A blue day helps to raise the spirits

By Greg Ansley

The Bruce Highway south of Cairns is a road to hope and despair.

On Saturday the sun burned clouds into the first brilliant blue day since Cyclone Yasi neared the coast, raising spirits among north Queensland's battered but resilient survivors.

The army arrived in strength, with thousands of volunteers. Water and power began to return, in places at least. Rubbish collections were ordered, green Sulo bins incongruous among Yasi's debris.

In the village of Babinda, Mick the baker called ABC radio in delight, advising locals a bloke from the mountains was bringing him a generator and he would soon have hot bread for all. But yesterday, as showers and thunderstorms returned, police closed the stricken town of Tully at the request of locals who wanted to deal with their grief and recovery alone.

At least until Wednesday, the Bureau of Meteorology said, similar conditions could be expected in a region where hundreds of damaged homes remain exposed and vulnerable, essential supplies are in short supply and tens of thousands of homes still have no power or telephones.

Thousands of Queenslanders remain displaced or homeless, shelter is at a premium, essential services remain disrupted or destroyed and may take weeks to fully restore.

On Saturday Helen Mooney, her three children and mother were heading north from Tully Heads to Innisfail, looking for mattresses. Mooney's home had been totally destroyed, her mother's opened and stripped bare by Yasi.

The cyclone burst through the front of the brick house, gathered every item, and punched them through the rear wall. The stainless steel fridge and oven were found 100m or more up the road, crumpled against the ruins of another house.

"Nothing was left," her mother said. "Not a teaspoon."

But at least they have a home. By chance and serendipity, her mother has found a two-bedroom flat for the family, and they are trying to assemble the basics of life. Many others are still searching.

Yasi's rampage was vast, its extremities flicking Port Douglas in the north and Mackay in the south, and drenching Alice Springs in the west as a tropical depression. The cyclone linked to the southern floods at Townsville, where the damage of the past week joins the northern reach of the floodwaters that have cost Queensland about A$6 billion ($7.5 billion).

No one yet knows this cyclone's bill, but early estimates rise to as high as A$3 billion. Hundreds of jobs were blasted away. Understanding the scale is almost impossible. Every home or business lost is a personal disaster that has yet to be fully absorbed by many.

Around Tully, Red Cross teams are working door to door. After Cyclone Larry in 2006, they found people who had remained hidden for days, even weeks, in their homes, or what remained of them.

Yasi raged in from the Coral Sea, crushing a path across hundreds of kilometres of the Great Barrier Reef, wiped Dunk Island resort off the tourist map for months to come, and obliterated fish and prawn farms. It smashed onto a strip of coastline from Mission Beach, south of Cairns, to Ingham, destroying or damaging as many as 200 homes in Cardwell and smashing 70 yachts and boats into a multimillion-dollar scrapheap at Port Hinchinbrook.

Yasi took great bites from the road along the Mission Beach seafront, and ripped off walls, roofs, and verandas, even shifting entire homes on their foundations. Streets are flooded and blocked by trees; power lines lie across streets, or force cars to pick their way through a labyrinth of wires looping close to the ground.

The rainforest beyond is a landscape of demented surrealism: trees screwed or snapped in two, foliage in a dense, chest-high carpet, palms broken at their necks, fronds folded down like bats' wings. Barely a leaf or branch survived. Trunks stands as thousands of naked spikes, framing the crests of hills with silhouettes like the sparse stubble of an old man's chin.

Heaven knows the toll on wildlife. The endangered cassowary barely survived Cyclone Larry, which shredded 14,000sq km of parksand reserves, hewed down century-old trees and opened forests to invading weeds. Yasi was worse.

Roads are carpeted with branches and shredded leaves; sugar crops are flattened, and horizons filled with banana plants decapitated at their crowns.

Grotesquely twisted rail crossing boom arms mark the entrance to Tully. A tree trunk spikes the roof of the agricultural hall, besides which the army has its local base, part of a 4000-strong relief force. Boiled water is being distributed at the police station, and the Lions Club is handing out free sandwiches made from food donated by supermarkets.

Massive packages of tangled steel roofing block the main street; shops and houses that are not destroyed have roofs off - one is rolled back like an opened sardine can - other sections missing, cladding stripped away. Everywhere, people are working, and talk of rebuilding. But tensions are evident.

When Opposition leader Tony Abbott and media entourage arrive, a local yells from his van: "Don't sit here with your make-up and your cameras ... We've got real people here ... You've got a home to go back to. We don't."

Abbott tells reporters: "I think that it's very important that elected representatives see these problems first hand."

Down the street at the Video 2000 store, Don is getting his business back in order: "You do your best and battle on. That's all you can do."

Across Yasi's wake, this is the spirit of Queensland.

- NZ Herald

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