This was one crazy week. All along I thought Australia was a country where little to no rain would fall and where it’s always hot and sunny. I didn’t expect having to deal with a Cyclone on my travels!
Airlie Beach, A place popular because of the nearby world famous and breathtaking Whitsunday Islands. The week leading up to the cyclone we knew it was coming but we didn’t do anything until we where forced to act. The cyclone was predicted to arrive the North Queensland shore on Monday or Tuesday and was probably going to be a category 5 storm. The week leading up to those days everything and everybody continued as normal in Airlie acting like it’s just a little storm coming our way. Being in a place where locals have had to deal with cyclones before and seeing them not worrying was reason enough for me to not worry myself. later on that changed really fast…
On Saturday evening I was still working for accommodation at the hostel bar at hostel Beaches in Airlie Beach. Sure, me and my roommates talked about Cyclone Debbie coming our way but we where more exited than afraid and weren’t even thinking about bad things happening to us. As a photographer I actually couldn’t wait being in that storm to take some awesome and unique pictures.
Sunday I read that the storm was going to be a lot more severe then we thought and we started to worry a little about our own safety. Me and my two roommates Gimi and Kishan decided to take some preparations. We bought some tape to put on the windows and barricade them with mattresses and our bunk beds to be safe from flying debris.
All set we thought it would maybe be wise to cook a big meal to get through the next couple of days just incase we run out of power. I went in the kitchen around 4pm and half way through cooking my meal the reception lady walked in the kitchen with some disturbing news. We had to evacuate the hostel because it’s in the red zone meaning it will probably flood due to the rising sea level during the storm. That was the first moment we actually started to worry. At that moment we realised that we could be in some serious trouble and our change of survival was slim if we stayed there. The police didn’t arrange for transport to take us out of there so it was up to ourselves to find another place to stay. It was already 4pm so it was quite late to make any arrangements.
“we have to evacuate NOW”
Gimi and Kishan started to freak out a little and decided to go back to the room and start working on a alternative plan. I myself decided to keep my cool and finish cooking my meal first. After all, food and water are one of the most important things to have during a crisis like this. I made a lot of tuna pasta because it can also be consumed cold in case of a power-outage and canned tuna lasts longer than chicken or other meat. I even thought about Kishan not eating beef just in case we have to ration and share our food. After cooking I also went upstairs to check what the other guys where up to. They where working in housekeeping for the same hostel and walked over to the girls staffroom to check on them. We where talking about maybe taking a bus, go to another hostel or stay at a friends house. However, leaving the safety of our current hostel with the change we couldn’t find an alternative didn’t seem wise so we stayed put for now and waited till we got some more answers. Minutes later the reception lady walked in again and told us we have to evacuate NOW. Luckily they provided us with a alternative. Xbase hostel further up the street still had some beds available and we could stay there for free because it’s owned by the same people. Xbase is on higher ground so as of yet there was no flooding risk there. So, me, my two roommates and the three girls from housekeeping finished packing our bags fast and walked up to Xbase hoping they still have beds available. The line was long and when it was finally our turn to check in we found out that we got the last beds.
At around 8pm we finally where in our room in Xbase and safe for the night. We where still thinking about going back to our barricaded room in Hostel Beaches the next day because it was probably safer then the building we where staying in now.
Although we where afraid at the time, it’s pretty funny having those conversations because everybody turns in to crisis experts. every option available is discussed and all the pro’s and cons are mentioned. After all this talk it is still frustrating to know that none of them are completely safe because Cyclone Debbie is coming and it can destroy everything. After talking all night over a game of cards and drinking boxed wine we had a couple of options. Which option to take will depend on the course of the next day. My thought was, If we are in a red zone that is expecting to be life threatening, the police will execute a forced evacuation meaning they will get us out of there. If that’s the case they will tell us in the morning so waiting for that before making other choices seemed wise to me.
we woke up early and went over to the reception to get the latest information. The hostel actually decided to book some busses going south to Mackay to get there guests out of there for those who wanted. We decided to take that offer because the cyclone was predicted to hit as far north as Townville and as far south as Airlie Beach so going south is always better. In the time some of us where at the reception, Gimi was on the phone with a local friend and decided to stay with him. minutes later he got picked up and we got on the bus shortly after. Getting on the bus we had to pay $20 which came as a surprise to us. At the time we got on the bus Debbie was expecting to hit land at 4pm that same day. At around 2pm we checked in the motel we booked prior to getting on the bus so we where just in time.
Me, Tishan and Hilla(one of the girls from housekeeping) stayed in one room and the two other girls from housekeeping stayed in another. The room has a TV, a microwave and a fridge all of which turned out very useful for our ‘survival’. We turned on the news and found out that Debbie slowed down and was going to hit land early Tuesday Morning. It also changed directions and was going to hit Airlie Beach for sure. after knowing that I was happy we got on that bus. The rest of the day we watched the news and kept our families updated about our ever changing situation. Conditions worsened and Mackay was thought to get flooded because of the rising sea level and severe rainfall. Monday evening 25.000 people where evacuated from low lined areas. We weren’t in those low areas so we just had to stay put and hope for the best. The news urged the rest of the city to get further south if you can but being a backpacker without own transport that’s not an option.
“Throughout the whole cyclone situation I was surprised that the news wasn’t giving any information about how people without there own transport can get to safety. Especially for a country that is used to having thousands of backpackers year round you expect that the government also has a plan for them in a time of crisis but nothing was offered.”
Again we went over all possible scenario’s and re-packed our bags to prepare for a fast escape just in case. We where far enough south from the eye of the storm causing the storm to be less severe then in places further north. Reason to evacuate was small. After watching the news for hours we got some sleep.
after a good night sleep we woke up on Tuesday and turned the news on again. Debbie slowed down again and was due to arrive around 1pm. Winds of up to 264 km/h where measured on nearby Hamilton Island and also Airlie was struggling. Life news feed showed debris flying through the streets and fallen trees and branches. It also showed the bar where I was working just three days before. A palm tree fell over and destroyed the fabric roof and parts of the bar. Showing to see something familiar being totally destroyed.
Tuesday for us was about the same as the evening before. On and off the storm picked up from strong to severe and back to strong again. Luckily all this rain and wind wasn’t enough to flood or damage our motel. Throughout the storm we didn’t even had a power outage, running water was still working and telecommunications where still up. I was able to keep my phone charged and let people back home know how I’m doing. I always told the truth without holding any information or thoughts back. This obviously caused my loved ones to worry. It’s disturbing having to them that I’m ‘save’ but that there is a change that the roof can fly off or that the room can flood and that we might not be able to get back to safety if that happens.
Looking at the news we realised that we where lucky and that we by coincidence booked a random Motel that was in just the right position so not to get flooded. At 10pm on Tuesday the worst was over for us and we had nothing more to fear. The next step now is to wait until buses and planes start operating again so we can get out of here. One week later, on the 3th of april, as I’m writing this I’m still waiting.
Tomorrow I can finally take a bus. A bus BACK to Airlie beach that is. I’m going back to see the damage, to see when everything will be up and running again and to offer to help where needed. I’ll decide from there if I’m going to stay longer or if I’m leaving.
Another Friend of mine that stayed back in Airlie said that he may have a payed job for me doing random labor work. That would be a great way to make some money until I can start working at a restaurant where I was supposed to start last week.
My story may not be so exciting and I haven’t had to endure the worst but that is because we where able to take action and get ourselves to ‘safety’. Other people that where in the area where Debbie hit land definitely have some more extreme stories to tell. Although the photographer in me wanted to stay in Airlie to witness the full strength of a Class 4 Cyclone, the other more sensible part of me is glad I got out of there. Not only for my own wellbeing but also for my worrying loved ones back home.
Looking back at everything I found it sad to see how people are still focussed on making money in a time of crisis. No hostel for as far as I know had more people staying there then the amount of beds they had. Even for the bus they arranged for us to get to Mackay we had to pay $20. The hostels in cities that weren’t hit by the storm are even raising there prices because they know that thousands of people are leaving those areas. I get it, it’s good for business but I think it’s just sad. humanity teaches us again that when people are suffering, others will take advantage. Luckily there is also good in the world and it makes me happy reading about others handing out free food and water to those who need it.
Often backpackers talk about how cool it would be to start your own hostel. Well, one thing I would do in a situation like that is open up my doors to everybody and let them stay free of charge. I myself don’t mind sleeping on the floor as long as I’m safe, I don’t care sharing my food as long as I have enough for myself. Helping people does not only feel rewarding, it’s just the right thing to do.