Troops began moving aid to the cyclone-shattered town of Innisfail today as residents picked through waterlogged streets littered with rubble and mangled roofs destroyed by one of Australia’s most powerful cyclones in decades.
After touring the area and talking to local officials, local politician Bob Katter said that up to 7,000 people were made homeless by the storm.
“There most certainly would be around 7,000 people … that are effectively homeless,” he said. “They’re sitting in four walls but no roof.”
Trucks carrying soldiers rumbled through the streets of Innisfail, the town of 8,500 that bore the brunt of category-five Cyclone Larry when it slammed into the coast of north-east Australia just before dawn yesterday.
“One of the most immediate needs is to get shelter over roofless homes, and there are many,” said Charlie McKillop, a spokesman for Attorney General Philip Ruddock, whose department was helping co-ordinate aid.
Reporters who flew into Innisfail today saw scenes of devastation: rainforest shredded by the winds, acres of sugar and banana plantations flattened, the trees and cane on the ground next to their stumps.
“It looks like it’s just been napalmed,” said helicopter pilot Ian Harris. “That’s normally pristine rainforest.”
An apartment block with its roof torn off looked from the air like a doll’s house.
But despite the widespread destruction, nobody was killed by Larry and only about 30 people suffered minor injuries. There was no official count of the homeless, but given the number of homes badly damaged, the figure could run into the thousands, officials said.
Rosarie Cullinane, a 24-year-old Irish backpacker from Cork, had been working at a local hostel for six weeks before the cyclone struck, organising work at local plantations for fellow travellers.
“I never expected anything like this,” she said. ”I did hear about cyclones but I didn’t think it was going to be that bad.”
She said backpackers huddled in their hostel wrapped in mattresses as the storm raged outside.
None of the travellers was injured, but they were leaving town today. Their prospects for work evaporated when Larry flattened the town’s banana plantations.
The town’s main street was littered with rubble from badly damaged buildings and the corrugated metal used for roofing in the region. In some parts of the street people waded through knee-deep water.
Stephen Young, deputy executive director of Queensland’s Counter Disaster and Emergency Services, said relief was flowing to Innisfail from all over Australia.
About 120 troops were helping deliver aid, while clean-up and specialist urban search and rescue crews were heading to the town.
Among supplies flowing into the town were nearly 10,500 gallons of water, 6,000 in-flight meals provided by national airline Qantas, as well as gas and petrol.
“We’ve hit this as hard as we possibly could with every possible ounce of effort from the Queensland government and the Commonwealth government,” Young said.
Prime minister John Howard pledged today that his administration would help shattered communities rebuild.
Neil Clarke, mayor of Johnstone Shire, which includes Innisfail, compared the devastation to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
“South-east Asia had their tsunami. We’ve got our own … disaster,” Clarke told Macquarie Radio network.
Queensland state premier Peter Beattie said it could take days to restore power and water supplies to Innisfail, a farming town about 60 miles south of the major tourist town of Cairns.
The storm’s casualty toll was so low because people left town or went to shelters after authorities posted warnings.
Residents and officials were mindful of the damage Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans and Mississippi last August, said Ben Creagh, an emergency services spokesman for Queensland state.
Farmers were among the hardest hit. The region is a major growing area for bananas and sugar cane, and vast tracts of the crops were flattened.