Saturday, 20 December 2014

Cyclone Althea - 1971

On Christmas Eve 1971, Cyclone Althea struck Townsville with gusts of wind close to 200kph.  Three lives were lost, hundreds were injured and 500 Army personnel were recalled from leave to assist with the cleanup effort.
The suburb of Pallarenda, after Cyclone Althea in December 1971.
Photo:  CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

The suburb of Pallarenda was described in the local press as having suffered the worst of the cyclone in Townsville, with an estimated 30 to 40 per cent of homes in the suburb “write-offs”.

The North Queensland Register vividly described what remained of the suburb, saying “Althea left a shambles of smashed homes and cars, trailing power lines, torn up trees and roads.”

“Roofing iron, timber, fibro and in some cases, whole roofs, were lifted and hurled onto the houses behind them, causing a tremendous amount of damage.”

Many people felt their homes might have withstood the wind and rain, but the flying iron and timber smashed windows and roofs, allowing the wind to “play havoc with the remains.”

As one resident put it, “The house just exploded everywhere. All the second floor went.”
Damaged houses in Pallarenda, after Cyclone Althea.
Photo:  CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

The Register reported that Army engineers from 18 Field Squadron had constructed a road into the area, which was isolated from the rest of the city when heavy seas damaged Heatley’s Parade.  Electricity, water and all communication to the suburb was also cut.

Pallarenda storekeeper Mr Livio Collesel spoke very highly of the assistance provided by the Army.

“The Army have been magnificent.  They have been a great help,” he said.

“They have been supplying people with tarpaulins and transporting people across damaged roads.”

“They also delivered fresh bread and milk supplies to the people.”
Boats washed up on Palmer Street after Cyclone Althea.
Photo:  CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

Within days, the Prime Minister, Mr McMahon visited Townsville, and pledged unlimited financial aid to help restore the shattered city.  The Courier Mail reported on McMahon’s visit, describing it as a “morale building one”.

“We have put no ceiling on Commonwealth aid.  It will be in two parts, for personal hardship and for reconstruction,” Mr McMahon said.

Mr McMahon said the visit had given him “some idea of the total damage” which he said was “completely indescribable”.

“But the people you meet give you an enormous sense of pleasure to know that you are an Australian,” he said.

“They are getting on with the job.  They aren’t grouching.  They only want some help.”

Unfortunately, Mr McMahon’s pledge of “unlimited aid” was to be based on a dollar for dollar arrangement with the State government.  This meant that the federal government would contribute one dollar for every dollar given by the State, so that the funds available were actually quite limited.
Damage to a house in Heatley, caused by Cyclone Althea.
Photo:  CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.

Mr John Dean, the chairman of the fund committee said that there just wasn’t enough money to go round.

“We are going to have to knock back a lot of people,” Mr Dean said.

“No one is going to get anywhere near enough to replace what he has lost,” he said.

Mr Dean said most grants were likely to be around $100, with the maximum grant amount set at $1000.

In the face of so many appeals for grants, those earning more than $90 a week were immediately deemed ineligible to receive any assistance.

Eighty per cent of the $150 000 fund was shared between pensioners and those whose weekly income was less than $50.

The total amount claimed by people seeking help from the fund was $2 million.

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