Cyclone hurtled towards the coast ‘like a freight train’
IN A pensive moment frozen in time, Harry and Kitty Anning stand behind the bar of the Babinda State Hotel as a mega storm builds in the Coral Sea.
Kitty Anning, an emergency radio gripped in her hands, grimly imagined what was in store over the next 12 hours as severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi slowly but surely tracked westward from Fiji.
The rotating behemoth dwarfed 2006's Cyclone Larry, which left the Cassowary Coast battered and dazed only four years earlier.
"This is probably the biggest cyclone in memory,'' then Cairns Mayor Val Schier said at the time.
"I think anyone who has seen that huge system swirling around in the Coral Sea, heading towards Cairns, can't help but be in awe, and be afraid.''
If they were afraid - the Annings' fear was well rooted in experience.
"We thought everything would be gone," Ms Anning said.
"We already had Larry so we had thought the worst."
Yasi began as a tropical low northwest of Fiji on January 29, 2011, slowly building in size and intensity.
Over the course of three days, the storm tracked west and grew in strength through the Coral Sea, prompting mass evacuations from Cairns as towns along the tropical coast readied themselves for Yasi's impact.
Ms Anning and her sons had sheltered in the basement during Larry, as the extreme winds peeled the roof from the hotel.
In the event, Yasi made landfall at Mission Beach, as a category five at 10pm on February 2, churning through the community with 290km/h winds, a freight train roar that dragged through the night and early hours.
To the north, the Annings were lucky.
"We stayed up all night; the eye didn't come through until four hours into it.
"We couldn't see much, but the noise was terrible," Ms Anning said.
"There were trees uprooted, the boys went out to see if anyone needed help. We knew we had escaped a real belting; during Larry we were in the thick of it.
"Mission Beach, Cardwell and Tully copped it the worse."
The Cassowary Coast was lashed by Yasi's relentless assault - in Innisfail evacuees sheltering in public buildings nervously eyed windows flexing under the pressure of wind and scrambled to hammer timber boards at the bottom of doors to stem water from flooding inside.
Far to the south, Boyd Scott was "glued to the TV".
The owner of Scott's Hostel in Mission Beach was stuck in Brisbane, but could have been a million miles away.
"Our eyes were glued to the TV, wondering if that roof flying down the street was one of ours," Mr Scott said.
"I had a few businesses there; I wasn't there at the time.
"We boarded the first plane that was allowed to come, about three days after."
He came home to a wrecked landscape.
"We knew what was in store from a few years before during Cyclone Larry," Mr Scott said. "The whole road down from Innisfail was just a mess.
"Mission Beach looked like a bomb had gone off."
One resident likened the scene to ground zero of a nuclear strike.
In the event, only one person was killed during the super storm, a 23-year-old man who was found at a Bambaroo property near Ingham.
He was sheltering indoors during the cyclone and was overcome by fumes from a generator being used to operate electrical appliances.
Only recently recovered from Cyclone Larry, the small towns between Townsville and Cairns bore the brunt of Yasi, with estimated storm surges of up to seven metres sweeping boats inland and wrecking stretches of the Bruce Highway.
"A number of our buildings were seriously damaged; there were very big insurance claims, which were a nightmare," Mr Scott said.
"You have no idea until you have to go through it."
Mr Scott said the storm had stunted commercial growth in Mission Beach.
"It doesn't look too different, but there has not been much commercial development since Yasi; that was absolutely one of the results, people left town," Mr Scott said.
Yasi left 170,000 buildings without power and cost $2bn in damages to mining, agriculture and local government.
Originally published as 'Like a freight train': How cyclone hurtled towards coast