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100 years ago, a cyclone without a name killed 30 people and almost levelled a young city

By Sophie Meixner, Melissa Maddison, Lara Webster and Meecham Philpott, Saturday January 20, 2018 - 10:09 EDT
ABC licensed image
The recently constructed Town Hall was one of the only buildings left standing and soon became a makeshift shelter. - ABC licensed

Nearly one year after tropical cyclone Debbie hit the north Queensland coast, the region is marking the centenary of another destructive cyclone, which all but flattened the young town of Mackay.

The cyclone on January 20–21, 1918 killed 30 people and destroyed 1,000 buildings when record low pressures brought category 4 winds to the town, causing a 3.6-metre tidal surge.

While the tradition of had already begun, it is rumoured the Bureau of Meteorology employee responsible for naming cyclones was on holiday at the time, leaving the 1918 storm nameless — and hence all the more infamous in the town's history.



'Houses disintegrated'

The cyclone hit on the evening of Sunday, January 20, but its deadliest element was the 3.6-metre 'tidal wave' that swept through the streets early the following morning, destroying almost everything in its path.

Unsuspecting residents were forced to frantically grab onto floating debris as the water rose and their houses collapsed around them.

Local historian Terry Hayes said the force of the water was "colossal".

"[A witness] saw houses disintegrate from rooftop to stumps," he said.

"Roofs were sliced off and blown away in one piece, homes were pitched headlong into the street, there were people clinging to the remnants of their homes and struggling to safety.

"Houses were being lifted off the blocks and slammed back onto them."



30 deaths and 1,000 buildings destroyed

Most of the 30 victims were in Mackay, although deaths from flooding were reported as far away as Rockhampton and Yeppoon.

Six members of a single family died when a floating segment of wall they were using as a makeshift raft was swept away.

Sarah Welch and her children Elizabeth, 13, Rose, nine, Mabel, six, Lucy, three, and three-month-old Charles all drowned while her husband Peter and sons Tom, 12, and Edwin, seven, survived.

"Elizabeth decided she would try to swim to the neighbour's house nearby, which was still standing, and she was lost in the water," Mr Hayes said.

"And the last words Edwin heard his mother say was 'Rosie's gone'."



In 1918, houses and infrastructure were not yet built to be cyclone-proof.

"At that time there weren't all those brick buildings we have now; they were mostly timber, and many of them were just smashed to pieces," local historian Berenice Wright said.

"With the amount of destruction, it's amazing that anything stood."

The brick Town Hall was one of the only structures left intact and in the days after the cyclone it became a shelter for more than 60 homeless residents.

The Sydney Street bridge connecting Mackay city to the north collapsed onto the steamer Brinawarr, with the ship's master and his son lucky to escape the overturned vessel.

A local boat owner established a makeshift ferry service to allow travel between areas north and south of the river.



In living memory

Eileen Welch, now aged 105, is one of the last remaining residents in Mackay who remembers the storm.

She was living with her parents and twin sister Edna in a house on George Street.

Later she would go on to marry Tom Welch, one of the surviving Welch siblings, who she said rarely spoke of his loss.

At five years old in 1918, Mrs Welch said she and her sister "were too young to be interested" in the cyclone.

"I don't think there was any warning," she said.



"I can't remember my parents being prepared for a cyclone; it was something that just happened overnight as it came on and you weathered it."

The family's house was ripped apart in the wind but luckily escaped the tidal surge, which stopped short of the property.

She remembered her father carrying one daughter under each arm and being blown over by the wind.

"The kitchen was a big room … attached to the house and it got pulled apart from the house, you'd have to crawl through to get to the kitchen," she said.

"The posts came up through the front verandah so we put bricks under all the cookers and beds to level it off."



Sad tales

Three members of the Shanks family died when trying to reach higher ground in their flooded house.

"As the water rose, they were climbing up, getting on tables, John Shanks got on the roof," Mr Hayes said.

"John was able to grab [some family members] from the water but wasn't able to get his wife Alice and her two children, who were lost."

A young girl died when she was carried in "appalling conditions" for five hours to reach safety at a neighbour's house.

"[The mother] had the little girl, the youngest child, wrapped in a piece of carpet, and when she arrived at the home, she found the child was deceased, she died of exposure," Ms Wright said.



Stranded on farm properties

After the cyclone, Mackay was completely cut off, with no news reaching the outside world for up to a week.

Cane grower John Fordyce's father and grandfather lived through the cyclone but were left stranded on the farm for many weeks.

It was an event he says his father never forgot, who was just 18 years old when the system hit.

"They were unable to get into town for six weeks," he said.



"The only way to get in was they made their way through to Glenella, got on the railway formation and walked in along the railway to Mackay.

"After the roof was blown away there was no shelter for my grandmother, she was crippled with arthritis, so my father and my uncle got the buggy out. The horses had all gone.

"They put her in the buggy, one on each shaft and they took her to a farmhouse next farm over, which was not damaged.

"I don't think [Dad] ever got over what happened."

Animals were victims

Helen Styles remembers the stories of the 1918 cyclone through her grandmother Tottie, who was two when it hit.



"There had been a lovely little dog that lived next door and it had been tethered to the fence when the wall of water hit and she could hear it barking and barking until she couldn't hear it bark anymore," she said.

"The lovely horse, which they loved, across the road in the paddock … watching it drown was especially traumatic.

"[Her mother] was known to have screamed when she saw the wall of water coming and said 'We'll all be drowned'."

Ms Styles now works in cyclone recovery and said the similarities between the 1918 cyclone and last year's tropical cyclone Debbie were striking.



"This story of my family in the cyclone is one I'm now hearing from people in Eton and people at Sarina Range," she said.

"These walls of water, the furniture bumping against the ceiling, people experienced that last year in March during Cyclone Debbie.

"We came so close in Debbie to having 1918 all over again, there are a lot of similarities between the two storms and if Debbie had hit when the high tide hit we might have had a storm surge and a storm tide like that, so we were very lucky, we could have lost a lot of lives."

No warning

Unlike today, where long-range models can warn of an incoming cyclone in advance, residents in 1918 had only several hours' notice that a cyclone was on its way, in the form of a notice affixed to the door of the post office.



On the day of the cyclone Mackay recorded more than 600mm of rainfall, more than 400mm the day after and 300mm the following day, making the storm one of the wettest to hit Queensland.

Meteorologist Tony Wedd ranked the cyclone among the deadliest on record.

"It's frequently mentioned as one of the worst five cyclones to strike the Queensland coast," he said.

The official post office barometer malfunctioned when it reached its lowest possible reading of 944hPa, but a private observer's barometer recorded 932hPa in the early hours of January 21.

"It's very low pressure for a cyclone," Mr Wedd said.



"Comparing that to other cyclones we've had more data for, it's probably the equivalent of a high-end category 4 cyclone."

Mr Wedd assessed the 1918 cyclone as slightly more severe than 2017's Tropical Cyclone Debbie, with no flood levees and inadequate mitigation infrastructure compounding the damage.

Local newspaper the Daily Standard could not publish an edition for five days but on January 25 wrote that the cyclone "eclipses anything of the kind hitherto recorded in the meteorological history of the whole of Queensland, and possibly of Australia".

"The appearance of the town had been transformed almost beyond recognition," the reporter wrote.

"Mackay was passing through absolutely the most disastrous period in its history."


- ABC

© ABC 2018

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