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Zacca sent us an update for his Gallery page and we were waiting for some photos. And waiting. And waiting (but that's nothing new ... some folks are busy working on their trucks ). Then we got an email from Scotty Reed saying big things ... no BIG things ... were happening in the other hemisphere. So, when we heard from Zacca, we got the first installment of this story. (He is a Journalist, you know -- Managing Editor of The Tablelander Newspaper -- and he's been writing this story ever since Larry breezed into town.)


Bolt down the hatches, Mate!
By Denis Samin

G'day, Mate ...

          I WAS huddled in the bathroom with my wife Lisa, our son Joshua and the company of our pet -- dogs Buffy and Gretel, and Sylvester, the cat with attitude. There was also a friendly possum up in the roof somewheres. You see, we live on a farm property in far North-Eastern Australia at the base of that pointy thing on the map of Australia called Cape York Peninsula. It’s right beside the warm waters of the Coral Sea, and all the cyclones generated in the toasty warm waters of the Solomon Islands blow in our direction ... looking for trouble.

          I begin my story at 8.30 am on March 19, because at this point, I was sitting in the bathroom just hanging on. The walls and roof of the house were thrumming and vibrating, groaning and twanging like Mick Jagger’s guitar. Cyclone Larry, a category 5 severe tropical cyclone, was extending his tentacles, feeling, searching for us and any weakness in the house structure. My mind ran a mental check on outside security: everything secured? Everything tied down or stowed away? I was happy about everything except the Stovebolt cab which was sitting on jack-stands under the verandah. A newspaper headline flashed through my mind: "STOVEBOLT BREAKS LAND SPEED RECORD OF 320 KM/H!" I wasn’t too confident that old girl was gonna make it. I could imagine her groaning and rolling off the jack-stands, the wind getting under her skirts and rolling her across the front yard, bumping over the fence and rolling and-a-tumbling down the Kennedy Highway, heading for town.

          Just then the phone rang. It was my General Manager, 290 miles south, sitting safely in his Townsville office, probably sipping coffee.

          “Are you OK Zacca? What’s the situation with the cyclone mate?”

          ”G’day boss. Well I had to crawl out from the bathroom to the living room and I’m lying prone on the living room floor with the phone. The westerly winds are whistling overhead like a blanky six-pack of jumbo jets revving up before take-off, all fighting to see who’s going to take the roof off” I replied with much shouting.

          “What’s all that racket?”

          “Er ... , that IS the cyclone, mate.”

          “Why are you lying on the floor? Are you hurt?”

          “No boss, its sorta, just in case the front windows blow in and spray shards of glass shrapnel across the lounge room."

          “Fair dinkum?” said the boss.

          “Yep, mate, its blanky serious. Getting worser. I’m going to crawl back into the bathroom. See ya.” With a grateful sigh, and I hung up the phone.

          I’d just got back to the bathroom, settled in, counted everyone and patted the dogs when my attention turned to an almighty explosion from the direction of our front bedroom. Lisa gave me a knowing look as if to say, “Well, you’re the bloke -- go and take a look.” Up I get, half stumbling across the doona bed covers, pillows and sleeping bags lining our hidey-hole. I knelt down and gingerly tried to open the bedroom door but it was stuck firm. Crikey. Put a shoulder to it and heaved. It was the air pressure inside the bedroom.

          I saw instantly what the bang was. The whole bedroom ceiling had given way under the wind pressure trapped inside the roof and had imploded. The random strips of brown paper and plaster covered everything -- the bed, the floor, our dressers. The wind was howling down through the hole in the ceiling (well, it really wasn’t a ceiling any more, but it was comfortable to think that it was still the ceiling). So, to let the wind out I opened the front windows all the way. The remains of the curtains blew horizontally out the front windows like a distress signal in a hurricane. Fact was, this thing we call a cyclone in "upside-down land" IS a blanky hurricane that rotates in the opposite direction.

          I went back to the bathroom, settled down, turned to Lisa and said “You know that bedroom ceiling we used to have? “Well, now it isn’t.” She instantly went three shades paler. I got my old service-time Kevlar AB brain bucket and told my 12 year old son to strap it on. He was amused by all this, until I told him I been in gunfights, firefights, tribal fights and volcano eruptions and this is as bad as it gets. He really thought I was kidding him. Until the second bedroom ceiling blew in.

          Now considered as an imploded roof veteran, Lisa gave me a nod of the head and directed me to "go and fix it." Half of that ceiling was gone, not as badly damaged as the first one. Same deal -- I opened the window to let the wind out. I figured if all the wind was trapped inside the house, we’d lose the roof and water and wind would tear the house apart.

          I got back to the bathroom and sat down when there was tearing craaash directly above our heads. This time it was the bathroom exhaust fan, blown in by wind pressure and now hanging from its electrical cable. Got up, looked out the window to see if our roof had gone somewhere else, just in time to see several sheets of corrugated roofing iron sail off the back of my outdoorsy 1920 dairy shed and workshop like a squadron of Mustang fighters, all in line, all airborne and gaining altitude, together. They must have ran out of gas, for they all crash-landed together in a heap 400 yards away in a paddock across the highway.

          The score at half time when the eye of the cyclone arrived over us was: Wind: Two ceilings, seven sheets of iron, a plastic dog kennel, a double swing verandah seat, three buckets and a whole posse of plastic bags strung up on the wire fence out front. Occupants: Just hanging on, but not beaten yet. It was quiet and still. Until the phone rang. Yep it was my boss.

          “How you doing now, Zacca?

          “Were OK. We lost a couple of ceilings and a bit of stuff around the yard and half me shed, but we’re OK.”

          “Our shop down in Innisfail (on the coast) lost the whole roof. Rain got into the computers and servers and they’re all gone. How’s your office?”

          “Bucket if I know. It's in town remember? I’m out in the bush.”

          “Well, give me ring…" I cut in “Can’t talk mate, looks like half-time is over. The wind is coming from the opposite direction. Gotta go. This is a serious game” hanging up on him.

          Lisa, who had been moving stuff off the fence line so it didn’t blow back and smash our front windows in, said. “Hey there’s a big roof on the middle of the highway down the road ... (400 yards). Hey, and they lost the roof off the house and their machinery shed is demolished and it looks like the school bus has a big wooden pole sticking out of the roof.”

          With that, we took up positions for the final half of the game, not overly confident of a win, convinced that our roof would go and this time and we might die. I told Josh for the 73rd time to put his blanky helmet on. In came the wind again, generally strong to 250 km/h gusting to 300km/h. Limbs and bits of Pacific Pine trees were sailing past the house. The wires on the main powerline poles snapped like cotton, leaving the pole and its neighbors leaning over like drunks after a night on the town.

          About an hour and a half, the wind died down to just a gale, We came out of the house and Lord; the roof was still hanging in there. My neighbours were not so fortunate; all had lost the roof of their homes. It was 11.30am. Then the phone rang.

          “Zacca, how is your office?”

          “I don’t know boss, we’ve just come outside and I’m trying to brew coffee on the camp stove, our power was switched off at 5am this morning. And we’ve not had breakfast, nor do we feel like any.”

          “Err, OK, give me an update as soon as you get in there.” And rang off.

          With trepidation, I went to the back of the house to check on the Stovebolt cab. She was still sitting there, untouched, patiently waiting for me to caress her firewall.

          I looked at her and said out loud: “You’re a tough old Sheila ain’t ya,” She hadn’t moved an inch.

          We managed to get some coffee brewed and take stock of things. We had little information. No power, No water pressure because the water pump couldn’t run the tank, also means no toilet, The radio had gone off, the station lost its broadcast tower and our batteries were going weak. Crikey, it was like 1889!

 

The aftermath

          Coffee done, family secure, I had to go into town, see how the office was and report to Townsville. It was 12.30pm. Started up the Mitsubishi sedan, just 300 yards down the road I ran across my first 22,000 KVA power transmission lines festooning the fence posts and across the highway, dodged the house roof and then was confronted by pine tree debris, limbs, fallen tree trunks about three feet deep for maybe 300 yards, impassable in a riceburner sedan, so turned around, went home and got my Nissan Patrol 4WD truck. Further down the highway I began to come across many trees that had fallen or broken off half way up the trunk, in places where the road was blocked I went bush and slithered along the fence line beside the road in 4WD. I wanted to know what the condition of the road bridge was in, where the road runs through thick rain forest for about three miles. As it happened, the bridge was completely blocked by dozens of fallen forest giants, couldn’t see the actual bridge for the trees.

          There is an alternative way to town by turning left before the bridge, I took this track and around the first bend I saw huge trees had fallen across the powerlines felling the poles and cables to the ground, numerous other trees lay on the other side of this obstacle, but I found a small track leading into a farmer’s flattened corn paddock and a possible way around the problem. Winding around the track in 4WD, I turned a corner where the track suddenly wound uphill beside the cornfield and the heavy truck started to lose way, until she slid into the corn paddock itself and the consistency of that cornfield was like porridge. She went down to the axles. Got out, walked about 200 yards to the farmhouse and enjoyed another coffee with the farmer and his family, who said he’d give me tow with the tractor ‘in a few days time’.

          While I’d been drinking the coffee I learned that the road bridge to town that way I was headed had been undermined and the bridge approaches had all been washed away and was impassable. While we had been talking, I could hear the rumble of an approaching big diesel engine in the far distance.

          Coffee done, I thanked everyone and walked down to the road just in time to see a big old yellow Caterpillar 966 front-end loader come rolling along and the driver stopped looked quizzically at me, being on foot, so he said: “Where you off to mate?”

          “Town,” I replied, “I have to check out my office,”

          The big tough guy gave me a lopsided grin and said:, “Jump on mate, I’m going to town too.”

          So off we trundled. We attacked the trees over the powerlines first, crunch, smash, bash, 15 minutes, -all clear. Then it was the bridge, same deal, which took more than an hour. Then it was clear highway for maybe two miles until the road is arched by rainforest, and everything was down. Couldn’t see the highway it was just covered in fallen trees, which took another hour.

          Got to the office, nobody there, it was now close to 4pm, opened up, the roof was on, the power was off, the industrial carpet was sopping wet from a damaged roof, but, everything was fine. Got on the cell phone and told Townsville the bad news we were out of action until power restored. I had a 32-page paper two pages from completion sitting in the hard drives of those cold dead computers. When I phoned the boss he told me that Townsville had laid out a 12-page special edition of my paper and the one in Innisfail, carrying both of our mastheads, to be printed on a company press near to us and it would delivered at 5am next morning.

          I sat down on a nearby park seat in the approaching dusk and wrote what I had learned of the local situation in the hour or two that I had been in town. My cell phone batteries were failing, but I made contact with our Townsville HQ and dictated my story to a typist who had stayed back especially to receive the despatch. Went over to the State Emergency Service control room across the road, cadged another cup of coffee had a yarn with the rescue crew, everyone swapping stories and so far, no reports of anyone being killed or injured. Waited for the Caterpillar guy to come back but by dark he’d not shown up, so called a friend who gave me ride all the way home, with me proudly boasting: “Well, er, we kinda cleared that highway all the way to my house.”

          Home, the lad was there, the house in near darkness except for the guttering of candles. Lad said Mum had gone looking for me, it was now 8.30pm. She got back just after 10pm and said she’d taken a wrong turn and had ended up at the washed out road bridge where she got a flat tire and tried to change it in the total darkness, when two young guys came along out of the gloom.

          It was nice ending to a pear-shaped day. The guys who changed the tire were members of a football team that my firm sponsors, so that was a happy event. It took 15 days before enough of the electric grid was restored before we got power on again. I bought a generator in the meantime to run the house on as it looked being a prolonged disaster. The entire Australian banana crop was wiped out, we won’t see any for nine months, a lot of farmers facing ruin from the damage to livestock, crops and farm processing sheds. But the Federal and State Governments have prised open their purse strings and aid money is flowing, with unsecured low interest loans for up to 25 years of $500,000 and more if you can prove yourself.

          The whole region is teeming with emergency workers, tradesmen, insurance assessors and help for the elderly. Everyone is pulling together. My family got off lightly. And the Possum? Lisa refuses to sleep in our bedroom with the broken ceiling and is camping out on the lounge. I’m more pragmatic and cling to normalcy and sleep in our regular bed, ceilings or not… The possum announced that he is till in one piece by dropping small parcels of refuse on my bed from the exposed roof beams.

          There are upwards 150,000 people in this region. Many hundreds of folks lost their roofs and it rained inside the houses. Saltwater crocodiles, man-eaters, are swimming in suburban floodwaters in the coastal sugar-belt towns. After a week of rain, the sun came out for one day. I pulled my Nissan out of the corn paddock after 14 days. It has started raining heavily again, been raining for a week. The Monsoons have arrived. Down south, the cities dams are drying up -- there is a drought. While we are drowning in water from the sky. That is the way in Australia. Best news of all - nobody died. And the Stovebolt is still on her jack-stands!

          Yesterday, my firm sponsored a “Recovery Breakfast” for all of the emergency crews who had come to help from up to 1000 miles away. They’ve been away from their families working 12 hour shifts for 16 days now, they’re marvelous. And the people? General Peter Cosgrove, a highly decorated soldier and former Head of Australian Army is leading the recovery effort and he is in for the long haul. He said to me on the phone: “I admire their bravery. They stand bleeding in their ragged clothes -- all they were left with -- still defiant and ready to help neighbours before they complain about their own situation. Some have lost everything, stock, crops and farm buildings. I admire their stoicism and resilience while staring into the face of total disaster. I am here to see them back on their feet and I will not leave them until the job is done.” I wrote his words on the front page of my newspaper the next day for everyone to see. And I felt proud to be an Australian.

Cheers,

Denis Samin
"Zacca"
Bolter # 7915
Atherton Tablelands
North Queensland
Australia

Postscript

          We are all very tired; everyone is fresh out of adrenalin. The newspaper went back online on March 22. We haven’t had a day off since Larry arrived. We have produced two 40-page editions carrying much information useful to people -- government agencies and help telephone numbers, the recovery situation and photographs of damage with progress reports on the state of the power grid recovery. The Townsville management team launched an appeal for household goods and that city responded magnificently. There are now five huge warehouses down there, packed with all kinds of household furniture for people who have lost everything.

          This week, as well as build a paper, I’m gathering names of folks who need furniture, bedding and cooking essentials and the Townsville newspaper trucks will deliver the goods right to their door and unload it for them. We were among the last to get power to our home, but by then I had the 4.5KVA generator capable of running the house except for the hot water heater. Last night’s paper was a normal 40-pager but it took us 12 hours to put it all together, finishing the day at 9pm.

          Today, I’m taking a day off. I want to thank all the Stovebolters for their concerns. We’re fine. The people here are still battered and in some degree of shock but they are all OK.

          Some funny things happened the morning after Larry had hit when we pulled out the 12-page special edition from left field. Four people complained because it didn’t have a crossword puzzle. Others moaned because there were no photographs of their town’s damage. Another said “Where are all the pages? – this is a disgrace!” And, “You’ve run out of papers. Why didn’t you print more?”

          I asked each of them what they were doing yesterday when Cyclone Larry struck. All of them said: “We were in our homes of course, looking after our families and keeping safe.” Second question: “Do you have any mains electrical power?" They said “No, nobody has power.” We lost $25,000 on that 12-page paper. There wasn’t an advertisement in it. LOL

          In summary, I said to each of them: “What do you think we are -- some kind of super beings?“ We were doing exactly the same thing as you were -- surviving. But, we still gave you your Tuesday paper and it was free.”

          Of course, the reasoning behind getting a paper on the street the very next day was to give people a sense of normalcy. Two things that we believe should happen immediately in disaster areas -- give the people a newspaper and fresh baked bread -- first priority. It helps to psychologically mend them. And it was clear that several of them were recovering faster than others. They were moaning again!

          But again on the positive side: three papers are working together to put out a colour magazine on Cyclone Larry. It will be produced by The Cairn Post (one of the major papers here) and any money made ($5.00 AUD a copy) , will go towards the recovery fund. The papers are usually fierce competitors but this goes way beyond business and we want to help get the far north back on its feet. The piece will be titled "The Heroes" and it won't devolve so much on the initial destruction, but on the recovery and work done by emergency service people and volunteers getting people going again.

          Love the hot showers! We deeply appreciate all of your concerns –you’re a special bunch of people, the very best!

Cheers mates,

Denis, Lisa and Joshua.
Buffy, Gretel, Sylvester and Poss.


          Wow, we'd have to say Denis and Lisa are the "special bunch." Both of them are former soldiers and it's obvious they handle stress and hard times better than most. Denis says, "This was easy."

          So, was that all? After all he's been through? No ... he had to give me an update on his Stovebolt! That's one die hard Stovebolter! (Oh, and he sent me the crossword puzzle. )

v. April 2006

 


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