Weather News

Ten hours in a bunker reporting on Cyclone Trevor

By Kristy O'Brien, Tuesday March 26, 2019 - 12:19 EDT
ABC image
Kristy O'Brien doing a live cross from the McArthur River mine where she and cameraman Dane Hirst sheltered in a bunker. - ABC

It was the guttural howling, which picked up every few minutes, that was most frightening.

And not being able to see what's going on outside heightens your anxiety.

During Cyclone Trevor's peak we sheltered in a bunker at the McArthur River zinc mine in the Northern Territory's Gulf region, about 1,000 kilometres from Darwin.

I was madly trying to record my radio voicers between noisy wind gusts but it was just too loud.

Of all the logistical challenges, this was a problem I hadn't really factored into our coverage — I've reported on cyclones before, but nothing like this.

A towel over the head is one trick we often use but even that didn't cut the mustard, so I figured the subs would just have to deal with what might be bad but authentic sound.

We were in the shelter for more than 10 hours but it was very comfortable — there was lots of food and water and, as it turned out, plenty of conversation to keep us occupied.

We sheltered with 130 miners who shared memories of previous cyclones, like Larry and Yasi, fresh in their minds.

We were briefed extremely well and as Trevor got closer everyone was restricted to certain parts of the building.

There was a back-up for the back-up plan - if Trevor stayed a Category 4 when it passed over us we were all to head to the men's toilets, a very sturdy brick building, which I thought would be very cosy.

Every few hours there was a roll call and briefing about what the weather was doing.

Cameraman Dane Hirst and I were wet from earlier in the day and, feeling pretty cold, I layered up in old high-vis miner's clothing, much to the amusement of my fellow "bunkees".

Wet season was coming to an end, but this was the third cyclone Dane and I had covered in just over 12 months.

We ended up being the only media crew in the entire Gulf region to cover the impact of Cyclone Trevor.

We felt the weight of responsibility to get out as much information as quickly as we could — and of course to get it right.

This is hard to do at the height of a cyclone.

In this part of the world mobile reception is notoriously unreliable and during a cyclone it's even worse because towers often go out, which makes regular filing really difficult.

We'd been on the ground for a couple of days prior, including being on board an RAAF Hercules as 200 people at a time were loaded up to be evacuated from the danger.

It had been decidedly un-cyclone-like in the lead-up — sunny skies and very humid.

It felt like an average wet-season day and it was hard to imagine a monster system was lurking off the coast.

We headed into the bunker six hours before the cyclone's predicted arrival.

At all times we were guided by the mine operators, who had their own emergency response centre set up and were in constant contact with the Bureau of Meteorology.

My ABC managers were also keeping us in the loop about Trevor's path and time of arrival, with the newsroom staying in touch with emergency services about how the system was tracking.

Once inside the bunker we could no longer see what was happening outside — we could only hear it.

So I did the second-best thing and filed radio and online reports describing the noise, what it was like sheltering and even some of the conversations I was having.

We also filmed some television pieces.

Fortunately email was working so I could access the latest information from the bureau and emergency services and get it to those people listening to us.

Wind speeds of 95 kilometres per hour were recorded where we were and rainfall of about 100 millimetres.

We learnt later that some parts of the region experienced speeds of 250 kilometres per hour.

Once the wind eased and the mine's emergency workers had done an inspection outside, we ventured out to see what damage Trevor had done, and thankfully it wasn't as bad as had been feared.

It was a week earlier when we started hearing predictions of a cyclone that posed a serious threat to NT coastal communities.

As the emergency broadcaster, we knew people would want first-hand accounts from the ABC.

So we made the decision to go to Borroloola, a small community of about 2,000 people, which was in the cyclone's path.

We flew out the next day on a commercial plane that was packed with workers doing the regular mine shift change.

There were a few who thought it was a bit mad they were heading towards a huge cyclone rather than away!

We considered going to coastal communities, particularly Groote Eylandt, because we knew the tidal surge was going to be high, but ruled that out as being too dangerous.

Cyclone Trevor looked as though it was going to sail past Borroloola so we decided that would be a safe spot and we could use the mine shelter, about 70 kilometres away, that was graded to a category 5 level.

In the end Cyclone Trevor would come a lot closer than those initial predictions, but that's the fickle nature of weather.

You go into these types of stories fearing the absolute worst.

While there's a lot of adrenaline knowing you are going to be covering something big and important, the longer you work in a region like this the more worried you become about the impact it might have on the people who live there.

I've reported frequently from this particular part of the NT and when we went into town and started talking to people who were taking part in the biggest evacuation since Cyclone Tracey, there were faces I knew, good decent people that I consider mates.

Maybe that's why they were so candid with me, telling me how fearful they were that they'd have nothing to return to.

Hugging them goodbye as they boarded their evacuation flights, I felt a big lump of sadness at the thought I might be the one delivering the worst news to them over the radio or TV.

Covering cyclones is hard work, physically and mentally.

If you aren't covered in sweat, you're drenched in water.

It's not a stretch to say I had damp clothes for a large part of the five days we were on the ground in the Gulf.

You have limited resources and gear and, understandably, everyone wants a piece of you.

In a 24-hour media cycle that means your days are long, filing for multiple programs and platforms, and even when you are stealing a minute's sleep it's fairly restless as you're attuned to the fact there could be things going on that you need to capture or report on.

But the exhaustion is a minor difficulty, because you can't underestimate how much people value us being there.

When we were sheltering with the miners, every now and then someone would come to our little corner and a have a chat.

They were intensely interested in what we do and felt we "knew the latest", so they turned to us, both on the ground and on the many platforms we delivered to.

That's a good feeling.

I was fielding calls after the cyclone from people asking us to check on their homes, begging us to be their eyes and ears, to take them there through our pictures and stories.

I wrote this on board the first plane out of the region for civilians since Cyclone Trevor passed and there's still a lot we don't know.

But I do know this, people in the north are tough and resilient and very attuned to the realities of our volatile weather.

In this instance it looks like they dodged a bullet.

Cyclone Trevor brought wind gusts equal to Cyclone Tracy, the disaster that's become a benchmark comparison for these type of events, but having seen first-hand the largest evacuation since Tracy, I feel confident we're less complacent about these dangerous weather events and better at getting out of their way.

Nearly 1,400 people were evacuated to centres in Katherine, Darwin and Tennant Creek. It's a lot of people to move, but nobody we spoke to begrudged it; they simply didn't want to take the risk of staying.

I think we would have been reporting a very different story if some of those people stayed.

We live in this part of the world, knowing that mother nature is its dominant tenant — afforded the most respect, capable of all kinds of destruction.

With only a few days left in the cyclone season, let's hope it's a while before we pull out the wet weather gear again.


© ABC 2019

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