I’ll be up early this Sunday – not something I usually do – but it’s the 10th anniversary of a life-changing event. So I’ll spend a quiet hour before dawn remembering cyclone Larry.
One of the most powerful cyclones ever to make landfall in the Australian region came ashore in far north Queensland early on Monday 20th March 2006. The real danger zone around the eye was fairly small, and it was moving so fast it didn’t stay anywhere for long. Even so, the eventual damage bill made it our costliest cyclone to that time.
Listen to the Remembering Larry radio documentary series here
It was the first severe cyclone to get near a large population centre in Queensland in 20 years. It’s often compared to Tracy, which destroyed Darwin in 1974. They were of similar intensity – both high-end category four systems, though Larry had briefly reached category five intensity while still out over the Coral Sea. But Larry was much less destructive, largely because building standards had improved since the 70s and it moved so much faster than Tracy.
How bad did it get that night? A lot of the data comes from later examination of the damage, but there are some direct observations that still chill me to the core. A wind gust of 225 kilometres per hour was recorded close to Innisfail. At Mt Bellenden Ker, a gust of 294 km/h was detected near the ABC Far North transmitter site. 187 km/h at Ravenshoe. Peak gusts to 240 km/h were common immediately around the eye.
If you’ve never encountered a severe cyclone, be thankful. It’s a unique kind of sensory overload. The wind sounds like a large fleet of jet aircraft shrieking overhead.
You hear debris slamming into the sides of your house. You watch your ceiling vibrate, your window panes flexing. Rainfall so intense it sounds like a thousand snare drums. The barometric pressure falls so low your ears pop and sometimes you feel like you can’t fill your lungs. It takes incredible emotional stamina to endure it, and then it all goes dead quiet as the eye moves overhead. An enervating calm prevails, but only briefly. And then it goes from zero to all hell breaking loose as the second half comes over. And in Queensland, that’s where the worst weather lurks – the south-east quadrant.
I was on air at ABC Far North as Larry came ashore, leading a remarkable team of people in what became a marathon of radio coverage that continued for many months. We were bunkered down that night and our listeners became our eyes and ears – describing the mayhem, sharing their stay safe tips and sending encouragement. They told us of surf in the usually placid Johnstone River, waves on the crater lake 70 kilometres inland at Lake Eacham. They described tall trees bending almost double, cows being blown backwards in paddocks. Horizontal sheets of rain, wheelie bins being blown through the air.
When it stopped blowing, our work began in earnest. We hit the road, moving into the cyclone affected areas in Johnstone Shire, the broader Cassowary Coast area and the Atherton Tablelands. The people of far north Queensland honoured us and helped each other by sharing their stories of that horrible night, the damage, and the many small steps towards recovery. The ABC Far North team worked long and hard, doing what it’s always done – giving voice to the experiences, concerns and expertise of the remarkable and resilient people of far north Queensland. Our coverage kept communities informed and was closely followed by governments at all levels responding to the disaster.
One of the most disturbing elements in the immediate aftermath was the apparently random nature of the damage to buildings. One house flattened, the one next door untouched. This could be explained by interaction between wind and terrain, or by the age of a structure – but the haphazard spread of damage seemed cruel.
Damage to crops, industry, infrastructure and livelihoods was extensive and expensive. In southern Australia, you probably remember how high banana prices were for months after Larry. But people living in the Larry zone did it tough for most of 2006, and some took even longer to recover financially. Emotional recovery is also a lengthy journey, and even now, there are folks who break out in a cold sweat whenever they hear the cyclone warning siren on the radio. I am one of them.
So – what will I think about early this Sunday morning when I remember Larry, 10 years on?
Top of the list is the remarkable courage and resilience of people who endured Larry and the ensuing months of hardship. It was hard, often exhausting work covering the Larry story, but every day I went home inspired by the way most folk went about getting on with life.
I remember how we seemed to have learned a great deal from the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina in the US in 2005. At so many levels, organisations and people were determined to get it right. By and large, they did.
I remember the longest working day of my career. I clocked on at lunchtime Saturday. I got home on Thursday night.
I remember taking over the office of then Johnstone Shire mayor Neil Clarke, turning it into an ABC studio. We ended up running a studio outpost in Innisfail for several months after Larry.
I will reflect on the often unseen cost of a natural disaster – relationships, appetite, sleep, confidence – so many things we can’t put a price on, but tangible damage nonetheless.
I remember the Bureau of Meteorology crew in Cairns who got Larry right at every step, and the remarkable Craig Burke, who was on duty as Larry came ashore. His was an outstanding act of community service, and first class radio broadcasting too. You have to wonder why the Bureau now seeks to remove staff from so many of its regional centres.
I remember the determined and relentless hard work of my ABC Far North team that night and all through 2006. Your work was in the finest tradition of public broadcasting, and never forget what so many people told us in the aftermath – we saved lives that night, and helped keep people going when the road to recovery seemed an impossibly uphill journey
I remember being scared. Being on air in the dead of night, reading out the latest BoM cyclone warning and coming to the line “cyclone Larry now poses a serious threat to life and property”. Listen back to the recording and you can hear a split second of hesitation, a slight waver in my voice. I was shit scared, but not for me. I was safe in our Cairns studio. I was scared for friends, our listeners, the people directly underneath Larry, who were relying on us to keep them informed on what was indeed a dark and stormy night. All good radio broadcasters are guided by a quiet inner voice, a sort of radio instinct. Mine was telling me, loud and often, “don’t fuck this up”. Somehow, together, we did what the occasion demanded – teamwork and adrenaline combining most effectively.
I remember the Larry jokes. They were pretty awful and usually involved “colourful” language. But that sort of “gallows” humour speaks of the powerful resilience so often seen in disaster zones. On Rankin Street, Innisfail, a bloke approached me, having noticed my ABC shirt. “I’ve got a water feature at my place,” he said. “It used to be my ceiling fan.”
Cyclone anniversaries are really just media-made occasions, a chance to recycle the old footage and revisit a now venerable story. The most telling quote from the recent fifth anniversary of cyclone Yasi was “today? If you hadn’t told me I wouldn’t have thought of it”.
And I wonder if that might be a common answer this Sunday too. Nevertheless, there is much to be said for spending some time remembering the enormity of what confronted us, and the determination of those affected and of those who came to help us. Together, we stared down a mean bastard called Larry. To borrow from William Shakespeare:
“Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Larry’s day.’
Old folk forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But we’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats we did that day”
All across Australia, there are many thousands of people who were “in” Larry somehow.
I’ll be thinking of you. Fondly. You know who you are.