A Long Way from Katrina

Inez Baranay · Cyclone Yasi

In the beachside house where I used to live near Cairns in Far North Queensland, looking out through the coconut palms to the placid tropical sea protected by the coral reefs on the horizon, it could be hard to remember the region’s natural perils, and its far from picturesque history. In most seasons you could only swim within protective netting, as deadly stingers lurked in the summer currents. The rainforests were full of scorpions and snakes and ruthless logging operations, the mangrove swamps harboured crocodiles, the mosquitoes carried fatal diseases, cane toads were a plague, the Great Barrier Reef’s corals were dying under too many cruise ships and glass-bottomed boats, the cane fields had been established by the forced labour of Pacific Islanders, and cyclone warnings were common.

Like all newcomers, I was told how to prepare for a cyclone in the most laconic terms: clear things away, fasten things down, close things up and then either crouch under something or head for higher ground. ‘You have to expect this kind of thing, living up here.’ Cyclones never hit during the three years I spent there in the early 1990s; before I had done more than sweep up fallen branches in the yard they blew themselves out at sea or went somewhere else. But earlier this month Cyclone Yasi struck, the worst in memory. Cairns was spared the worst of it, but nearby areas were devastated; the vast cost of the damage is still being estimated.

Queensland is Australia’s most decentralised state, the only one where more people live outside its capital than in it. Cairns is the de facto capital of the Far North region, 1700 kilometres from Brisbane. The red dirt country of Cape York stretches another 1000 km northward. The narrow strip of habitable coast is squeezed between the wilderness and the ocean. People up there live with an enduring sense of independence and pioneer spirit; with a conviction about knowing the land in a way southerners can’t.

‘Remember who we are,’ the state premier, Anna Bligh, exhorted Queenslanders as they faced January’s floods. Cyclone Yasi hit the Far North while the clean up in the south of the state was still in progress. Bligh has been elevated to most popular politician of the moment; there’s talk of her as a future prime minister. ‘This weather may break our hearts, but not our will,’ she said. ‘We are Queenslanders. We're the people that they breed tough, north of the border. We're the ones that they knock down, and we get up again.’

More important than the stirring rhetoric has been the state’s disaster planning. Houses built in Queensland's cyclone zone after Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin in 1974, and again after Cyclone Larry five years ago, were designed to much higher standards. Stronger buildings, cyclone shelters, better communications, early warnings, clear instructions from the authorities, and a population willing to evacuate, along with a little luck and low tides, all contributed to saving Queensland from a much worse disaster. There were no direct fatalities from Yasi.

Val Schier, the mayor of Cairns and like Bligh the first woman to fill her position, was also hailed for her local leadership. A couple of years ago she made the (then unpopular) decision to establish a Disaster Co-ordination Centre, which was completed only last year. With the latest telecommunication systems bringing together the emergency services and seamlessly linking into the media, the centre proved its worth and undoubtedly saved lives. Her constituency seems delighted by Schier’s bold assertions to American and British reporters that the fallout from Hurricane Katrina would never have happened in Australia.