When hurricane Katrina slammed into the southern Louisiana coast in 2006, taking out the city of New Orleans it was rated as a Category 5 storm. The images of the devastation it caused were shocking, not only in their extent, but that this had happened in the USA. Not in a developing country where infrastructure and services were weak, but in the wealthy global north. Even given the poverty that exists in Louisiana, it is still part of the economically developed, structurally strong and politically stable USA. The response of the US Government in the wake of the storm was criticised on a number of levels: too little, too late was the general criticism, but there were also charges of racism against the Bush administration based on the fact that the majority of New Orleans residents are African American. Almost 2,000 people in total lost their lives during that one storm, the radar images of which are still awe-inspiring.
As I write this, tropical cyclone Yasi is lurking with intent off the coast of north Queensland. As of this morning it has been upgraded to a Category 5 storm and is intensifying as it moves steadily west towards Cairns. Once again, the radar images tell a terrifying story: a swirling, menacing mass, the eye of which is over 50 kilometres in diameter.
When cyclone Larry hit Innisfail in 2006 it wiped out the entire north Queensland banana crop for 12 months. Yasi is bigger. When cyclone Tracy flattened Darwin in 1974 it crossed the coast as a Category 4. Yasi is bigger. Even sitting in the comfort of an airconditioned office in Canberra, some 2,500 kilometres south of north Queensland coast, it is difficult not to feel some sense of foreboding. This is a monster storm.
The tropical coast of Australia is no stranger to cyclones, of course. They are a regular summer occurrence. Local government authorities impose building codes to address the dangers posed by the storms and residents have cyclone survival plans involving battening down to minimise damage and injury and identifying secure rooms in houses to use as ‘bunkers’. These strategies are not unlike the sorts of survival plans put in place by people who live in the highly bushfire-prone areas of the Blue Mountains and around southern Victoria, or those put in place in New Zealand where people deal with the threat of earthquakes. The problem with Yasi is that no one has experienced a Category 5 storm before and the images of post-Katrina New Orleans still tell a frightening story.
The state and federal governments have taken what preparations they can, evacuating hospitals and nursing homes, establishing evacuation centres for residents and putting the military on alert but Queensland is still reeling from the impact of the January floods. Regardless of what Cairns and the other coastal towns in the path of Yasi look like by this time tomorrow, it is unlikely that the governments will make the same mistakes as the US government after Katrina. The political mistakes of other governments sound loud warning bells.
So, is climate change the cause of the wave of natural disasters we have seen this summer? Possibly? Probably? Definitely? It’s certainly a factor that climate scientists will be considering. The Greens, who were widely criticised for attempting to score political points from the floods, have once again blundered into the danger zone, linking the cyclone with climate change and calling for a reduction in atmospheric carbon. There is a time and place for politics and it is not while people are facing down a Category 5 cyclone. Yes, we need to address greenhouse emissions as a matter of urgency. Yes, the PM’s announcement of cutting carbon reduction programs to help fund the flood recovery program in Queensland is ironic at best. Yes, there are weird things happening with the climate and humans have caused it. But the Greens’ we-told-you-so approach is just not helping.
The politics of natural disasters is ideologically-based and highly contested. We saw some of it during and after the Queensland floods, in 2009 after the Victorian bushfires and in the USA after Katrina. It gives rise to interesting discourse and I will write more about it when the looming menace of Yasi has passed and the politics begins.
Meanwhile, we wait. In the time it has taken me to write this piece Yasi has taken out the weather tracking station on Willis Island, so it is less clear what the storm is doing. The next 24 hours are crucial and I hope when I sit down tomorrow to write, that the north Queensland coastal towns and cities currently staring down this storm are still with us. What we can be sure of, regardless, is that somewhere behind Yasi there is a Category 5 political storm brewing.
The Bureau of Meterology satellite images of cyclone Yasi (left) and Tracy (right) show the size comparison. This is one very scary storm.