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Cyclone Debbie: Critical road that suffered 'almost biblical' damage reopens after 18 months of work

Sophie Meixner and Tara Cassidy, Tuesday October 9, 2018 - 12:57 EDT
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Main Roads Minister Mark Bailey describes the damage as "biblical". - ABC

Residents of a central Queensland community are driving a vital access road for the first time in 18 months, after it underwent major reconstruction works following tropical cyclone Debbie.

Marlborough-Sarina Road, which connects the Sarina Range to Mackay and nearby towns, suffered 12 landslips during the category 4 storm in March 2017, in damage Main Roads Minister Mark Bailey described as "almost biblical".

Its closure and a school was to accommodate isolated children.

The road was opened to one lane of traffic on Monday, October 8, and is expected to be completely reopened in December.

'Emotionally exhausting'

The closure required residents to take an alternate route down the range, increasing their drive from 20 minutes to 60-80 minutes — one way.

This made the regular school commute unfeasible, and 30 students have been attending a makeshift primary school campus at the top of the mountain.

Resident Bron Perna said the past 18 months had been "emotionally exhausting", with her husband forced to live at the bottom of the range during the week to attend work.

"It's been a real battle just to deal with it," she said.

"Just the emotional distance of not having my husband here at the house.

"My daughter is at the high school, so her commute on the school bus went up from probably about twenty minutes to an hour and a half, an hour and three quarters.

"Physically it's tiring because you have to get up earlier and you don't get home until later and you're in a car for so long."

There were two major and 10 minor landslips on the road, with 30 areas across 26 sites requiring repairs.

Ms Perna said the hardest part was trying to maintain normality while dealing with the extra distance.

"We have a business, [so we thought] how are we going to run that, and … how am I going to manage to do all the things we were committed to doing," she said.

"[My daughter] has been juggled around between myself and my husband and friends to try and let her do all the things she wants to do, social things as well as school things and extracurricular things.

"You don't want to impact your kid if possible, but she's had to miss out on quite a few things."

A big change for students

Principal at Swayneville State School Leah Mullane has had the unusual task of running a small primary school of only 115 students from two separate campuses.

A demountable classroom was placed on land owned by the Country Womens' Association at the top of the mountain in time for Term 2, 2017, less than three weeks after the cyclone.

It will remain open until the end of the 2018 school year.

Ms Mullane said the school was able to maintain the same standard of education at both sites.

"I believe that our school has done a really good job of providing an excellent education for those students at the range campus, but the reality is they've been separated and more isolated than the rest of the students at the school," she said.

"We've been trying to come together as much as possible and bring students back together for different events and to maintain that we are one school."

Hefty financial cost

Secretary of the Sarina Range Community Association Glenys Mansfield said the 450 residents had collectively spent approximately $1.6 million on additional transport since the road's closure, which they were lobbying the State Government to reimburse.

"It is a small community so that's a fairly hefty figure for that short amount of time," she said.

"Some families actually moved down the range to rent because they couldn't afford the commute costs.

"As you can imagine, [it was] three times the distance, so our fuel bill was three times what it was.

"Every single vehicle in our household has had more than three windscreens."

However she said now the road was open there were "lots of bright sides" to consider.

"The outcome of it all is we're going to have a pretty good road up the Sarina Range, and the Koumala Range road has improved significantly as well," she said.

"Also we've formed a wonderful little community group now which we've been able to all work together and perhaps achieve better things for our community moving forward."

Will it withstand the next cyclone?

While residents say the upcoming cyclone season will inevitably lead to some unease, they are confident the new road can withstand the next storm.

"Every time a cyclone is coming I think everybody is going to have that in the back of their mind," Ms Perna said.

"Main Roads have said they've rebuilt the road to try and withstand the same thing [as Debbie], if not more.

"But I think because we've dealt with it once, it's also not as much a concern, [because] we are thinking 'well, we did manage.'"

'Something's lifted off our shoulders'

Residents are planning to throw an opening party on Monday, waving through residents as they drive through the road for the first time in 18 months.

Ms Perna said she felt "like a light went on" when the opening date for the road was announced.

"We went, 'Oh my god, we've gotten an end, it's going to be finished,'" she said.

"It was like a weight was lifted off and suddenly you could see that things would go back to the way they used to be."

Ms Mansfield said she planned to drive to her family farm on top of the range on Monday to experience the new road.

"For us, it's just about having some more time on our property, it's where our family life is, it's what we enjoy," she said.

"It's just having that sense of relief.

"I feel like something's lifted off our shoulders, just to be able to drive up that road."


© ABC 2018

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