Cyclone Debbie

Waiting for Cyclone Debbie

Sunday Morning 26 March, 2017 6am.

I am awake early because I am on Cyclone watch, waiting for Cyclone Debbie to make landfall somewhere in the Australian tropics. It is possible that it will affect my area which is the beautiful Whitsundays. It is due to arrive in the next 48 hours. It is an unwelcome visitor as until it lands, we will not know where it will strike and how much damage it will cause. We can only hope and pray that it will have a minimal affect.

As I wait, memories of other Cyclones that I have experienced come flooding back.

This is the first time that I have ever told this story due to the Ansett Airlines of Australia confidentiality clause on the contract that I signed when I joined Ansett Airlines as a Flight Attendant in 1973. This confidentiality clause prevented me from talking to the Press during my term of employment. As Ansett Airlines is now defunct and I am no longer employed by them, it is time to tell the story.

Air Hostess (2017_01_14 06_40_09 UTC)
Jennifer – Ansett Airlines flight attendant

Cyclone Tracy December 25, 1974.

As a junior Air Hostess/ Flight Attendant with Ansett Airlines of Australia, whilst living in Sydney, I was rostered “on call” when I received a very early phone call from an Ansett Airlines of Australia Roster Clerk who advised me that I had been called out to be a member of the crew to fly to Darwin to help evacuate survivors of Cyclone Tracy. Ansett Airline was going to be the first commercial Airline to fly into Darwin following Cyclone Tracy.

I was told to be ready in 20 minutes for my taxi to collect me to take me to the Ansett Airlines domestic terminal at Kingsford Smith Airport, Sydney to sign on. I was told that there was going to be a special briefing as this was not the usual type of flight departure.

I was advised not to bring anything but my handbag. My Ansett Handbag, that in those days resembled a miniature doctor’s bag, contained necessary items which included Purse, keys, Cosmetic purse, Bar float, essential toiletries of tooth brush, shoe shine kit, comb etc. It also had a First Aid kit with first aid manual and in those days it even had Amil Nitrate Capsules (Heart Starters)

I would normally have taken one of my two overnight bags that I kept ready packed. Either my ”summer overnight bag” with warm weather clothes and accessories or my ”winter overnight bag” with cool weather clothes and accessories. In this case it would have been the summer bag because I was heading to Darwin which was always hot but especially hot and humid during December. It was most unusual to be told not to bring an overnight bag but the reason did not occur to me until later that day.

At the Airport in the hostess lounge, the crew that was scheduled to fly to Darwin on Boxing Day, were taken into an office and given a special briefing. We were warned that the situation in Darwin was grim, that we would not be over nighting there as per usual because there was no electricity and running water. Later when I asked one of the Roster Clerks why I was chosen, he said “Because you are great with kids”! We were shown horrific photos of the devastation that Cyclone Tracy had caused to the city of Darwin and it was inferred that if we wanted to back out – to do so now. Of course we all wanted to be able to help, so no one did.

We were to be the first Commercial Aircraft to land in Darwin and the runway had been cleared of Cyclone debris for our arrival.

I remember being shocked at the magnitude of Cyclone Tracy.  One photo showed an Aircraft that had been flipped upside down, glued to the spot on the runway at Darwin Airport.25befd5fcbde545debfc6381ee9febec

Although we had been warned of the devastation, nothing prepared me for what I was to see as we flew over the wreckage that was once the city of Darwin.

We made a low level approach in the Ansett Boeing 727. I believe that the control tower had been knocked out of action so we made a visual approach. We must have been flying at just 500 feet.

As we flew across Darwin, from my position on the forward hostess seat at the front of the Aircraft, whilst peering out the porthole, we could see rubble. What was once 41,000 houses were now twisted metal and splintered sticks, flattened to the ground.80years-nt-CycloneTracy

On landing, as we raced along the runway, we swept past Aircraft flipped upside down or punched sideways by the pounding winds of a Category 4 Cyclone. Debris had to be swept off the runway for our aircraft to land.

Although Aircraft remains and shattered Airport building debris had been pushed to the side of the runway, Darwin Airport it looked like a war zone.


Once landed, the usual order of fare welling passengers, escorting small children or elderly passengers and disembarking the other passengers, re-provisioning the aircraft and preparing the aircraft for departure did not take place. We had no passengers to disembark and extra provisions had already been loaded in Sydney.

Because we were not staying overnight, and due to the length of flying time, 9 hours, we were driven to the Travelodge Hotel in Darwin for a rest period.

I was in so much shock when I saw the destroyed homes and rubble strewn across what remained of the streets of Darwin that I can’t quite remember how long we stayed at the hotel. I remember that the Flight Attendants all grouped in one room. The Male crew in another. We sat around, stunned by what we had seen. Where, on the usual over night when we gathered as a group of Flight Attendants in one room, we would tell stories and share jokes, on this occasion we had nothing much to say at all. There was stunned silence!

When we looked out the hotel window, the biggest shock was yet to come. Upturned in the Hotel swimming pool was a large sedan car. I had never seen anything quite like it! How could a large and heavy vehicle be tossed like a child’s discarded toy into a large Hotel swimming pool? What happened to the driver? I was never told.


Back on board the Boeing 727, we assumed our roles as clear headed, cool, calm Air Hostesses/Flight Attendants who were trained for any emergency. Back then 90% of our training was how to deal with emergency situations. We were positioned along the cabin ready to seat the passengers.

We had completed our pre-flight emergency check, positioned the safety cards, sprayed the toilet with Air-freshner, tidied the seat belts and checked our appearance in readiness for the passengers embarkation.

I was standing at the front door in my position to welcome the passengers. The Traffic officer with the Walkie-Talkie alerted me that the passengers were ready to come across the Tarmac to board the Aircraft.

I braced myself as I knew that this would no normal be a normal passenger embarkation  but I was not ready for the utter disaster that I was to witness.

A team of ground crew came on board and smartly started removing the arm rests. This was not usual. When I asked what was happening, I was told that a greater than normal number of passengers would be boarding the Aircraft.

As the Passengers shuffled across the Tarmac, most of those poor people seemed to be in a trance. Some walked, some limped, injured passengers, mothers tightly holding onto the little hands of their children, pregnant women. They all looked dazed and bewildered, battered and bruised!

The first thing that I noticed as they stepped on board the aircraft was that no-one was carrying anything! Where was all their carry-on luggage? Of course, they had none! Not a handbag, umbrella, coat, small bag. No children’s toys. Nothing! They were standing in the clothes that they had been wearing for the last two days!

As they began to take their seats, those with injuries became more apparent as they struggled to sit comfortably. With no arm rests, they were jammed in like sardines. And there were many that were injured. Injuries like I had never seen before but resembled atrocities of war. Fractured arms, bandaged with slings applied. Fractured legs with plaster. Thick, striped indented lines bruised across heads and faces. Wounds caused by falling beams of wood, all manner of wounds that had been treated by first-aiders, the only available treatment for so many victims. 71 people had been killed. These were the lucky ones.

We had been provisioned with plenty of refreshments which we offered to the passengers on numerous occasions. As the flight progressed, the aircraft was noticeably devoid of the normal happy chatter of holidaying passengers. Silence like fog swept over the aircraft. People were deep in thought with some falling asleep for the first time in 48 hours, some silently weeping. Shock and disbelief had set in.

My Air hostess job was to make each and every passenger comfortable, treat any minor wounds, and offer words of comfort and sympathy and to feed them.We had to ensure that the passengers were hydrated as some would not have had fresh food and water for days. Extra food and water was loaded onto the Aircraft in Sydney.

Normally we would have baggage in the baggage hold beneath the aircraft but in this case we had none. Not one passenger on board our aircraft had managed to check-in their possessions. They were homeless and devoid of any personal possessions. Many had lost family members. They were all suffering.

When we landed in Sydney, the flood gates opened  and tears ran down weary faces. Those with family were met and enfolded in the arms of their loved ones.

Authorities met those who needed help and the process to recovery began.

As a crew, we signed off and were taken home by taxis. No debrief. No counseling. Back then it was all in a day’s work!

Cyclone Ului

Crossing time:
1:30am EST Sunday 21 March 2010
Crossing location:
Near Airlie Beach
Category when crossing the coast: 3
When Cyclone Ului was first announced, initially it was expected to be a Category 1 Cyclone. We decided to” ride out the storm” and remain in our house as this was not a serious Category. The speed and intensity changed rapidly on approach and it quickly became a high Category 3 Cyclone and too unsafe to leave the house.
BOM cyclone tracking
During the calm before the storm, We completed our safety check. Securing loose objects eg Garbage Bin, bringing the Barbecue into the family room, packing away the outside furniture into a shed, stocking up on extra dry stores and drinking water and baking Muffins as well as preparing a thermos flask of Coffee. Torches with extra batteries were put in handy places, the car was filled with Petrol and cash was withdrawn from the ATM. Important documents were stored in the Bank Vault. We filled the bath with water for washing and toilet flushing.
We were ready! At least we though we were. That was until the Cyclone gained strength in wind and rain and during the night just before the Cyclone Ului hit, a massive tree in our garden snapped off in the wind, It hit the house with such force that the sound was like a bomb exploding. It raced across our roof, tearing off the guttering and slicing through the Pagola.  It frightened the hell out of us. Even Sasha leaped vertically off the floor! Barry raced outside to check the damage with me remaining inside the house but loudly reminding him that we are not allowed outside once the Cyclone hits. The power went off so we no longer had any cooling fans or lighting. Just torches.
We went to bed and anxiously waited in the dark, hot, humid night for the Eye to pass over Airlie Beach which it did. The wild wind shook the house and pebbles scratched against the outside walls. We listened attentively to the radio giving us a description of what was happening. Our only connection with the outside world.
When the eye of Cyclone Ului passed overhead, everything went completely and eerily quiet. The wind and rain abruptly stopped. There was not a sound. Not a night creature, nothing. The heat increased suddenly to about 43 degrees Celsius. we waited and waited, lying in our bed in the dark with Sasha snuggled up close in her little bed on the floor beside us. Barely breathing. Listening to the Radio report which was extremely accurate.
Once the eye of Cyclone Ului had passed, the wind direction changed and with full force came whipping around, causing even more destruction.
By morning the worst of the bad  weather associated with Cyclone Ului was over leaving a trail of destruction. Once we received the “Äll clear” we ventured outside to inspect the damage. The tree that had hit our roof had caused considerable damage, leaving a gaping hole in the roof. This let ankle deep water into the family room.
ciklon Ului_01
We were without power and running water for 3 days but managed to survive on our extra dry stores. Our Canadian friends were only too happy to join us for dinner the night after the Cyclone so that we could use up our freezer food. Hannah commented that she wouldn’t feel like she was living in the tropics if she had not experienced a Cyclone!
The worst part was the clean up, waiting for 3 days for the insurance assessor to come and check the rotting food to ensure that we were not making a false claim. Not being able to use the electricity until the electrician visited to check that our house would not burn down if we tried to use the power and there was water in the power lines. And, the 6 weeks that I phoned the insurance company on a daily basis to check when they going to pay our insurance claim. We switched our Insurance Company after this debacle as not only did they take far too long to reimburse us the money we spent on repairs, they trebled our premium for the next year!
Waiting for Cyclone Debbie
And so it is today. We are preparing for Cyclone Debbie to strike. I have stored our belongings and packed our valuables to take away with us. We have bought extra dry stores and water. Filled the car with petrol and the bath with water. Our pot plants, barbecue and outdoor setting are now inside the family room. Every loose item in the garden is either tied down or stored in the garden shed. Our valuables are in the Bank vault.
At 12:36 I received a text message on my mobile phone “STORM TIDE Watch and Act – Council and Police advises Evacuate Red and Orange zones on Sunday, Recommend Evacuate in yellow zone visit”. That is it – WE ARE OUT OF HERE!
We are madly packing and planning to leave the area and drive 6 hours south to Rockhampton which is out of the radius of the Cyclone. We do not know where we will stay for the night. Cyclone Debbie is gaining strength, growing in size and forecast to be a Category 4 Cyclone. The same strength as Cyclone Tracy

Before we left, we sent out an email to our family and friends.

Hi Everyone,
In the next few days we may become incommunicado due to the fact that we are expecting Cyclone Debbie which is expected to be a severe Category 4 Cyclone(and we are praying to God that it doesn’t come our way).
If you do not hear from us, it just means that we have decided to leave home to go somewhere safer. We will make that decision a little later but in plenty of time before it becomes too dangerous to leave.
We will get back in touch with you as soon as we are able.
In the meantime keep well and please keep us in your thoughts and prayers
BOM cyclone tracking

 Sunday night March 26, 2017

We drove the 5 1/2 hours to Rockhampton. Barry, Sasha and I were all exhausted when we arrived. Like a beacon in the night the “True Blue Motor Inn” seemed to leap out at us on the outskirts of Rockhampton. Barry went in to enquire if they allowed dogs and the lovely receptionist told us that during Natural disasters they made special allowances for dogs. Thank God! We don’t know how long we will be here and when we will return home. If there is a home to return to.
Once we had settled into our suite, we turned on the T.V. and sure enough there was a press meeting being held. Queensland Emergency and Fire Services Commissioner Katarina Caroll said “We only have a small window of opportunity to act on on these evacuations. Please, if you do get the text message to evacuate, do so”.
Premier Annastastacia Palaszczuk repeated warnings for people in affected areas to LEAVE NOW!
Any question as to whether we should have left our beautiful home was answered. We had done the right thing by evacuating.

Thursday March 30, 2017

I hardly slept a wink all Sunday night March 26, and Monday night March 27, 2017 knowing that at any time Cyclone Debbie could make land fall, crossing over the pristine Whitsunday Islands and beautiful Airlie Beach. I had dreaded the catastrophic havoc that Cyclone Debbie would reek on our beautiful Whitsunday area.
Sure enough, at first light we switched on our Motel room like every other Australian who still had power to hear the latest news. Bewildering pictures started flooding in of the extreme damage being caused in the Whitsundays.

At this point Cyclone Debbie was gaining strength, with the eye of the Cyclone on track to cross over Hamiliton Island! The Whitsundays had lost power, strong winds were causing massive destruction and the rain was teeming down.

Shute Harbour - courtesy ABC News
Shute Harbour – courtesy ABC News
Shute Harbour - courtesy ABC News
Shute Harbour – courtesy ABC News
By 7.30am I couldn’t stand the wait any longer and rang my neighbour Jo who in a feeble voice told me that she was staying with a neighbour across the road from her house and watching her roof blow off and fence blow down. Not a good start – the Cyclone had not even hit at this stage!
Throughout the day conditions worsened and normally strong, brave and fearless friends began to wilt. The protracted arrival of Cyclone Debbie was wearing them down.


Shute Harbour - courtesy ABC News
Shute Harbour – courtesy ABC News
Oh my uncles pride and joy - courtesy ABC News
Oh my uncles pride and joy – courtesy ABC News
By the time the Cyclone struck, a number of our friends were affected. Not to mention the destruction to their properties
We stayed in touch by text and received many distressed replies as well as many kind messages.
The two most frightening messages came two days apart from our good friend on the ground in Airlie Beach, Lynnie Askew. 
 “Lovely to hear from you, Yes I am pleased you left town. We have water in our unit. came through the sliding doors. Mopping all night, roofs flooded, trees down and it is still  pouring (with rain) don’t hurry back.
Lynnie Askew
“Last night was worse than the Cyclone. Still no power, Stay away”
Lynnie Askew
Further South we were getting warm and lovely emails of encouragement 
“Will keep a bed ready for you!
Keep safe and dry”
Lots of love  Margaret

In Proserpine the reports were coming in 
Pleased to hear you are ok.  Yes the small things can be fixed.  It is too wet to even try to sweep and with no power I can’t mop.  We are keeping the fridges/freezers going with the generator but you can’t put too much on it.  Stay safe and will catch up.  Sue
Just talked to Bec she is down at Cannonvale and went to Bunnings for gas for her cooker and she went past your house to check and she said from the road it looks ok.  Tree down in driveway but didn’t hit house.  Sue
From overseas the messages kept coming in

Hi Jennifer

We are watching some images here from Debbie and hope you are all safe and well.

Mary O’Higgins, 

Enniscorthy Castle, Ireland

Jennifer, ye Gods!  I hope you, himself and everyone around is protected from such weather.  Catch up soon.
Will definitely have you in my prayers!
Take care,Sarah.
St. Nicholas of Myra Church, Dublin, Ireland.
From Victoria, family emailed or phone in with messages of support 
Hi Jenny and Barry,
Thoughts and prayers are 
with you.  Hopefully it will
not be as bad as expected. Look after Sacha.  She is so sweet.
Love you,
Hi Jenny,
Hope your house is OK. Just looking on TV now. What a mess. Good job you got out of there. Take care
Love you
And now the real wait begins. We wait to find out how our house really fared. We wait to find out if the power and running water is reconnected. We wait to see if the road that has been blocked in 3 places is cleared and the bridge that floated away in the storm that we need to cross along the Bruce Highway has been replaced. We would love to return home in the next days so we wait to find out what assistance our Insurance Company will offer us and what repairs will have to be done.
In the meantime, we wish to thank everyone who sent their kind messages and prayed for us. We are safe and well and will return to the beautiful Whitsundays where we will rebuild the infrastructure and help other people to rebuilt their fractured lives.

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