Cyclone Yasi
Cyclone Yasi yesterday, dwarfing the Queensland coastline.

So here it is. The killer cyclone (called hurricane or typhoon in other parts of the world) has been anticipated in theories and forecasts. It’s a little different, though, now that it’s here. Tidal surges of up to seven meters. Tens of thousands of people along a 500km coastline, and up to 300km inland caught in the eye and surrounding winds of between 100 and 300km/h.

A storm bigger than anything reported since 1918, and possibly bigger than the Mackay and Innisfail cyclones of that year. Some say the whole storm system is the size of the entire continental USA. Compassion or not, it makes the snow storms wreaking havoc in America seem trivial in comparison.

Houses will be ripped apart like cheap toys. Cars and debris will be hurled through the air. Anyone caught in that fury will be killed – crushed, or drowned or asphyxiated. Livestock and free fauna extinguished. The lansdcape ripped apart dispassionately. All this just two days after the somehwat weaker Cyclone Anthony tenderised some of the locales, almost as though in a probing attack.

Tonight I sit in the sweltering humidity of a typical February Brisbane evening, secure in the knowledge that disaster will once again pass me by, making me a spectator of tragedy, and leaving me wondering how I deserved that luck when so many thousands of others won’t get away unscathed.

Those unfortunates are hunkered down in whatever shelter they found, knowing that a terrible and entirely indifferent catastrophe is bearing down on them, that soon all power will be out and they will face the brute force of their worst fears in darkness, lending an even more primeval terror to the experience.

The rational answer to my question about why I should be so lucky is, of course, quite sobering and almost callous in its logic. The entire affected area is in the tropics. It is prone to this kind of weather, which is unusual only in terms of a human life-span, but not on geological timelines. Once every hundred to three hundred years such storms are to be expected. Just because we settled the area within the last couple of hundred years should never have given us the arrogant presumption that we were somehow immune from the forces of nature because of our civilisation and technology.

We will know in the next 36 hours that all our accomplishments as a society and as a civilisation are as nought compared to millenial weather cycles that have existed since before the first human walked the Earth.

In that context there’s very little that can be done that hasn’t been thought of. There will be deaths. There will be massive destruction. What we learn from that remains to be seen.

On a slightly more positive note, Anna ‘TV camera junkie’ Bligh seems to have grown into the rôle of media grandstanding, passing on some useful advice in between posturing in her carefully chosen ‘country’ wardrobe.

Cyclone Yasi
Cyclone Yasi earlier today, revealed as massive against the continental coastline.

The ABC, too, is offering a few more useful tidbits of information in the lead-up to the cataclysm than it did the last time around. Advice on what parts of houses are structurally the soundest, about having food and cash on hand, etc. And yet, still the extraordinary reliance on 1950s nuclear disaster planning technology, like the transistor radio (because the ABC has a radio network?) and no emphasis on wireless broadband access (because none of the emergency planners know how to use it effectively!). I wonder what use messages via either medium will be to the devastated and the dead. Will it help to know that no help is coming for them for hours or days?

In considering the media circus surrounding the tragedy, I am once again compelled to wonder how a storm season like the one we’ve seen since December might have affected what is now Queensland 400 years ago – when King James I reigned in England and Shakespeare’s The Tempest was first performed.

It is almost certain that it would have amounted to an all but extinction event for Queensland Aboriginal tribes caught by the flooding and the storms. I wonder how many times such a climate cycle might have wiped out possibly thriving nomad tribes during the past 60,000 years. Completely unsung, vanished generations who probably never knew what hit them, and who had no one to sing their songs of life and despair in their wake.

On that note, a parting thought. Of all the news coverage I’ve seen, not once did I hear of a journalist asking Far North Queensland Aborigines what their traditions tell them about surviving a storm like this one. Does that mean there is no such knowledge, or just that we don’t value it?