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Locals barely got a warning before the cyclone that flattened Innisfail 100 years ago

By Casey Briggs, Saturday March 10, 2018 - 09:38 EDT
Audience submitted image
Following the disaster, just 12 houses remained in Innisfail. - Audience submitted

As north Queensland communities prepare for a massive clean-up after this week's flooding, many will pause to reflect on a devastating storm that blew through exactly a century ago.

The severe cyclone claimed an estimated 100 lives when it hit on March 10, 1918, and was one of the most serious to ever hit a populated part of Queensland.

It crossed the coast at night, and the only notice locals got was a vague message from the "Astronomical Bureau".

"Disturbance this morning NE from Townsville and approaching the coast between Cooktown and Bowen. It appears to be dangerous," the warning read.

Cassowary Coast Mayor John Kremastos said it was now considered a category five storm, but there were no accurate measurements from the time.

"Those fortunate enough to have barometers were able to recognise that there was a cyclone coming … I believe the school bell was used to warn people that it was coming," he said.

The cyclone virtually flattened several towns, and in Innisfail, only 12 houses withstood serious damage.

"Our buildings these days, they might get unroofed, some people lose their houses, but that was the norm and not the exception back then," Cr Kremastos said.

When the town was rebuilt, the Art Deco movement was in full swing internationally, and it now makes the region stand out in Australia.

"That's what's created the opportunity for us now to market Tully and Innisfail as Art Deco centres, and bring tourists to the region."

Cyclone a reminder of a dark chapter

There are no complete records, but it has been estimated at least 40 Indigenous people died in the cyclone, or gumbudda as the Djiru traditional owners call it.

Most of those had been living at the Hull River Settlement, on what is now Mission Beach.

Leonard Andy said his father's uncle has passed on stories of the storm.

"He talked about the ocean going back out before it came back in, and the settlement was down on the flat ground, and people couldn't get away," he said.

"There was also a lot of people that ran away from here. People ran south, people went north up into Mamu country and got adopted for a while and tried to hide in other groups."

He said people living at the settlement had been removed from their lands during colonisation.

"It was more like a penal colony and detention centre," Mr Andy said.

After the cyclone the settlement was moved south down the coast.

It was the beginning of the community of Palm Island, which exists to this day.

"We have stories of people arriving there and not even being there three or four months before they were back here [but] then caught again by native police," he said.

He plans to bring Indigenous people from across the region together to ensure the history was not forgotten.

"At the moment all we're hearing is a Mission Beach tourism story, and it looks nice when you get here but there's another story that's there but you can't see it," Mr Andy said.

"For me, every time I walk around I see it, and it'd be good to bring our people back to tell that story."


© ABC 2018

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