What a wonderful sight this was 48 hours ago: the return of the ferries* to the Brisbane River. It meant that our very important visitor – who arrived ten days ago on his first visit to Brisbane – was able to sail into town, get his bearings on the city and photograph the Story Bridge from the water. And see the forlorn remains of ferry terminal pontoons that had not been restored in time for today's resumption of service, and the remnants of the Floating Walkway, several hundred metres of which sheared off during the January flood.
I have never seen people so excited about getting back to work as the ferry staff. They almost welcomed passengers with open arms; certainly with grins from ear to ear. It was a joy to behold. One of them at Bulimba's terminal, as well as handing out new timetables, gave my 24-year-old visitor a cardboard cut-out CityCat model to make! From the info around the pieces I learned that a third-generation City Cat can carry 165 passengers and travel at a maximum speed of 25 knots.
Not all parts of Brisbane are back to normal by any means. Six weeks on, in the very heart of the city, there are businesses, apartment blocks, hotels, restaurants, offices and underground car parks that remain closed and in need of repairs running into millions of dollars. One hotel alone in the CBD expects its final bill for water damage and lost revenue to exceed $10 million.
For many home-owners affected by flooding, in cities and towns and regional Queensland alike, life is still grim. Up to half of them don't have insurance that covers what has happened to their homes. Others sit in limbo in caravans or other temporary accommodation while their insurance companies quibble about whether the damage that triggered the claims was the work of riverine or storm (flash flood) water while they await hydrologists' reports.
When we went to bed on Wednesday 2 February, it seemed more than likely we would wake up to loss of life as well as devastation across Far North Queensland in the wake of Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi, due to hit land at around midnight. Yet, miraculously, we didn't. The centre of the storm had passed over Mission Beach – lovely Mission Beach (see Roadtrip Part 1: Heading up north, July 2010) – and the larger nearby towns of Tully and Cardwell had also been seriously impacted. (Cyclone Larry, the last STC to cross the Queensland coast, in 2006, struck Innisfail, not far north of there.) But the cities of Cairns and Townsville had been spared the worst, and there were huge sighs of relief across the entire country. Banana plants and buildings may have been flattened and Queenslanders badly shaken, but there were no serious injuries or deaths**.
Now it is two weeks later and Yasi is no longer making headlines. A friend emailed me from the UK yesterday to say there is no longer any news about how Queenslanders are faring, post-flood or post-cyclone.
Well, there are still thousands of people without power or water in the north of the state. Transmission poles are damaged or snapped off, and thousands of kilometres of wire need to be restrung. The breakdown of equipment in pumping stations is a big problem.
Some banana farmers, cane growers and exotic fruit producers have lost almost all their crops, especially if they're near the coast: trees have been uprooted and plants snapped off or completely razed. Bananas may take only a few months to get back to production, but papayas may take a year and lychees as many as four. Tropical flower and plant nurseries and timber growers have also been badly hit. Some farmers counting the costs today had only just re-established themselves since Cyclone Larry. Yasi may prove a setback too far.
The cyclone wreaked havoc with the Great Barrier Reef. Coral sand cays on Taylor Reef that once stood four metres out of the water and provided refuge for migrating birds and turtles have been wiped off the map. Around the Bedarra group of inshore reefs water clarity is poor, although there are signs of marine life returning. Outer reefs may require only another couple of weeks to recover: ocean currents will improve water quality there a lot quicker.
And what of the endangered birds that give this stretch of devastated coast its name? Since the cyclone, Cassowaries have been deprived of the forest fruits that make up their diet, so they are approaching houses in search of food, where some have been attacked by dogs. Rangers are setting up feeding stations in the rainforest and fruit is being dropped by helicopter, but these hungry animals are currently at greater risk than ever. Half a million dollars will be spent to try to ensure their survival.
Even people not directly in the path of the monster storm or inland, where it gradually degraded, are far from back to normal. Today I was in touch with the Barking Owl Retreat in the Atherton Tablelands where we stayed on our roadtrip last June. They prepared extensively for Yasi, having learned from Larry: they tied things down and locked things up and bolted things down and taped things up. After an almost sleepless night of howling, terrifying wind and lashing rain – worse because it was dark and they couldn't see what was happening – they had to assess the damage and quickly get on with the clean-up. Several trees were down, everything had to be unpacked or untied and the house hosed down (tape leaves a residue that needs dealing with immediately).
Two weeks on, there are serious shortages of goods that are normally freighted into the region, which affects everyone, not least retailers. And those involved in tourism are seriously affected. Tourists don't visit disaster zones as a rule. Since the floods in southeast Queensland began generating negative publicity for the state, and now a big scary cyclone, visitors to the Tablelands and big tourist centres on the coast such as Cairns and Port Douglas are noticeably fewer. People in Noosa said much the same thing last week when we were there - and Noosa hasn't been flooded or battered.
And the cost of the great clean-up and reconstruction of Queensland? $8 billion for the damage done by Yasi, according to Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser, on top of $5 billion following the floods. These costs will be met by the Natural Disaster Recovery and Relief Arrangements (NDRRA) between the state and federal governments. Some of the Queensland government's plans and projects have already been postponed, as have the national government's. In addition, Julia Gillard has finally managed to garner enough cross-bench support for her $1.8 billion flood levy, although plenty of Australians are not in favour of such a measure, having donated money already.
The Premier's (Anna Bligh's) Disaster Relief Appeal has so far raised almost $220 million. $66 million of that was distributed within two weeks to many of those in need. I suspect the people of Haiti might be envious of such efficiency.
Many questions are inevitably asked in the wake of such disasters. Why does building continue apace in flood-prone areas? Why is electricity supply not underground? Why do building regulations not ensure better cyclone-proof construction? Should control of dam releases be in private hands? But it is my belief that the loss of life, especially during Cyclone Yasi, was not far greater because of the degree of preparedness on the part of the authorities and the people of Queensland. I listened to local radio for a whole day preceding each event and the supply of information, advice and warning was impressive.
Last week one of my daughters asked me to return to the UK so that she could stop worrying about me being washed or blown away – or caught up in a bushfire. 'What is it with that country?' she asked, only half in jest. Today a weather man declared that the intensity of the La Niña effect – the greatest for 150 years – has decreased, but that tropical Australia will not be completely out of the wood until March.
The weather has been much more settled of late, and we've had gloriously hot and sunny Queensland summer days. But, as I write, Cyclone Carlos is approaching the Top End and it's Darwin's turn to batten down the hatches.
* 15 out of 23 ferry terminals were operational from Monday 14 February, two weeks ahead of schedule. Eight remain closed until further notice
** A young man was found dead a couple of days later near Ingham. He had been asphyxiated from diesel fumes after using a generator in a closed room