Menu
News

100 days of disaster: What happened after Cyclone Debbie

FRED Quod was walking out of his bathroom when a piece of his neighbour's tin roof tore open the back of his house, almost severing his arm and sending him smashing through the shower door.

Wife Peta Smail heard the bang and daughter Tegan's screams, prised open the hallway door that was glued shut by the raging wind, and found Fred lying curled up, covered in debris and glass.

"I didn't know if he was alive," she told news.com.au.

"There was blood everywhere, debris everywhere, his head and shoulders through the shower recess, he was curled up on the floor with debris on him."

 

Visit your local newsagent to grab a copy of Defying Debbie
Visit your local newsagent to grab a copy of Defying Debbie

When disaster struck, locals stepped up. Celebrate the heroes who fought back when Severe Tropical Cyclone Debbie and its aftermath smashed two states. 'Defying Debbie' tells their stories of triumph and hope in a special commemorative publication on sale now. 

All proceeds from the $7.50 cover price go to the official flood recovery. 

Click here to find a participating newsagent to get your copy. 

 

But Peta, 52, says the family were prepared for the hell that was Cyclone Debbie.

"What we were not prepared for is post-Cyclone Debbie."

On March 28, just after the storm had made landfall in nearby Airlie Beach, she had no time to think about the future.

She lifted the roof off Fred with Tegan, 29, who had cuts and bruises from where her bed had flown across her room and pinned her to the wall.

"The back of the house had gone and the cyclone was inside," said Peta.

"He felt like a sponge," said Peta.

"Everything moved, he started shaking."

For three hours, they stayed on the phone to emergency services, packing pillows and towels around him that were soon soaked with blood.

It was when her son rang from Gladstone that Peta cracked.

"He said, 'How are you going?' And I said, 'Well, I'm sorry to say Chris, it's not good,' and I heard my voice break. He said, 'Mum, you're the strongest woman I know, you can do this.'"

When he told her the cyclone could go on for another six hours, Peta knew they wouldn't make it.

"I was starting to feel panicky," she said.

"I said, I'm going to get the truck, we'll drag him in and I'll drive there myself. My voice was starting to get loud ... I got outside and saw the blue and red lights coming around the corner. I was so relieved."

Their saviour was Proserpine Ambulance Station's officer-in-charge Gavin Cousens, who had been waiting helplessly for his moment to go to the family, wondering whether he would be going around "picking up dead bodies, babies' bodies" when the cyclone had finished wreaking havoc.

"When I took the phone call, I was looking out of the glass door and the roof was blowing off and the walls disintegrating on the house opposite," Mr Cousens told news.com.au.

When they reached Fred, who has a pacemaker, he was in a critical condition, with a punctured lung, severe lacerations and ten broken ribs.

The next morning, he was flown to a bigger hospital in Townsville.

He remembers virtually nothing.

Peta and Tegan trailed home from the local hospital  around 8.30pm, soaked with blood.

"The place was in darkness, every window smashed except three," said Peta

"There was floodwater through the house. In hospital we were calm, the next thing, we're back in a cyclone."

Fred may never fully recover the use of his arm and his short-term memory has been affected.

In the days and weeks after the cyclone, rubbish rotted outside abandoned houses with gaping holes in their roofs, power lines were strewn on every street, boats had sunk or washed up as wrecks on the shore, and dead and blackened trees covered the ground.

There was looting of alcohol, generators and people's possessions.

It looked as though a bushfire had ripped through the idyllic Whitsundays region.

"My head was in my hands," said portrait photographer Deb Savy, whose business ground to a halt as weddings were cancelled, commercial work dried up, and cash-strapped families stopped booking photography sessions at the lagoon, now filled with sewage.

That was when Dave McInnerney decided to leave his flattened Shute Harbour Motel behind and get the hell out.

Driving out of town, he said it looked like there had been "a B52 strike".

"I had to get out of there," he told news.com.au.

He lost most of his possessions as his home and motel filled with a metre of water.

It's now been 100 days since Cyclone Debbie, and the tourism mecca is in an even worse state.

The popular mainland resort of Airlie Beach is deathly quiet, with cafes and bars boarded up on the main street of the small town, the lagoon drained and signs bent double.

In the residential streets of surrounding towns, crumbling houses with piles of rubbish outside are wrapped in tape and painted with the word "CONTAMINATED" in huge red letters, while neighbours peer out from vans and tents they are living in on their front lawns.

The building industry is one of the few that is booming, with visiting tradies filling hotels and caravan parks.

But many locals are still unemployed.

It's not just the houses that are broken, says one business owner. "The people behind them are broken too."

One of those people is Jess Houston, 32, who spent the cyclone cowering at her mother's house as the family listened to "everything breaking" in howling winds of up to 263kmh.

They heard the roof lifting off and watched frozen steaks fly across the room as the freezer door was torn open.

"I was petrified," she told news.com.au.

"I don't think any of us spoke for six hours."

But it was when she returned home that she discovered the worst.

"We had to cut our way in, our house was underwater, walls pushed in, everything gone," she said through tears.

"For the first couple of weeks, I cried myself to sleep every night. I still can't sleep ... They're your belongings, they make you feel who you are."

"Most people are seeking counselling in the past month ... the trauma has kicked in, the devastation around them," she said.

"Quite a few children can't sleep, don't want to leave their mums, it's sad. These are people who haven't gone to counselling before, they can't remember things or focus, it's taking a toll on their relationships."

Ms DeBoni, who uses hypnotherapy to help people deal with their traumatic memories, said many people were having visions of what happened, and had developed a fear of death.

"I think what the cyclone did is bring out a lot of problems people were already experiencing in life, it exacerbated them," she said.

"It's the ones who are scared to ask for help, they're the ones that are really struggling."

For many, it is now a waiting game.

While families received some initial disaster relief payments ($1000 per adult and $400 per child), that's gone.

The insurance companies are overstretched and painfully slow-moving, bringing in assessors from overseas.

Neil Moore and Ali Waller, both 64, stayed in a caravan park for two weeks after a nearby creek overflowed and sewage flooded into their home.

All around them are houses abandoned because of asbestos damage, neighbours living in tents and rubbish piled outside empty homes.

"We had piles up to here afterwards," says Neil, raising his hand above his head.

"People were devastated.

"Yesterday we had no reception at all because the tower went down. It's all related, isn't it?

"It's depressing."

Topics:  cyclone debbie disaster editors picks recovery

News Corp Australia


Could the Mooloo Kid be our next Commonwealth Games star?

BREAKING THE RECORDS: Gympie swim sensation Troy Carlson claimed a winning haul of five gold medals and two silver at the recent Pacific School Games in Adelaide last week.

'Awesome Troysome' adds new swag of medals to his collection

Alice's perfect little world

TALENT: Gympie singer-songwriter Alice Benfer has been nominated for a Tamworth Songwriters' Association award for her song Perfect Little World.

Gympie talent nominated for top award

"We'll need a cargo ship to get this lot over there"

Rowena Robertson does her bit to keep Australia Post profitable

Local Partners