Monday, 21 December 2015

Cyclone Althea's Legacies

Cyclone Althea stole Christmas from the residents of Townsville in 1971 when it hammered the city on Christmas Eve with gusts of wind up to 200 km/h.

Boats washed ashore on Palmer Street during Cyclone Althea, 1971.
Source: Townsville City Libraries    
In the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, Townsville residents complained they had received inadequate warnings and information while cyclone Althea was bearing down on the city.

The manager of radio station 4TO, Mr Oost, told the Townsville Daily Bulletin in April 1972, that confusion and panic was caused by various radio news services broadcasting conflicting and sometimes out of date reports on the movement of the cyclone.

Mr Oost said that a Brisbane radio station had broadcast superseded reports of the cyclone’s position, and that those broadcasts had then been relayed to Townsville.

“At 10am, when the cyclone was actually over Townsville, one report said the cyclone was expected to cross the coast at noon, causing horror to many people who thought worse was yet to come,” the Bulletin noted.

“The wording of some early reports by the Weather Bureau had also confused people, and had given them a false sense of security,” Mr Oost said.
House at Yarrawonga damaged by Cyclone Althea, 1971.
Source: Townsville City Libraries.
He cited one report that gave the cyclone’s position as 500 miles north-east of Mackay, but neglected to even mention Townsville, with the result that some people thought that meant Townsville would escape the danger.

At that time, the Weather Bureau only had access to two satellite images per day – a far cry from the satellite technology at its disposal today. In response to the criticism the Bureau resolved to strengthen its cyclone warning chain. Automatic weather stations would be erected on Creel and Zodiac Reefs, between Mackay and Rockhampton and at other locations along the coast, while another was being considered for Holmes Reef, east of Cairns.

But the Commonwealth Director of Meteorology, Dr W.J. Gibbs, was adamant that there would be no move to establish a cyclone warning centre outside of Brisbane.

“The bureau has limited staff, and if we put a cyclone warning centre in each major city along the coast, we would have to duplicate staff,” Dr Gibbs told the Bulletin.

“We would need 30 or 40 people to run each centre, including some highly trained meteorologists, and we see no advantage in having one in Townsville,” he said.

“We believe that the warnings were available in Townsville from Brisbane just as often as they would have been given from a centre in Townsville.”

“The fact is that the people of Townsville did get 20 hours warning that they were going to get destructive winds.”
House and car damaged by Cyclone Althea, 1971.
Source: Townsville City Libraries.
Along with an inadequate system of weather updates, Cyclone Althea also uncovered serious deficiencies in building construction in Townsville.

Mr R.N. Bonnett, Federal Member for Herbert, told the Bulletin in late December 1971 that he thought “stricter supervision of construction” might have resulted in less damage to homes.

“Some of the houses I visited, which had lost their roofs and suffered wall damage, disclosed the fact that there had been a definite skimping in the usage of building materials, such as roofing nails and screws, anchor bolts, and reinforcement rods,” Mr Bonnett said.

But a report commissioned by the State Government into the effects of the cyclone attributed severe damage in Townsville generally to inadequate design, rather than poor workmanship. The report recommended the immediate amendment of building by-laws and appropriate specifications to meet structural requirements in cyclone-prone areas.
Houses damaged by Cyclone Althea, 1971.
Source: Townsville City Libraries.

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