns turned out to be unfounded, and later discussion revealed other motives for the decision. So we set up a makeshift studio at the new Cairns Regional Council disaster management centre and that’s where we were when it started to blow on the night of February 2nd 2011.
Now this was the first time the facility had been used for real but it’s built to stand up to a Category 5, so we’re safe, right? We’re probably in the safest place in FNQ tonight.
We’d known Yasi was coming for almost a week. We’d all been working extra time to keep our audience informed, and to make sure our radio service keeps going through the cyclone. And we’d been reading those increasingly alarming forecasts. By the time we got on the air that evening, our adrenaline levels were off the dial.
But there’s no panic. My colleagues are graceful under pressure, they sound calm on the radio. I’m so proud of them but there’s no time for a group hug just yet. Work to do, and some very confronting information to deliver. Our colleagues in Brisbane, under instruction from their managers, began to take over larger chunks of the broadcast – within a few hours, the local ABC was not being heard at all.
When the forecasts became reality, and it started to blow, reports from the Cassowary Coast make it clear all hell is breaking loose there. We have to deliver awful news, dire warnings, and encourage calm. To do that, we’ve got to stay calm ourselves. To their great credit, that’s exactly what they do. Phil, Kier, Nikolai, Jas, Brad & Tash. Champions!
Suddenly, a chilling, unearthly sound is heard in the room. A sound that has no place in the sweet sonic realm of radio. I swear my heart stopped beating, and I may not have been alone. Click the audio player to hear it for yourself. See if you can figure out what it is.
There were exclamations, faces turned an interesting shade of pale. There were elevated pulse rates. The more Zen among us may have imagined it was the sound of chanting monks, concealed somewhere in the facility.
After some deep breaths and changes of underwear, we do some investigative journalism and find the sound is coming from a pipe that runs up into the ceiling. Turns out it’s a gizmo that equalises air pressure and the eerie moan is just the wind funnelling into a skinny pipe. Relief all round and a chance to laugh on a night that’s getting darker by the minute. Back to work.
All around FNQ today people are remembering Yasi. When I’m an old codger in the Done Talkin’ Home For Retired Broadcasters, here’s what I’ll remember.
Fear. No shame in admitting it. I was scared. I’ve been around a lot of cyclones over the past 20 years. I even ran in to one at sea. But there was something about Yasi that gave me chills.
I am immensely proud of my ABC Far North colleagues, who worked around the clock for months to help our communities. It was an inspirational effort under tremendous pressure. They did not despair when their capital city colleagues interfered. I will long sing your praises.
It was in the days after Yasi that C 1 Cassowary joined the ABC team and became our mascot, and our roving reporter. I found him hanging around the sugar museum at Mourilyan and he now goes everywhere with us. I hope his free range feathered friends are doing well now.
I remember doing a breakfast broadcast from the front seat of the 4WD on top of the hill at South Mission Beach during a storm that had knocked the power out. We ran the gear out of the cigarette lighter and managed to get to air on time. Awesome work Phil Staley.
I remember meeting the Bilic family at El Arish. Yasi had walloped their home but they were about to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary and it was an honour to witness their quiet determination to get on with life. Listen to my interview with the Bilics.
And I’ll never forget those long weeks on the road in the cyclone zone reporting on the recovery. Always wet from rain or sweat, recording gear wrapped in tea towels, running on adrenaline. And every time I started to run out of steam, I’d meet people who gave me reason to keep going. The inspirational folk who got up the minute it stopped blowing and made the hard yards, working for family and community. The volunteers who came to help, many of them still there now, a year on. The people who responded from government agencies and NGOs. My ABC colleagues and I were given encouragement and kindness, information and ideas, by so many good folk who had been hit hard by Yasi. We were inspired by you, and deeply touched, many times a day. We could not have done our job without you.
So they’re some of the things on my mind today. And when the time comes tonight, exactly a year after the big blow, I’ll be thinking of you. Wherever you are on your journey forward from that bloody cyclone, I’ll be thinking of you.