Cyclone Debbie rescue efforts hit by flooding, ‘phenomenal’ rain


A tree toppled as Cyclone Debbie's 263km/h winds struck Airlie Beach
A tree toppled as Cyclone Debbie's 263km/h winds struck Airlie Beach
Queensland counts cost as cyclone cleanup begins; communities face days without power

Cyclone Debbie has damaged thousands of north Queensland properties, leaving some residents homeless in communities cut off by floodwaters and facing days without power.

Premier Annastacia Palasczuk said the scale of Tuesday’s disaster was significant. It would take months for the worst-hit communities to recover.

Flooding is hampering recovery efforts after what the Bureau of Meteorology described as “phenomenal” rain of 1m in just two days in the Mackay region.

The towns of Airlie Beach, Bowen, Proserpine were all cut off by floodwaters after bearing the brunt of the storm, which hit the Queensland coast about midday on Tuesday.

Homes and businesses lost their roofs as far inland as Collinsville – a mining town more than 60km from the coast – while dozens of vessels lay wrecked at Airlie Beach’s harbour.

There were no reported deaths and few injuries in the cyclone, which blew winds of up to 263km/h in the Whitsunday Islands and about 160km/h on the mainland.

West of Mackay, the overflowing Kinchant and Middle Creek dams prompted authorities to ask residents to evacuate yesterday afternoon.

The request followed evacuation advice to 25,000 residents in low-lying Mackay suburbs before Debbie struck.

The soaking also prompted flood warnings in the state’s heavily populated south-east, as well as in Bundaberg, where residents were warned to stock up on food in case the town was cut off.

While police and local authorities said damage was not as severe as feared before the cyclone, Palaszczuk said inspections of areas including Proserpine were likely to reveal widespread devastation and recovery efforts would take months.

 “The scale of the disaster is significant and there is a lot of work ahead of us to repair damage and help people put their lives back together,” she said.

Palaszczuk said the experience of those in the path of the cyclone “would have been horrific, and thankfully there has been no loss of life”.

She pledged $1m from the state to charities to help residents who “face a long road ahead to get back on their feet” and appealed for the public to donate.

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and federal opposition leader Bill Shorten are poised to inspect the damage today.

A military ship loaded in Brisbane with engineering equipment and humanitarian stores headed for the Whitsundays last night.

Severe damage was reported in the islands – resort destinations that help bring $700m in tourist spending to the region.

Military helicopters were preparing to airlift guests from Daydream Island, where drinking water was running low, while police were helping about 4000 people evacuate Hamilton Island.

More than 63,000 businesses and homes in the region were without power, with no prospect of the network being restored for days with crews unable to get through the flooded highway north of Bowen.

The Insurance Council of Australia, which has declared the event a “catastrophe”, said insurers had received 2000 claims but it was “much too early” to estimate total losses.

In Collinsville, residents reported the loss of roofs from houses, the town’s Central Hotel and its supermarket.

Whitsunday regional councillor Mike Brunker, who is originally from Collinsville, said the town’s houses were “not built to [cyclone] standard” and Debbie would have come as a real shock to locals.

Bowen’s State Emergency Service controller, David Thicker, said a handful of homes had lost their roofs in the town. People living in damaged older homes that contain asbestos have been told they cannot return.

“As far structural damage goes, I think we dodged a bullet,” Brunker said of Bowen. “But environmental damage as bad as anything we’ve ever seen.”

Residents flocked to the local supermarket to stock up on supplies amid uncertainty about when road access in to the town would be restored.

Palaszczuk arrived by military helicopter yesterday afternoon to inspect Bowen, which army trucks had reached in the morning.

She said the recovery effort would see the government standing “with the families of the Whitsunday region for many, many days and weeks and months to come”.

The premier also inspected Proserpine, which was hammered by the most severe wind gusts on the mainland.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services deputy commissioner Mark Roche said the State Emergency Service had received more than 1000 requests for help.

The discovery of two cars in floodwaters on the Bruce Highway near Proserpine sparked a police search for their owners. Emergency crews were also trying to rescue three stranded people on the roof of a car submerged in floodwaters in Sarina, further south.

The cyclone is expected to cause losses for on the region’s $450m-a-year horticulture sector and its $850m-a-year sugar cane sector. In 2011 Cyclone Yasi caused insured losses of $1.4b.

The weakening storm is moving south and expected to bring high winds and heavy rain across northern New South Wales and as far as Sydney during the next few days.


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