Waiting for a major weather event – or the aftermath of one, such as severe flooding – reminds me of pregnancy, at about the 37th week. There's an awful sense of inevitability. You know there's a good chance the event will be painful, but it's impossible to avoid it. And a part of you is desperate for it to happen, so that you can get on with a different life beyond.
We got up this morning to the news that Tropical Cyclone* Yasi has been upgraded to a category 5. The last time a Severe Tropical Cyclone came ashore in Queensland was in 1918. It means wind gusts of up to 320km/hr near the centre. I can't begin to imagine that. Presumably, it can literally blow you away. But the main danger to life is not damaging wind but storm surge**. The cyclone's landfall – between Cairns and Townsville – will coincide with high tide; typically, there'll be 2-4 metres of surge plus the high tide. More than 700mm of rainfall are expected.
Tropical cyclones normally dissipate quickly as they pass over land: friction slows the wind and the system is deprived of its 'fuel', warm tropical sea water. But it is expected that huge Yasi, even 500 kilometres inland and 12 hours after landfall, may still be of category 3 intensity; and there is likely to be torrential rain (category 1 or a 'tropical low') as far into Queensland's interior as Mount Isa (900km from the Coral Sea) and the border with Northern Territory.
Mandatory evacuations began during the night, including the largest movement of hospital patients in Australia's history, including intensive-care patients, heavily pregnant women and newborns – by air to Brisbane, which is well to the south of the cyclonic action.
I have never lived in a country where events are such that politicians or State Emergency Services personnel or weather bureau spokespeople gravely describe them as the 'most catastrophic storm to ever hit our coast'. 'Evacuate now,' they warn. 'Don't bother to pack'. And 'This impact is likely to be more life-threatening than any experienced during recent generations'. Media headlines include words such as 'monster', 'horror' and 'deadliest'.
It's roughly 12 hours till landfall (10pm AEST). There are still several unknowns, principally where it will cross the coast and how high the storm surge will be. What is certain is that it will be dark. And the noise of the wind will be terrifying – like a high-pitched scream, those with experience say. As the storm does its worst, there will be few, if any, communications channels open, and SES personnel must protect themselves as well. The weather bureau's radar system and wind measuring equipment on Willis Island, 450km east of Cairns, has already been knocked out – at 9am this morning. Queensland Premier Anna Bligh is stressing the mental preparation necessary for this event as much as survival tactics such as stockpiling fresh water and stacking mattresses in the smallest (most structurally sound) room.
This morning I am thinking of all the beautiful places we saw on our travels that now sit in the path of destruction: Shute Harbour, Mission Beach, Dunk Island, Palm Cove, Cow Bay, Cape Tribulation and the Atherton Tablelands. One thousand kilometres of coastline are at risk, such is the scale of this thing.
One or two listeners have reported to ABC Radio that there are no birds or insects to be seen or heard in the calm before the storm. And a friend near Atherton emailed this morning that she has never seen so many frogs trying to sneak into the house. Not-so-dumb animals, then.
* A non-frontal low-pressure system that forms over warm tropical seas and produces powerful winds and torrential rain that may extend for hundreds of kilometres from the cyclone's centre. A category 5, the highest grade, is described as 'extremely dangerous with widespread destruction'. Wind speeds are in excess of 280km/hr. Tropical cyclones are known as hurricanes or typhoons in different regions of the world
** An offshore rise in water level associated with onshore winds that are part of a low pressure system