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CYCLONE RONA – and the AFTERMATH
Alison and Digby Gotts
The news bulletins insisted that severe Tropical Cyclone Rona was heading for the coast 'just north of Port Douglas'. But Cape Tribulation residents knew in their hearts that it was coming straight for Cape Tribulation. Then at 7pm on Thursday 11 February, 1999 the Bureau of Meteorology announced that Cyclone Rona had turned north. Over the following three or four hours, Cape Tribulation suffered the worst devastation this century. As Rona crossed the coast the wind speed reached 170 - 225 km/h (Category 3). The noise from the wind was terrifying. The deafening howl was broken only by the sound of 'crack, crack, crack' as trees snapped.
Some quotes on the magnitude of the damage
Paul Mason, long time resident at Cape Tribulation: "I have seen quite a few cyclones in my time, but never one quite as destructive to the rainforest as Rona. There was absolute devastation. Wind speeds were up to 220 km/hr along the beach front. Trees were corksrewed out of the ground and others were snapped off at the base.
Crocodylus Resort owner Terry Rogers, at Cow Bay: "It looks like someone came up with the biggest brushcutter and just took parts out of the forest and dumped it on the town."
Julatten banana grower Karen Langfield: "It's flawed me. I am speechless and don't know what to say. I have experienced a 100 per cent loss. We are completely destitute; we are just broke."
Donna Young from the Cow Bay Hotel: "It's just unbelievable. Where there was dense forest, there is just nothing. There's trees down everywhere and houses are damaged.
Cape Trib Exotic Fruit Farm - our house sitter, Gill Palmer: "Your orchard looks like toothpicks”
We were on holiday in South West Tasmania at the time
and oblivious to the destruction. We had walked into a remote airstrip
on the south west coast at Port Davey, after
15 days of wilderness walking. We had no inkling that anything was amiss.
Stuck to our food package in the airstrip shed was a yellow sticky note
which said: “Gotts – your property has severe property damage
from cyclone”. Lucky for us that a small dinghy pulled into the
jetty and they were able to arrange via handheld radio for the yacht
in the bay to make a phone call by satellite phone to our caretakers.
Once we discovered that the house, farm buildings and the animals were
all OK we decided to continue with our walking holiday and headed back
into the south west.
Assessing the damage to our farm
Buildings, machinery and stock had suffered no damage. The orchard showed extensive superficial damage but the long term economic future appeared to be unaffected. This later proved to be the case. Our major crops of Mangosteen (250 trees) and Salak (1200 plants) had suffered little while other species planted to lift diversity and provide shade such as bananas and legumes have been decimated. Gross physical damage to trees was largely confined to 3 bands about 30 metres wide, running through the block. The ribbons of damage ran essentially east – west, meaning that rows of trees planted north – south are more likely to go down than trees in rows planted east – west.
Detail of orchard damage February 1999 and comments nearly 3 years later in January 2002
Coconut is a poor choice for a shelter belt. If they break, the whole plant goes causing much collateral damage due to the wide crown. We are now removing the coconuts that were planted in interrows with Mangosteens. Breadfruit may work well in spite of being so weak. No trees were broken low down, and all recovered. Fiji Longan may also be successful in a similar way, but the sample size is too small. Mangosteen and Salak are excellent choices for commercial crops in cyclone areas. It is worth pruning and selecting suckers and taking the trouble to stake trees upright again – keep in mind that we had 1000mm of rain over 4 days in March soon after the cyclone. Softwooded species such as Santol, Rambai and Durian are easily damaged but reshoot quickly. Need to watch to see how long these trees take to bearing fruit again – it looks like about 3 years.
When you remember what destruction took place in our orchard, it is hard to imagine the destruction now. Everything has been cleared up and trees are covered with full canopies. People doing the farm tour are amazed that the farm has recovered so quickly. So are we. We hope there will never be another cyclone the intensity of Rona while we are alive but if there is, I feel sure that we will come through it – I just can’t bear the thought of all the work in clearing up the mess again. It took us six months of chainsawing and removing countless trailer loads of timber from the orchard. There is an empty space in our orchard where a lychee used to grow – one of Don Gray’s that we won in a RFC raffle – and every time I walk past this space I wonder what happened to it – there was nothing left just a hole in the ground. In the approaching wet season we plan to fill in all the gaps left by dead trees – this means about another 100 fruit trees that we will be able to squeeze in that would not have fitted before – a wonderful opportunity to plant some new varieties.