Stephanie Mayoh was working in Cairns when tropical Cyclone Larry hit with full force.
It’s Tuesday afternoon and for the first time in six weeks, I find myself unsure of what to do next. Every weekday I’ve been in an office in Cairns, earning cash for the next part of my trip. But today I’m in a Gloria Jean’s, enjoying an over-priced Melting Moment and a White Chocolate Mocha with cream, wondering if everyone in this shopping centre is a tourist.
I’m not working because there is no power at the office. Tropical Cyclone Larry has just swept through the area, leaving debris and damage in its wake. The storm made a bee-line for the coast 65km south, striking Innisfail at full force – the first level five cyclone to hit Queensland in over 30 years. The winds affected an area 150km in each direction of the eye of the storm. Living in a southern Cairns suburb, I witnessed only a fraction of this destructive force of nature and can only imagine the experience for those in Innisfail.
The night before the storm, I enjoyed a typically humid, calm tropical evening with friends, guitars and beers. We were well aware of the looming threat. By the time we called it a night, the rains had already begun. I woke to howling winds and snapping tree branches near 4.30am and slept fitfully until the alarm clock radio blasted me with information an hour and a half later. By 6am the wind gusts had reached dangerous speeds, even though the core was still 50km away from the coast.
Already, there was no TV reception and the radio had become our only source of information of Larry’s progress. Twenty minutes later the power went out completely.
In the silence that accompanied the power outage, the sounds of the storm seemed to intensify. Without the hum of our fridge or air conditioner, the thrashing leaves and cracking branches were that much closer. The humidity became overwhelming and I was more comfortable standing at the open door, watching leaves and twigs scuttle past in the wind.
I ventured out on the patio to take pictures and have a look around. There was a subtle difference in the air that I couldn’t identify until Ben, my companion, pointed it out: the scent of the rainforest. The wind was coming from inland, and we could smell it in each fresh gust.
For the next few hours, the trees outside our second story balcony ripped and twisted into pieces. Massive branches landed only a metre away from our 4×4 Pajero. Palm trees swayed, the fronds looking as if they were trying to touch the ground. Rain swept off roofs in sheets and then the roofs themselves began to tear away.
Almost as it had come, Larry left. The winds died down and I slept through the last hour, waking to a light breeze meandering through the open door. The air was hot and muggy, and I could hear birds and traffic and people already at work clearing debris. A layer of dirt and shredded leaves covered almost every car, every wall – every surface. Debris filled the pool and fallen trees lay across the highway. The Pajero was inaccessible until 3pm, and we finally got out to see how city had fared. On the way, we saw more of the same: fallen trees and debris almost everywhere, power outages, a fallen palm tree blocking our lane. Misty grey clouds laid low, threatening rain in the eerie calm that followed this intense destruction.
Surprisingly, we found the CBD busy with shops and pubs open for business, and relatively little damage. The tourists gathered along the Esplanade as usual, and returning to our unit, I could understand why. The heat and humidity plagued us until after 7pm, when the power was finally restored.
A day after Larry swept through, my office is still without power. Spending Tuesday in a coffee shop, instead of at work, is about the only reminder around me that the most powerful tropical storm in 30 years had passed through only yesterday. Or maybe a level five cyclone is just part of life as usual for a Banana Bender.