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Climate expert warns of Cairns 'catastrophe' if severe cyclone triggers tidal surge

By Kristy Sexton-McGrath and Adam Stephen, Friday October 2, 2020 - 10:30 EST
ABC licensed image
Waves crash over the Cairns esplanade after Cyclone Yasi hit land hundreds of kilometres south. - ABC licensed

The Cairns CBD and other low-lying suburbs could be wiped out by a tidal surge caused by a direct hit from a severe tropical cyclone, a climate expert has warned.

Far North Queensland is expecting an increase in rain following the Bureau of Meteorology's

This weather pattern could cause more — possibly severe — cyclones to form, according to James Cook University associate professor and geoscientist Jonathan Nott.

And that, Dr Nott said, was bad news for Cairns, a city that "couldn't have been more poorly designed" to sustain a big hit.

"There is nowhere else in this country, or even in the high-income nations of the world, where you have a city that is so prone, so vulnerable to being impacted by a tropical cyclone," he said.

"Our hospitals are only a few metres above sea level, our airport is the same, the ambulance station, fire station, electricity substation. We've ... got it all in the storm-surge zone in Cairns.

"I taught a subject for 24 years called Natural Hazards and I used to tell my students that you could not plan, in any way, shape or form, a city more prone to tropical cyclone impacts than Cairns."

Dr Nott said the seaside city of more than 165,000 people had dodged several bullets over the years, with severe Category 5 cyclones Larry and Yasi passing by the city in 2006 and 2011 respectively.

"It is just pure good luck, and that's all we can put it down to, because they've occurred to the north of us and the south of us," he said.

"There is no geographical reason why we have missed out, it's just very fortunate."

Tidal surge could inundate hospital

As Cyclone Yasi bore down on the Far North Queensland coast in 2011, more than 30,000 Cairns residents living in low-lying suburbs were told they could face mandatory evacuations.

Around 250 patients at the Cairns Hospital — opposite the esplanade — were airlifted to other hospitals due to the threat of a storm surge.

The cyclone eventually crossed near Mission Beach, about two hours' drive south of Cairns, devastating the area.

Dr Nott said, if the cyclone had hit Cairns directly, the results could have been "catastrophic".

"Yasi created a 7.5-metre storm surge," he said.

"If the equivalent of Yasi crossed halfway between Cairns and Port Douglas, we would see a 7-metre storm surge coming into Cairns.

"That's water going through at least the second floor of the Cairns Hospital."

City 'prepared' for severe weather events

Deputy Mayor Terry James said the city was well prepared for the La Nina weather event and any future cyclones in terms of flood mitigation works.

"Everybody should be prepared for cyclones, it's something that is not new to Cairns," Councillor James said.

"The building standards have been raised since Cyclone Tracy in Darwin and the new buildings in the Cairns CBD should be able to withstand severe cyclones."

Federal Member for Leichhardt Warren Entsch said he was pleased the La Nina weather pattern meant the region might enjoy a "normal" wet season.

"We live in the wet tropics. The reason why everything is green and we have rainforest here is because we get plenty of rain, " he said.

"We haven't had a good wet season now for a number of years — we need one."


© ABC 2020

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