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Night Vigil in Australia: Cyclone And The Cricket …

  • February 2nd, 2011
  • Posted by 7thmin

yasi.jpgWednesday night 2 February 2011 in Australia.

After the months of tropical downpours, floods making two-thirds of the State of Queensland a Disaster Area, with dramatic scenes of rescue and loss of life, then more flooding in the South of the country, and even bushfires beginning in the drier South; this night, a yet greater calamity was confronting the battered North-east coast and the communities inland.

Called Cyclone Yasi, it had begun its inexorable drift westwards from the Pacific Ocean three or more days before; an enormous storm, up to 300 kilometres across, generating destructive winds more powerful than any in living memory.

It was so strong it was expected to resist the usual slowing effect of a landfall, with  official warnings posted for a cyclone at some strength, in days to come, 1000 kilometres inland.

yasi-map-2.jpgComing out of the adjacent Coral sea, where water temperatures this year have been among the highest on record, it has stimulated questions again about change in the world climate.

Giving intuition its head, it must be asked: is something going on with the earth and its atmosphere, new and extreme?

“Is the Pope a Catholic?”, it might be asked.

For comparisons, this storm rated as savage as Hurricane Katrina that devastated new Orleans in 2005, and the Darwin cyclone, Tracy, that hit at Christmas 1974, destroying 70% of the city and killing 65 people.

This was the 21st Century in Australia, a country more or less on a war footing against the elements now for nearly six months, and sadly, getting good at it.

yasi-alm-tree-cyclone.jpgPrecise meteorological monitoring plotted the advance of the storm on screens; its intensity was measured, and upgraded to a very high category 5-plus; hospitals were evacuated to the capital in the South; overseas and Australian tourists cleared from the North Queensland regions together with thousands of residents, especially children, in a shuttle of aircraft; communications media of all kinds – though conscious of problems to come when the power, and antenna towers began going down – saturated the airwaves with the images and warnings; the armed forces and emergency services kept squads in reserve areas for flying in once the damage was done.

If worst came to worst, bringing winds that gusted to 500 kph, and a seven-metre-plus surge out of the sea, nothing  would avert a catastrophe.

However if human intervention could win the day, this would be no Louisiana, under prepared, under-resourced, and under-engineered; nor a tale of times gone by when folks in timber houses with tin roofs would sniff the heated air, and run to cower in the shaky bathroom.

yasi-map.jpgThe area in question is a cyclone coast, well North of the Tropic of Capricorn, stretching northwards towards the Equator.

It has well settled farmlands and large pockets of habitation  – the cities of Cairns (population 122700) and Townsville (181750), and places in-between; Cyclone Yasi this time making for the towns of Innisfail (already visited, devastatingly, by a cyclone called Larry in  2005), and Tully (not far from the coast, surrounded by banana plantations), and many beaches and townships – the beach-side settlement at Cardwell fully evacuated against a likely local tsunami.

mi-tville.jpgBy late evening huge waves, possibly 9.5 metres, were being reported officially off Magnetic Island close to Townsville (picture), exceeding previous records.

Thousands in the region had been moved from their homes in exposed areas and accommodated in secure buildings – colleges, shopping centres and the like -  by nightfall on Wednesday 2.2.11.

The power stayed on in many places, and therefore, so did the television, in the mid-evening hours; so all could see their own drama, as experienced also by compatriots around the Southern  continent.

And Cricket?

Well it happened that England and Australia were still battling it out in their one-day cricket competition at grounds around the country, and on this night, excitement was in the air.

Among the news bulletins from the North, could be seen the players under floodlights, at the cricket ground in Sydney:

England, though already series losers (See EUAustralia, “Sports Wrap”, 31.1.11), had set the Australians a near-impossible batting target, 334 runs; yet the Australians were fighting back, and in the end – won the game with two wickets in hand and four balls to spare.

This was a fine diversion in time of crisis, wrapped in the flag.

Yet, it had to be only a diversion against what could not be ignored, especially by those trapped along that exposed line of tropical coast.

Already, all would have an investment in the Northern folk memory of the wild weather, and most a story to tell.

Cyclone Althea hit Townsville on Christmas Eve 1971, taking three lives; they’d had Agnes before that, in 1956; Connie two years later obliterated the little town of Home Hill and smashed the harbour, and its boats, at Bowen.

Ada, in 1970, fierce, but a small cyclone in area, tore through the tourist islands on the Whitsunday coast.

Deeper in the folklore, mighty, unforeseen blows were remembered and are told about, time and again.

Old timers recalled the famous “pink sky” and eerie stillness before the murderous advance of Leonta (1903, 10 deaths), again at Townsville; another with multiple fatalities at Mackay in 1918; and other massive strikes were spoken about, from further up along the much less populated Far Northern coast.

In 1911, the popular passenger and cargo steamship Yongala was surprised by a cyclone while heading North from Bowen, the radio operator there having got a warning signal a few minutes too late to stop her departure.

Lost for several decades, with all on board, the wreck has become a famous dive site.

Part of the flavour of these olden tragedies was captured by the talented Queensland writer, the late Thea Astley, in her novel, It’s Raining in Mango.

Possibly with reference to Cyclone Mahina in 1899, she located the storm at a small port settlement serving the gold rush in the Far North.

The wind came up savagely, wet and unheralded, and so did the sea, and the river rushed down into the estuary in a flood, carrying with it, the pub and other buildings, and presently four women in the town brothel as well.

An extract:

“By tea-time the rain stopped abruptly … With that frenzied bashing of the water on iron eased, the open-throated roar of the river dominated everything. The women stood on the veranda watching the mud track down to the landing vanish as the water rose, cutting the banks. Only Nadine was frightened …

“Sylvia began a rotund thumping on the frightened piano. ‘Let’s sing!’, she cried … But no one joined in and even her voice fell away when Kitty, who had been out on the wind-torn veranda inspecting raucous movement in the darkness, announced that the pub had gone.

“They all crowded round her, braced against the railing, and saw, in the boiling night, the great bulk of the pub rise and teeter and submit itself to the current. Oh God, they all kept whispering, oh God. Its bucking progress was halted momentarily by the trading store where the concussion slammed both buildings out into the middle of the river …”

That is the kind of thing the boys and girls might read in North Queensland schools, as a part-preparation for life, though this night was a moment for them to  experience something of the real thing.


Reuters, London, “Factbox: Australia’s deadliest & most destructive cyclones”., (2.2.11).

Thea Astley, It’s Raining in Mango, Melbourne, Penguins, 2010

Yongala Dive, Townsville., (2.2.11).

Pictures, wikipedia, indymedia, farmonline