Remembering Cyclone Debbie: one year on

BIG4 Bowen Coral Coast Beachfront Holiday Park post cyclone.

It’s almost 12 months since Cyclone Debbie made landfall and wreaked havoc in parts of QLD, and northern NSW. Several BIG4 parks, most notably those in the Whitsundays region, were hardest hit by Debbie’s fury. In this special feature, we speak to park staff affected by the tragedy as the one-year anniversary nears.

BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort in Airlie Beach felt Debbie's fury.

The date 28 March 2017 will always be remembered with much trepidation in certain sections of QLD. It was when Cyclone Debbie finally unleashed her rage. The force was such that by the time Debbie departed, the damage bill would be in the billions of dollars.

Several BIG4 parks bore the brunt of Cyclone Debbie and her aftermath. NRMA Bowen Beachfront Holiday Park and BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort in Airlie Beach were among the hardest hit.

Almost one year on it’s clear that Debbie remains a sensitive topic, as our interviews with park staff demonstrate. We begin with a Q&A with BIG4 Bowen Park Manager, Fiona Johnson.

Cyclone Debbie unleashes at BIG4 Bowen.

28 March 2017. What comes to mind when you think of that day?

That date, 28 March, causes a physical reaction initially. A quickening of the heart rate, and a bit of a cold sweat. As well as a rather large sigh. Then we quickly remember how lucky we were to have not been wiped out altogether. Some areas in the region were hit a lot harder than us. Some businesses are not able to re-open at all.

What did you learn about your community in the days and weeks following Cyclone Debbie?

In the days that followed Debbie we saw a lot of what you would expect, with people helping each other out as best they could. It was comforting to see the army in town; there were SES, firefighters, and police door knocking, checking everyone was okay and making sure we were aware of our neighbours and if they needed assistance.

We had regular guests of ours drive down from Townsville to assist us with the clean-up. That was a very nice gesture.

Debbie left a trail of destruction.

We’ve almost reached the one-year anniversary since Cyclone Debbie made landfall. How have the past 12 months been at your park?

Within one week we were operational again, and soon after we were heading into Easter. It was very surprising to see how much people wanted to support the region. They were calling straight away to see if they could come and visit and support the tourism industry.

They were also very patient when they did come, as a lot of local attractions and businesses were still closed. We are still undergoing some minor repairs 12 months on. There was so much work to do in the area, the local tradies are exhausted. In spite of Debbie we are continuing to improve occupancy and have had a rather good year.

What impact did Debbie have on the park and its staff beyond the obvious structural damage?

Approximately half of our staff are local to the area, therefore they suffered significant stress during Cyclone Debbie, worrying about personal property and loved ones also affected by the storm. It is an emotional topic and not something any of us are keen to experience again.

What’s been the hardest or most frustrating thing during this time?

It is probably more inconvenient rather than hard or frustrating – to organise repairs and the tidy up. It takes a lot of time away from your normal day-to-day routine, and as everyone knows there are not enough hours in the day as it is. Having to do repair work puts any plans we had to undertake improvements on the backburner. That is frustrating.

Contrast this with the image above - both were taken at a similar position.

What has been most inspiring or uplifting?

A friend of mine lives in a very tightknit little cul-de-sac, and they found themselves taking in a couple of Swedish tourists who weren’t sure what to do during Debbie’s approach. These guys were amazing with about half the street of retirement age, they kept themselves busy helping with the heavy work all through the neighbourhood.

Word got out that one of the lads was turning 21, so about one week after Debbie a street party was planned by the neighbours to celebrate. They had a jumping castle, street food, games, cake etc. It was so nice to see that this young gentleman had a wonderful birthday celebration while visiting Australia, which may not have happened if Debbie hadn’t arrived. I’m sure he will remember his 21st birthday fondly.

Do you still get asked about the cyclone? If so, how often?

We get asked most days about Debbie, prompted by photos on the wall. We play it down a lot and don't like to make a fuss. After all, we were very lucky not to have experienced far worse damage.

BIG4 Bowen has bounced back well since the cyclone.

Has the park fully recovered from the damage now?

We still have a few jobs on the repair list; nothing visible to the guests. We can get these done with minimal effect on daily operations. The main reason we aren't finished is that we are waiting for tradies to get around to us.

What is the most common reaction when visitors come to stay at your park now (regarding Debbie’s legacy)? Are they surprised, or otherwise, that a cyclone hit the park?

They are surprised that we didn't sustain more damage. The public out of the region saw a lot more of what happened on news reports than we did. We were in lockdown with no electricity and roads cut. You really only knew what was happening on your street.

What do the next 12 months hold for BIG4 Bowen? Any exciting developments in the works?

We are looking to make some minor changes to improve customer experiences – it's ongoing, as we are always looking to improve. Debbie hasn't really affected us as an individual business as much as people might think. It's probably more the effect she's had on the entire community and tourism as a whole. It is a part of life up here, and all you can do is learn from it and be better prepared for next time.

Many visitors express surprise that the park did not suffer more damage.

Resilience shines at BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday…

In Airlie Beach, Cyclone Debbie had a profound impact on the grounds and staff at BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort.

The park’s Front Office Manager, Catherine Paterson, praised an “incredibly strong, resilient, kind, generous-in-spirit, and supportive” community in the aftermath of Cyclone Debbie as she reflected on the natural disaster.

“The initial few weeks were quite strange and testing, but as soon as we opened things fell back into place and a sense of norm prevailed,” she said.

“Fortunately, our main loss was vegetation – about 30%; 300 truckloads – so we were incredibly lucky in hindsight. We still managed to open nine new deluxe studio cabins in June last year and then our huge mega waterslide park in September.”

Loss of vegetation was significant at BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort, but park staff say the situation could've been much worse.

However, Mrs Paterson recounted the psychological impact of Debbie.

“Although the park bounced back relatively unscathed – mostly trees and minor damage to cabins – some staff’s personal lives were turned upside down. This was naturally distressing, however the team showed unconditional support and helped out, so that bonded us even more so,” she said.

“Some staff did relocate – not because of the cyclone alone – more that it was a catalyst for them to move on and experience a change in lifestyle.”

The front office manager said there was some frustration that “the slight mention of cyclone season or a low immediately gets blown out of proportion by the media” but was proud of the park’s resilience in “smashing it at the state and national tourism awards.”

Happier days: The new mega waterslide park is a huge hit at BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort.

BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday has almost fully recovered from the cyclone damage, and Mrs Paterson said plans are in place for more upgrades.

“Our next project is to add 27 more cabins and another 64 powered sites to our existing inventory,” she said.

“There are plans to add some exciting new facilities, which will lead the way in terms of holiday park activities, so watch this space.”

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