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Cyclone Debbie, three months on: How storm-hit towns in Queensland and NSW are recovering

By Michael Mackenzie for Life Matters, Tuesday July 11, 2017 - 12:25 EST
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It has been three months, but the Airlie Beach lagoon is still closed to the public. - ABC

It has been almost three and a half months since Tropical Cyclone Debbie slowly hit the coastline of Queensland carrying windspeeds of 260kph.

That part of Australia is used to cyclones, but Debbie's destructive force refused to move on, hovering for hours over places like Daydream Island, Airlie Beach and Proserpine before moving slowly south.

And though months have passed, Debbie's impact is still being felt — from tropical North Queensland down to the flood-ravaged communities of northern NSW.

Airlie Beach and islands struggle back to feet

Cyclone Debbie smashed Daydream and Hayman Islands so badly their resorts will not reopen until 2018.

Hamilton Island, despite being crippled, was doing business two days after Debbie blew through.



The millions of lost tourism dollars have been partially made up by the influx of hundreds of tradespeople needed to restore buildings and facilities on the islands.

Each day, they catch the early ferries out to their respective building sites.

"Today we nearly maxed out our boat at 189, and 90 per cent were tradies … that's every day since the cyclone," one Airlie Beach to Hamilton Island ferry operator told the ABC.



After laying waste to the Whitsunday Islands, Debbie made landfall near Airlie Beach.

For Kevin Collins, a businessman and local of 34 years, it was like no other cyclone he had experienced.

"Every other cyclone I've been through is a couple of hours … this one was beyond belief," he said.

"There was a catamaran in the port of Airlie tipped upside down and speared onto the top of a pylon — a 40-foot catamaran. You can't prepare for that."



Months on from the cyclone, it is harder to see where Debbie made her mark, but the scars are there if you know where to look.

Behind the main street, the town's lagoon remains closed to the public, having suffered structural damage and issues with sewage contamination.

For many locals, the lagoon's reopening will be a symbol of community restoration.



Ron Petterson, the chairman of Police Citizen Youth Club and the Whitsundays Suicide Prevention Network, said most people were feeling pretty positive, but some were still finding it tough.

"We are seeing some cracks starting to appear where people are becoming a bit tired, and a bit worn out," he said.

"People need to be watching their neighbours and their friends and keeping their eyes open, and if there's anything that's not quite right, then say: 'Do you want to have a coffee, do you want have a chat?'"

Proserpine waits for good news

Twenty-five kilometres inland from the tourism dollars of Airlie Beach lies the sugar town of Proserpine, which was hit just as hard.

On the town's main street, the damage wrought by Debbie is plain to see, with tarpaulins, cyclone fencing and plywood covering shopfronts and the local hotel.



John Collins, the Whitsunday deputy mayor and Proserpine's only butcher, said some people were cut off from all communication when the storm hit.



"Over all these cyclones since 1970 we've gone backwards … with the NBN, there's no power, no phones, and not all the elderly people have mobile phones," he said.

"If they did have mobile phones, we had no power for up to a fortnight, and you couldn't really charge them, unless you had a generator.

"I've got people living in one room of a house and they're still waiting for [insurance] assessors to get there."



Proserpine locals are now wondering if the 2017 cane harvest will be enough to give them hope.

At the sugar mill, there is hard work to be done, to be back in operation in time for the crush.

And out at the local showground, where dances, award nights and prize winning displays once took centre stage, the century-old pavilion is still missing its walls — though what remains is a beautifully sprung wooden floor.



Northern rivers still traumatised, housing in crisis

As Debbie's winds reduced, the rain it brought continued to fall in record amounts, taking even flood-prone communities by surprise.

More than 20,000 people were evacuated from their homes in northern NSW, and three months on, communities like Lismore, Murwillumbah, and Billinudgel are still reeling.



"I've spoken to a number of people this last weekend who said their children are waking up in the middle of the night with heavy rain, and not knowing why they're upset or scared," Lismore Mayor Isaac Smith said.

"It's definitely linked back to that flood event … replaying in people's minds."



Emergency services have held public meetings to ask what went right, and what could have been done better during evacuations.

Lismore-based telephone counsellor Justine Cox believes there were lessons to learn.

"Too many messages only adds to confusion when people are anxious … [we'd prefer messages to be] absolutely clear and concise, so people don't exercise panic," she said.



A few kilometres outside Byron Bay lies the tiny flood-prone community of Billinudgel — which feels neglected and ignored, according to hotel proprietor Ken Barnham.

"Tweed Shire Council and Lismore Shire Council seemed to get out there trying to help every bit; [Byron Council] wasn't seen until they absolutely had to be," he said.

"I know a couple of businesses that won't be reopening, but there's ones that are on the brink. If it happens again they're gone."



Thirty kilometres north, the town of Murwillumbah, population 9,000, was in need of public housing even before the floodwaters struck.

But now the situation is dire for many low-income families who had their temporary accommodation swept away.



One person was killed at Greenhills Caravan Park, on the outskirts of town, when the water rose fast and hard, leaving survivors with just the clothes on their backs.

Jodie and Michael have found shelter for their two young daughters in a donated caravan behind the local Seventh Day Adventist Church.



"Each day still goes by and I realise different things have gone, but they're material things and we've got each other, and that's the main thing I suppose," Jodie said.

"[We're] just trying to live normal as we can. Being in the caravan is really hard … this is the 10th place we've been in [since the end of March]."


- ABC

© ABC 2017

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