No generators, bungled insurance processes and constant rain for weeks following a category 5 storm were just some of the challenges residents faced.
No generators, bungled insurance processes and constant rain for weeks following a category 5 storm were just some of the challenges residents faced.

Cyclone Larry 15 years on: How battered community rebuilt

ASK Cassowary Coast residents how the region recovered from Cyclone Larry and the question is likely to be met with a chuckle and the response 'what recovery, we got hit again by Yasi'.

On March 20, 2006, category five tropical Cyclone Larry crossed the coast between Gordonvale and Tully in the early hours of the morning.

Packing 240km/h winds, it destroyed and damaged up to 10,000 homes and farms when it crossed the coast near Innisfail, decimated the country's banana crops and racked up a bill of $1.5bn, but miraculously no lives were lost and no serious injures reported.

The cyclone that "caught everyone off guard" had lasting effects with parts of region without power for weeks, houses without roofs for months and public infrastructure damaged for years.

The aftermath, at Innisfail High School, of severe tropical cyclone Larry after it crossed the coast near Cowley Beach.
The aftermath, at Innisfail High School, of severe tropical cyclone Larry after it crossed the coast near Cowley Beach.

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Innisfail's Goondi Hill Hotel owners and longtime Far Northerners Gail and Trevor "Simmo" Simpson had just purchased the Bruce Highway pub three weeks before the cyclone.

"We had just begun renovations," Ms Simpson said.

"We were living at Bellenden Ker at the time and I remember after packing up we got back home at 11pm (on March 19).

"But there were a lot of people who had nowhere to go, so they stayed at the hotel."

Ms Simpson said about 60 people including travelling TV media bunkered into 12 rooms at the hotel during the storm.

A picture, taken by owner of the Goondi Hill Hotel Gail Simpson, of the pub after it was damaged by Cyclone Larry in 2006
A picture, taken by owner of the Goondi Hill Hotel Gail Simpson, of the pub after it was damaged by Cyclone Larry in 2006

Cardwell's comeback from storm wasteland

And those guests weren't the last to bunker down at the Goondi Hill Hotel, which attracted a number of patrons during an extensive recovery.

"It rained for 41 days after the cyclone. It just made cleaning up impossible.," she said. "I think overall it took about two years before everyone really had all their repairs done and roofs back on.

"But we were one of the first to be back open. Some friends gave us some generators and even though our kitchen renovations were going to be last, we had to open up because there were people in town that couldn't go anywhere to eat.

Gail and Trevor
Gail and Trevor "Simmo" Simpson purchased the Goondi Hill Hotel at Innisfail three weeks before Cyclone Larry in 2006. Picture: Arun Singh Mann

Growers face expensive recovery

"There were a lot of tradies staying with us, Ergon workers but I remember they were all frustrated because there were delays with insurance and the rain and they couldn't get any work done. But one positive was that a lot of those people that stayed with us ended buying property in Innisfail."

Cassowary Coast Mayor Mark Nolan was in his first term as a councillor of the Johnstone Shire Council at the time and recalled the strange apocalyptic feeling following the storm.

"There were residents without power for more than a month, and no one had generators before that," he said.

Bob Katter and Premier Peter Beattie try to work out arrangements to placate angry locals who had queued for most of the day for financial assistance without food water or shelter – Picture: File Photo
Bob Katter and Premier Peter Beattie try to work out arrangements to placate angry locals who had queued for most of the day for financial assistance without food water or shelter – Picture: File Photo

"Very quickly there were a number of committees formed and Peter Cosgrove and our CEO Peter Roberts, part of a Cyclone Larry task force, were actually in charge of deciding who was getting generators flown in by Ergon. You look around now and you'll see a number of locals with those generators still in their sheds."

He said during an era without smartphones and regular internet updates, there were a high number of distress calls to police for weather updates, tarps and water, through to more urgent matters.

"The police and SES were inundated so a couple of councillors started working from the Innisfail Police Station. Like a call centre basically, because a lot of the calls they were getting were actually council matters, but people weren't sure what to do."

Rebuilding of Innisfail, four months after Cyclone Larry. Damaged buildings awaiting Insurance claims to be granted.
Rebuilding of Innisfail, four months after Cyclone Larry. Damaged buildings awaiting Insurance claims to be granted.

Cr Nolan said it was a very "sombre" mood in the region for months, some residents forced to take temporary accommodation at caravan parks in Cairns.

"There was issues with kids missing school. It really wasn't pleasant," he said.

"And there was insurance bungles, which really upset people. From delayed inspections, to the companies then giving the repair work to southern-based tradies, instead of our locals."

He said he sympathised for the region, which took about 10 years to recover following the setback of Cyclone Yasi in 2011.

"For years it was a backlog of repairing public infrastructure. Residents did miss out on shiny new assets and capital projects because there was only enough time and money to repair all the damage.

"It wasn't until 2016 we delivered a budget where we could finally focus on future spending, and now finally we have things like masterplans for our towns."

Cr Nolan said while the cyclones had damaged the region's reputation and increased cost of living to stagnate its population growth, the positives were the polices from improved building standards to disaster management which had been adopted.

Originally published as Cyclone Larry 15 years on: How battered community rebuilt


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