I’ve been involved in so many emergencies I’ve lost count. Cyclones, floods, bushfires, earthquakes, the occasional tsunami alert. And of course there’s the human made emergencies – often on a smaller scale, but equally confronting.
I’ve been there as a reporter, and increasingly as an emergency broadcaster, delivering alerts before the event and encouraging awareness of recovery efforts long after the emergency is over.
In all of these situations, you hear a lot of talk about “resilience”. It’s probably best described as a measure of our ability to ride the rough times and how long it might take to bounce back. We speak of people showing their resilience, communities that are resilient.
I’ve found the word is used in so many different ways that it’s become a kind of catch-all for “not doing too bad, all things considered”. But there’s much more to resilience than that.
This is a fascinating read from the New Yorker – of particular interest to emergency & disaster responders.
There are tens of thousands of people who will reflect today on something they have in common – cyclone Larry.
Larry came howling in from the Coral Sea early on Monday March 20, 2006 – ten years ago today. Winds up to 290 kilometres per hour cut a trail of destruction across far north Queensland.
Some 50 thousand people directly in its paths endured a terrifying ordeal, while another 100 thousand in surrounding areas spent an anxious day or two waiting for news of relatives, friends and colleagues.
And then there were the people who responded from other regions – emergency crews, the Defence Force, government workers, NGOs, tradies, community organisations, the electricity crews, building and agriculture sector groups. They helped us rebuild, recover, and get going again.
So many people were affected by cyclone Larry and its aftermath. Each of them has a unique and important story to tell. There is much to learn in these stories – about courage, resilience, the way we prepare for and recover from disasters, and about what people can achieve when they work together.
In 2007, radio ace Suzanne Gibson and I made a radio documentary series called REMEMBERING LARRY. It’s the story of a category four cyclone, its aftermath, and how we got back on our feet. It’s a remarkable insight into life in the tropics, told by the people who live there, who lived through Larry. The theme music is a song called “Hey Rain” written by Bill Scott, performed by Penny Davis and Roger Ilot.
Click on the audio player to hear each episode in MP3 audio.
And read my recollections of being on air at ABC Far North during the cyclone here
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.
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.
I’ve just spent a week in my car – driving from Cairns to Broome. It’s an epic road trip, almost an odyssey. A bit late in the year for it, so I ran into storms most afternoons, but it was a great trip. Highly recommended. I opted for the Flinders Highway to Mount Isa, rather than the rougher ride through the Gulf Country – I’ll save that for next time.
Day 1 Cairns to Charters Towers: Day 2 Charters Towers to Mount Isa: Day 3 Mt Isa to Renner Springs: Day 4 Renner Springs to Timber Creek: Day 5 Timber Creek to Lake Argyle: Day 6 Lake Argyle to Fitzroy Crossing: Day 7 home to Broome. I hope you enjoy the pictures.
It happens at least once a week, sometimes more often, and it usually makes me cranky. I’m listening to radio news, and someone makes a pronouncement about the future of “northern Australia“. More often than not, the view comes from someone who lives deep in the south of our wide brown land. Might never have been here, and they’re usually pushing political, policy, commercial or environmental agendas.
These are people seeking to shape the future of my home, my region. Some ideas have merit, others are fanciful – but where is the northern voice in the discussion of this much misunderstood and mythologised place called northern Australia? There are wise and articulate northerners looking to the future, but can they compete in what one leading tropical academic calls the “north-south culture wars”?
Allan Dale is Professor of Tropical Regional Development at James Cook University – and he’s a man who is deeply connected to and fond of the north. In a new book, Allan says the strong cultural divide between northern and southern Australia is something of a culture war – and we’ve got to make peace if we want to make the most of northern Australia.