Simple survival gives ample reason to celebrate
By: MICHAEL MCKENNA, TONY KOCH
IN the end, it was the defenceless towns -- the ones without the storm-proof shelters and where most homes were weatherboard -- that bore the brunt of the midnight raid of Cyclone Yasi.
Stretched along the far north Queensland coastline, between Cairns and Townsville, the hinterland town of Tully and tiny oceanfront communities of Cardwell, Mission Beach and Port Hinchinbrook were first slammed by gale-force winds and then drowned in a debris-laden storm surge.
As dawn broke, and the residual winds continued to blow, locals emerged from make-do shelters and their battered or demolished homes to survey a landscape, once idyllic, and now scarred like a war zone.
Without power and communications, their faces turned from shock and weariness to disbelief and then relief when they learned their heavily populated neighbours to the south and north had largely been spared from the overnight onslaught.
The other reason to celebrate in these ground zero communities is simple survival.
Some suffered cuts and bruises, others trauma beyond comprehension, but, so far, there is a lot of blind faith that those not accounted for are alive.
Most wave off the idea of a death toll, insisting the missing are still bunkered down with friends or in far-away shelters and lost in the confusion of the urgent and, in some cases, last-minute scramble on Wednesday afternoon to get out of the cyclone's path.
In Cardwell, an oceanfront community of just 1200 about 200km south of Cairns, it is hard to believe that there are no fatalities among the estimated 120 people who refused to follow the mandatory evacuation police carried out on Wednesday morning.
The once-picturesque town, which has only the two-lane Bruce Highway as a buffer against the surging ocean, is reminiscent of the Asian and Pacific villages ruined by tsunamis in recent years.
Every home is damaged or destroyed.
Uprooted trees, powerlines and tin roofs litter the streets and the yards.
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The Bruce Highway is now a crumbling mass of bitumen covered in a blanket of ocean-bed sand, which was delivered by an estimated four-metre tidal surge that followed about an hour after the cyclone hit the coast.
Some people will never return to their homes.
Retiree Dick Speechly moved into his oceanfront home, which collapsed, only two years ago and said he was unlikely to go back to it. Salvaging his belongings with two of his grandsons, Jake Ebert, 16, and Jason White, 15, he sought shelter at a friend's inland home.
"I feel terrible, but we're alive," he told The Australian.
"I don't know about rebuilding, at this stage-probably not."
As residents returned to Cardwell, many accused the authorities of sending mixed messages about whether or not to leave on the eve of the cyclone.
Lauren Lovell,whose home had its roof partly torn off and a "whacking big hole" in the outside wall of her bathroom, said the community was confused about what to do as the cyclone approached the coast.
"We had local politicians on the radio telling us the safest place to be was in our home," she said.
"And virtually at the same time, at about 10.30 on Wednesday morning, police cars were driving up and down the streets . . . telling people there was a mandatory evacuation.
"But there were no local shelters and the police could only tell us to go to Innisfail or Cairns, and hopefully the shelters wouldn't be full there.
"We were lucky-a neighbour called us and took us about 25km inland to her parents' house. There were about 20 of us there."
Most of the buildings in the resort town of Mission Beach are relatively new and built to cyclone-proof standard. Iron sheds have been destroyed, some roofs have lost iron and a few older homes have been severely battered, but with the exception of the exclusive tourist resort The Elandra, Mission Beach has suffered surprisingly little damage.
But The Elandra resort, perched high on a hill overlooking the Cassowary coast, was torn apart. The resort has hosted some of the world's rich and famous, including ageing rocker Mick Jagger, contemporary pop/rock superstar Pink and American entertainer Grace Jones.
Owner Adam Karras and his wife Katrina Knowles described their resort as "a war zone" yesterday.
"We've been napalmed," Mr Karras said, waving his arms to indicate the damage to the residence, leisure facilities and the tangled forest that had been an idyllic rainforest garden and home to families of the rare cassowary.
But Ms Knowles said she and her husband would rebuild.
In Tully, the safety of a shelter was not guaranteed. An evacuation centre was set up in the senior citizens' hall, a 1950s weatherboard building. But on Wednesday afternoon, as the winds began to pick up, coordinator Noelene Byrne decided the building could not be trusted, and took two of the bunkered down families to the local hospital.
It was a life-saving decision.
The hall was destroyed, along with scores of homes and unit blocks across the town.
"I don't why I did it, but I'm grateful I made the decision," Ms Byrne said.
Among the survivors in Tully were hundreds of backpackers in town to work as banana pickers. It was the first time many of the young travellers, mostly from Europe and Japan, had experienced a storm like Yasi. Londoner Graham Taylor, 25, said he was terrified as they waited out the storm in a house near the town centre. "Part of the roof peeled off just after midnight, and some of the tin just swung and kept slamming against the window frame to the bathroom, where we were holed up," he said.
"I kept thinking it was going to be blown in the window and take our heads off. The girls were screaming and I had to put on a brave face and stay calm. It was hard."
Just a few kilometres south of Cardwell, the gravity of the storm surge was laid bare in the Port Hinchinbrook marina, developed by former Gold Coast entrepreneur and Sea World founder Keith Williams.
Almost every one of the million-dollar boats moored in the marina has been damaged, and 10m sloops, cabin cruisers and a houseboat were tossed up on to the ground.
Michael Robson stayed behind to close the local sewage works, waiting out the storm in his second-storey unit with wife Dianne and several neighbours.
The party enjoyed the evening on the balcony. But just after midnight, the heavy winds turned in their direction.
"It turned on us and we went inside, with the balcony windows bending in and rattling," he said.
"The roar was like a jet engine up close.Wecouldn't hear anything."
After about five hours the wind died down as light broke.
MrRobson was amazed to see a pile of boats, including his own yacht, sitting about 5m away on the lawn.