Fred Quod was walking out of his bathroom when a piece of his neighbour's tin roof tore open the back of his house, almost severing his arm and sending him crashing through the shower door.

Wife Peta Smail heard the bang and daughter Tegan's screams, prised open the hallway door that was glued shut by the raging wind, and found Fred lying curled up, covered in debris and shattered glass.

"I didn't know if he was alive," she told news.com.au. "There was blood everywhere ... his head and shoulders through the shower recess, he was curled up on the floor with debris on him."

But Peta, 52, says the family were prepared for the hell that was Cyclone Debbie. "What we were not prepared for is post-Cyclone Debbie."

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On March 28, the day the Category 4 cyclone made landfall in nearby Airlie Beach, she had no time to think about the future, or even the storm raging outside. She lifted the roof off Fred with the help of Tegan, 29, who had cuts and bruises from where her bed had flown across her room and pinned her to the wall. "The back of the house had gone and the cyclone was inside," said Peta.

The women grabbed 58-year-old Fred under his arms and legs and carried him to the kitchen, before dragging the fridge-freezer against the door and putting a mattress against the windows. "He felt like a sponge," said Peta. "Everything moved. He started shaking." For three hours, they stayed on the phone to emergency services, packing white pillows and towels around him that were soon soaked crimson with blood.

It was when her son rang from Gladstone that Peta cracked. "He said, 'How are you going?' And I said, 'Well, I'm sorry to say Chris, it's not good,' and I heard my voice break. He said, 'Mum, you're the strongest woman I know, you can do this.'"

Fred and Peta are still living in a house with no back that is due to be gutted. Photo / news.com.au
Fred and Peta are still living in a house with no back that is due to be gutted. Photo / news.com.au

When her son told her the cyclone could go on for another six hours, Peta knew they wouldn't make it. "I was starting to feel panicky," she said. "I said, I'm going to get the truck, we'll drag him in and I'll drive there myself. My voice was starting to get loud ... I got outside and saw the blue and red lights coming around the corner. I was so relieved."

Their saviour was Proserpine Ambulance Station's officer-in-charge Gavin Cousens, who had been waiting helplessly for his moment to go to the family, wondering whether he would be going around town "picking up dead bodies, babies' bodies" when the cyclone had finished wreaking havoc. "When I took the phone call, I was looking out of the glass door and the roof was blowing off and the walls disintegrating on the house opposite," Mr Cousens told news.com.au.

When he reached Fred, who has a pacemaker, he was in a critical condition - with a punctured lung, severe lacerations and 10 broken ribs - and would have to be airlifted to a bigger hospital in Townsville the next morning. He remembers virtually nothing.

Peta and Tegan trailed home from the local hospital at around 8.30pm, soaked with blood. "The place was in darkness, every window smashed except three," said Peta. "There was floodwater through the house. In hospital we were calm, the next thing, were back in a cyclone."

Tropical Cyclone Debbie along the Queensland coast. Photo / NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team
Tropical Cyclone Debbie along the Queensland coast. Photo / NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team

'IT LOOKED LIKE A B52 STRIKE, I HAD TO GET OUT OF THERE'

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In the days and weeks after the cyclone inflicted its wrath on the idyllic Whitsundays region, rubbish rotted outside abandoned houses with gaping holes in their roofs, power lines were strewn on every street, boats had sunk or washed up as wrecks on the shore, and dead and blackened trees covered the ground. There was looting of alcohol, generators and people's possessions. It looked as though a bushfire had ripped through the verdant landscape.

"My head was in my hands," said portrait photographer Deb Savy, whose business ground to a halt as weddings were cancelled, commercial work dried up, and cash-strapped families stopped booking photography sessions at the now sewage-filled lagoon.

That was when Dave McInnerney decided to leave his flattened Shute Harbour Motel behind and get the hell away from it all. Driving out of town, he said it looked like there had been "a B52 strike".

"I had to get out of there," he told news.com.au. "One guy said he was only comfortable once he got past Mackay. I can't handle looking at the evidence, it does whack you.

"I'm 63, and probably over running a business in Australia. It's extremely heavy duty, seven-day work. When you're young you can handle stress, when you're three-quarters of the way through life, you'll put yourself in an early grave."

McInnerney is now living in temporary accommodation in Townsville, waiting for the insurance companies and says he "hasn't felt well enough" to go back. He lost most of his possessions as his home and motel - his mother's piano, photographs, a treasured violin - filled with a metre of water. "My family are pretty much all dead," he said. "I haven't got any firm direction. In another way,it probably saves me having to make a decision on my own, the world made for me."

Residential streets are home to crumbling houses painted with the word
Residential streets are home to crumbling houses painted with the word "CONTAMINATED" in red letters. Photo / news.com.au

It's now been 100 days since Cyclone Debbie, and the tourism mecca is in an even worse state.

The popular mainland resort of Airlie Beach is deathly quiet, with cafes and bars boarded up on the main street of the small town, the lagoon drained and signs bent double. In the residential streets of surrounding towns, crumbling houses with piles of rubbish outside are wrapped in tape and painted with the word "CONTAMINATED" in huge red letters, while neighbours peer out from vans and tents they are living in on their front lawns.

The picture perfect islands of Hayman, Daydream and South Molle are closed for refurbishment, while Hamilton is open and working feverishly to fast-track major construction work. It's the kind of situation where hairdressers are pitching in with the landscaping, says Deb. The building industry is one of the few that is booming, with visiting tradies filling hotels and caravan parks. But many locals are still unemployed.

It's not just the houses that are broken, says one business owner. "The people behind them are broken too."

'I CRIED MYSELF TO SLEEP EVERY NIGHT. I STILL CAN'T SLEEP'

One of those people is Jess Houston, 32, who spent the cyclone cowering at her mother's house as the family listened to "everything breaking" in howling winds of up to 263km/h. They heard the roof lifting off and watched frozen steaks fly across the room as the freezer door was torn open.

"I was petrified," she told news.com.au. "I don't think any of us spoke for six hours."

But it was when she returned home that she discovered the worst. "We had to cut our way in, our house was underwater, walls pushed in, everything gone," she said through tears. "For the first couple of weeks, I cried myself to sleep every night. I still can't sleep ... They're your belongings, they make you feel who you are."

Jess and her partner Cal had been about to leave in their new campervan to travel around Australia. Instead, they stayed to help her mother Julie rebuild her business, Cape Gloucester resort. It has been a long and painful process. "It was just a mess: walls ripped out, the bar flooded the ceiling collapsed in the kitchen," said Julie. "We had to start taking food to dump, it took two days."

Those two days alone cost the business A$17,000. Julie hasn't even begun counting the cost of the lost custom, after cancelling 10 weddings and only reopening last Friday for a wedding, and to the general public this Sunday. "I spent the week crying thinking it wasn't going to happen," she admitted.

Mirella DeBoni from Whitsunday Professional Counselling Services told news.com.au she has been inundated with clients suffering emotionally in brutal Debbie's bitter aftermath.

"Most people are seeking counselling in the past month ... the trauma has kicked in, the devastation around them," she said. "Quite a few children can't sleep, don't want to leave their mums, it's sad. These are people who haven't gone to counselling before, they can't remember things or focus, it's taking a toll on their relationships."

DeBoni, who has been using hypnotherapy to help people deal with their traumatic memories, said many were having visions, or had developed a fear of death. "I think what the cyclone did is bring out a lot of problems people were already experiencing in life, it exacerbated them," she said. "It's the ones who are scared to ask for help, they're the ones that are really struggling."

The streets are filled with crumbling businesses, including this heritage listed plumber's facade in Proserpine. Photo / news.com.au
The streets are filled with crumbling businesses, including this heritage listed plumber's facade in Proserpine. Photo / news.com.au

'THERE'S SO MUCH DESPAIR'

For many, it is now a waiting game. While families received some initial disaster relief payments (A$1000 per adult and A$400 per child), that's gone. The insurance companies are overstretched and painfully slow-moving, bringing in assessors from not just interstate but overseas.

"People think we're OK and we're not," said a Proserpine shop owner who had just been open a week on Friday, gesturing to the empty streets and boarded-up buildings. "Look out there. My heart breaks for these guys. It's the lack of normality.

"There's a lot of strength, but a lot of heartache as well. A lot of people are displaced. There was a woman who has three kids and two adults squashed into one room, she broke down this morning in here. There's so much despair."

Neil Moore and Ali Waller, both 64, stayed in a caravan park for two weeks after a nearby creek overflowed and sewage flooded into their new kitchen. When they couldn't afford it any more and moved into a van on their front lawn in Jubilee Pocket while they wait for their insurers to help them fix the damage. A year away from retirement, they are struggling for money, and like many people in an area where tourism is the main industry, neither has been able to find work.

All around them are unoccupied houses leaking asbestos, neighbours living in tents and rubbish stacked outside empty homes. "We had piles up to here afterwards," says Neil, raising his hand above his head. "People were devastated.

"Yesterday we had no reception at all because the tower went down. It's all related, isn't it?

"It's depressing."

It was the rainstorm after the slow-moving cyclone that really cemented the nightmare for locals, dumping up to a metre of water in their homes.

"It was so humid after the cyclone," said the manager at Best Western Mango House Hotel. "The mould came back like a tropical rainforest. It comes so fast. You've just got to rip it out and throw it out. Once it's in plaster, there's nothing you can do."

Fred and Peta are still waiting for the word to move out of their home so it can be gutted, the walls and sagging ceiling replaced. Fred may never fully recover the use of his arm and his short-term memory has been affected. He feels lucky, however. At first, he couldn't remember his grandchildren's names and feared he might be brain damaged.

Tourism and Events Queensland is keen to stress that the region is "open for business" and encourage visitors to come back to the town. Group executive corporate affairs Megan Saunders told news.com.au in a statement: "The way the tourism community banded together to get the Whitsundays region back up and running post Tropical Cyclone Debbie showed exceptional resilience. We know how important the Whitsundays is to Queensland tourism - that is why we undertook jointly with Tourism Australia a A$2 million recovery campaign as soon as the region was back up and running.

"The Tourism and Events Queensland Board last month visited the Whitsundays region to hear first-hand from the industry about the recovery process and future tourism opportunities. There is no doubt that the region is ready to welcome visitors and provide a memorable experience. In fact, only last week it was announced that Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays would be a host port for the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race in January which, when coupled with a week-long festival of sailing supported by TEQ, is forecast to inject $3m into the local economy and attract more than 4000 visitors."

Families who are waiting for slow-moving insurance company remain camped out in tents on their front lawns in Jubilee Pocket, more than three months on. Photo / news.com.au
Families who are waiting for slow-moving insurance company remain camped out in tents on their front lawns in Jubilee Pocket, more than three months on. Photo / news.com.au

But that upbeat portrayal jars with how things look on the ground right now. Chamber of Commerce president Allan Milostic said the number of customers coming into his pharmacy had halved, and Julie Houston said bookings for events at her resort were down around 80 per cent. Deb Savy's bookings for portrait sessions are down from one a day to one a week, and if trade hasn't picked up by September or October, she will be "in major panic mode".

The cyclone caused severe damage to the Great Barrier Reef, with hard, older coral pulverised in the storm and much of the inner reef popular with day tours smashed to smithereens. "The water's quite murky," said Deb. "Snorkelling, diving, spending time on the reef is important to people. It's difficult to want to attract people here when you know it's not business as usual."

All locals can do right now is hope that things will start to improve. They need more funding to flow through, they need work, they need new camping grounds for the "grey nomads" who provide vital trade, they need tourists to come back.

A spokesman for the Attorney-General's Department said the states were primarily responsible for responding to natural disasters, including helping communities to recover, but "the Australian Government will always support communities in need".

He said residents had been able to access State-Commonwealth Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements including emergency supplies, business grants and counselling; a A$14.7 million Community Recovery Fund across seven local government areas; and the Commonwealth-funded Disaster Recovery Payment and Disaster Recovery Allowance of A$1000 per adult. "To date, A$10.4 million has been paid to individuals in the Whitsundays local government area," he said.

Back in Proserpine, one shop owner says hope is faltering in the town, which lacks the spectacular coastline of Airlie Beach and is suffering even more without the usual tourist traffic. "Now's the time for the government to stand up and get it fast-tracked, give people hope," she said. "Small business is the lifeblood of a town like Proserpine, it could do with kick-along. It could slide further, we can't afford that.

"There's a real chance we're going to lose more businesses. What does it leave? A little highway town you just drive past."

- Emma Reynolds at news.com.au