Thursday, March 23, 2006



The previously undeclared scope of the recovery and emergency aid effrt in North Queensland has come into sharp focus as former defence chief General Peter Cosgrove has been announced as the man in charge.

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie and Prime Minister John Howard now hope the growing criticism and frustration of the cyclone survivors will quell with the announcement, but intense rains, flooded highways and fears of the arrival of Cyclone Wati in the same shattered regions of North Queensland are threatening to plunge the recovery efforts into total chaos.

The naming of General Cosgrove follows harsh criticism of the state and federal government's response to the rapidly intensifying crisis by the highly respected Major General Alan Stretton, who oversaw similar co-ordination responsibilities after the deadly Cyclone Tracey devastated Darwin in 1974.

"You've got to have someone recognised as being in charge, and they've got to keep the people (updated) on what is happening and convince them that there's a light at the end of the tunnel," Maj-Gen Stretton said on ABC Radio today.


It's moving into the fifth day since Cyclone Larry smashed through Innisfail, and the residents are getting sick and tired of waiting in queues for food and water, clothes and cash.

Hundreds more welfare staff, rescue workers and government officials have arrived in the town, and repair and rebuilding work continues on houses, schools and main street shops.

The primary school is being repaired, but the high school will have to be bulldozed.

The rains were still falling yesterday, and the flood waters continued to rise outside the town, with the Bruce Highway completely cut. On the other side of the floodwaters, dozens of lorries and trucks were lined up filled with emergency supplies, equipment, beds, clean clothes, donated furniture and even a couple of fridges somebody had donated. But they couldn't get through. So instead the trucks had to turn around and drive more than 1000kms to get around the floodwaters. The trucks started arriving yesterday afternoon.

But for the residents, the eight, nine, ten hour long queues were just too much on top of losing their homes, their jobs and all their possessions. People broke down as they stood in the rain, still unable to completely comprehend what had happened to the quiet, calm lives they used to live.

Mothers were forced to clean out and re-use nappies due to shortages, and bored children dozed on their parents' shoulders as they lined up outside the council chambers where emergency cash and benefits were being paid out.

Psychologists are now warning of a wave of post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly among the young and the elderly.

On television news reports last night, soldiers could be clearly seen positioned around the crowds in the town square, ready to control the crowd should disorder or violence break out.


300 military personnel and 450 State Emergency workers and firefighters are now struggling to cope with the task of restoring power, roofing and dignity to a town of more than 8000 people, where almost hafl the homes are so damaged they cannot be lived in for the time being.

While electricity is being restored, there are fears that it may take a week to be turned back on in some outlying areas of Innisfail. For those further inland, and far more isolated than the towns close to the Queensland coast, it may be three weeks to a month before the power comes back on.

Prime Minister John Howard said he understood the anger and frustration, but offered no good news for those who will be forced to live for weeks like their descendents did 100 years ago.

"If more needs to be done it will be done but there is a physical limit to how quickly, with all the will and resources in the world, there's a physical limit to how quickly you can restore power," Mr Howard said on ABC Radio.

Water and sewerage, however, is coming back online faster than expected, and there are hopes the entire town of Innisfail will have water coming out of their taps and toilets that can be flushed by the weekend. These two things, at least, will make life more bearable.

But again, any good news is soon blackened by another harsh truth. Soon after the hundreds of homeless, cashless people lined up around the town square were told toilets and running water are coming back, they were told it will take months for all services to return to the way they were before Cyclone Larry struck.

Victims from outlying areas around Innisfail, many of whom remain cut off by floodwaters, also said they were being overlooked by the relief effort.

AnnMaree (AnnMaree) King, 43, who lives eight kilometres outside of Tully, had to travel by boat to reach Innisfail for basic supplies.

"The response has been good in one way but they seem to have slackened with people outside of the immediate township and I'm really disgusted with that," Mrs King said.

"People are hanging around ... and some people don't seem to be getting the help they need."

Offers of help have been pouring in, however, with tradesmen from all over Australia offering their services.

Unemployment rates in and around Innisfail are expected to climb to levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. But at least back then, the major farms were still growing crops. There are no major food crops anymore, they were torn from the ground by the cyclone or smashed into the dirt. That means there is nothing to harvest, and that means little work as the townspeople have come to know it.

There are serious fears now that Innisfail could be torn apart by a wave of suicide, PTSD and suicide attempts as farmers who've lost their homes, crops and livelihoods try to cope in a new reality they had never contemplated seriously before.

"It wouldn't surprise me if there was a spike in the rates of depression, possibly suicide, several months after when people realise the situation they are in - particularly the sugar industry which is just recovering from a decade of poor prices," said Australian Counselling Association national manager Philip Armstrong on ABC Radio.

Sources : information in the above stories culled from the print editions of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Courier Mail, the Daily Telegraph and The Australian, along with transcripts from ABC Radio programs and television current affairs shows - The 7.30 Report and Lateline.