When Yasi was upgraded to a category five cyclone about eight hours before its eventual tumultuous landfall near Cardwell on Wednesday evening, February 2, 2011, life became a voyage into the unknown for local residents.
No one living had experienced such extreme natural climatic torment. The Bureau of Meteorology would later bracket Yasi with three other cyclones to devastate Australia’s tropical east coast, as one of the four most intense cyclones in recorded history: a cyclone named Mahina that wiped out a pearling fleet killing hundreds of seamen in Princess Charlotte Bay in 1899, two un-named 1918 cyclones that devastated Mackay (January) and Innisfail (March), and Yasi in 2011.
The last surviving Cardwell resident known to have lived through the 1918 cyclone which devastated Innisfail and caused massive destruction to Cardwell, Maureen Massey (nee Hubinger), had died at age 95 in the year leading up to Yasi.
Because of its severity and the damage it caused, few precise readings of Yasi’s power are known, but there are some very accurate measurements and indications.
A barometer at Tully Sugar mill recorded rare low atmospheric pressures suggesting wind gusts of around 285 kilometres per hour, by 9 am the following morning 24 hour rainfalls commonly totalled more than 400 millimetres and up to 471 millimetres at South Mission Beach, and a tidal surge exceeding 5 metres was recorded by a government storm tide gauge at Cardwell.
The surge, about half an hour after midnight (on February 3) raised the level of the ocean 2.3 metres above the highest normal tide, and fortunately occurred when the normal ocean tide was falling and scheduled to be near it’s lowest point that night.
Maureen Massey was too young in 1918 to remember the March cyclone that year, but her older brothers, especially Noel, told many times how the sea had washed in across the highway and into the front yard of Hubinger’s 1912 home at 67-69 Victoria Street a few doors removed from, and in the same block as the Marine Hotel.
Evidence shortly after Yasi indicated the level of the surge around Hubinger’s home (severely damaged but then still standing solid) was around half a metre deep.
First hand evidence of Yasi’s extreme power is rare because all but a handful of townspeople from Cardwell to beyond Mission Beach had evacuated, and the blinding combination of wind, water and debris at the storm’s peak occurred during the night, and while those enduring its terror were hunkered down out of harms way.