Club Marine’s Event Response Team was confronted with the human face of the disaster that was Cyclone Yasi.
By Jeff Megahan
One of the largest cyclones in Australia’s history, Cyclone Yasi originated in late January as a tropical low off the Fijian Islands and slowly gained in intensity as it moved across the Pacific towards Australia.
By February 1, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology upgraded its classification of Yasi to a Category 3 cyclone. One day later, it strengthened to a Category 4. Then, on Wednesday, February 2, just a day away from the northern Queensland coast, it intensified yet again to a Category 5 system.
For boat owners moored in the path of the advancing storm, it was, to put it mildly, a worry. Given the size of Cyclone Yasi – the main front was 500km wide, and its associated danger zone stretched for over 2000km – jumping in the boat and outrunning it was impossible. Across Queensland, boat owners made what storm preparations they could: they doubled their storm lines, they prayed and they checked their insurance policies.
At the Club Marine head office in Melbourne, preparations for the storm were also taking place. After more than 40 years in the business of providing pleasure boat insurance in Australia and New Zealand, Club Marine has dealt with a fair measure of tragedies and natural disasters. Terrible as they were, especially for affected Club Marine members, these experiences have helped Club Marine to develop a series of procedures that allows it to quickly marshal its national resources to effectively respond in times of peril.
As Cyclone Yasi bore down on the Queensland coast, Club Marine initiated an ‘Event Response Plan’, which brought together Club Marine CEO Greg Fisher, National Claims Manager Phil Johnson and Queensland State Manager Brett Edmonds.
“We knew from the size of the cyclone that there was going to be some significant damage,” says Fisher. “So our first objective was to coordinate an appropriate response and gain control of the situation as soon as possible.”
Additional staff members were brought in to accommodate the anticipated extra volume of calls, while Queensland’s most qualified salvage teams, crane operators and civil marine divers were put on standby. The Club Marine Event Response Team was now primed and ready to go. But at this point, no one knew exactly where the cyclone would hit.
At 1:00am, February 3, Cyclone Yasi crossed the Queensland coast at Mission Beach, bringing 200mm of rain with it. According to early news reports, hardest hit were the coastal villages of Tully, Innisfail and Cardwell, which were battered by wind speeds that reached over 290km/h.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, local residents described Tully as a scene of mass devastation, with homes and roads inundated and the local trees and plants stripped raw by the cyclone’s intense winds. Innisfail was compared to a war scene – “just like the place had been sprayed with napalm”, said one local resident. In Cardwell, the streets were strewn with the debris of smashed homes, cars and trees.
Miraculously, the path of Cyclone Yasi threaded a needle between the highly-populated coastal cities of Cairns and Townsville. Damage, as bad as it was, was much less than initially anticipated. And there were, thankfully, no reported fatalities. Back at the Club Marine head office in Melbourne, members of the Event Response Team collectively heaved a sigh of relief (prematurely, as it turned out).
“We thought we had dodged a bullet,” says Johnson. “Then we saw the photos of Port Hinchinbrook.”
Located just south of Cardwell, the marina at Port Hinchinbrook was a catastrophic scene of utter ruin. Cyclonic winds combined with a 4m storm surge to drive a multi-million-dollar fleet of yachts and cruisers from their moorings and toss them on top of one another like a pile of discarded toys.
The photos, which became the iconic depiction of the fury of Cyclone Yasi, revealed the location of the storm’s Ground Zero. “Suddenly, we knew exactly where to mobilise,” said Johnson.
CRANES AND CLAIMS
The roads into Port Hinchinbrook were opened on Sunday, February 6, allowing Johnson and John Webster, a Queensland-based marine assessor with over 30 years experience, to drive into the disaster zone. They were met by a crew of crane operators and a team of civil marine divers, on hand to help assess the situation.
Already, Club Marine had received 30 claims from members with boats in Port Hinchinbrook. But because the storm knocked out electricity and phone coverage in the area, Johnson correctly suspected there were many more claims that didn’t get through. “We realised it was bad,” he said. “But we needed to be on the ground to get the full picture.”
With Club Marine’s years of dealing with major disasters, Johnson and the team were able to use their experience to allocate resources and begin to get an idea of the scope of the work in front of them. Equally important, they were able to contact affected members on the ground, where their help was needed most.
As Club Marine CEO, Greg Fisher explains: “Once Club Marine is in the area, with the details and the registrations of the boats, the emphasis is on contacting the affected boat owners and saying, ‘We’re here. We’re ready to look at your boat. If you want to come down and do the assessment and file the claim, let’s get started’.”
When Johnson and Webster arrived at Port Hinchinbrook, they were shocked by the scene that confronted them. “It was the biggest thing I’ve ever seen in my 30 years with Club Marine,” says Johnson. Boats were everywhere – leaning on family homes, in swimming pools, submerged in the water – piles of boats groaned under their own weight, balancing precariously on top of one another. It didn’t take long for the team to decide that they would have to bring in the heavy equipment to get the job done.
As Johnson and his team were surveying the ruins of Port Hinchinbrook, Club Marine Queensland State Manager, Brett Edmonds was arriving in Cairns to begin his tour of affected coastal towns to make contact with Club Marine members impacted by the storm.
Edmonds’s travels took him from Cairns to Townsville and back. With the help of marine assessors David Dring and David Holmes, assessments and claims were made for 45 boats in the two-week period following the cyclone.
Although the team travelled through areas that had sustained massive damage, many of the boats they looked at had escaped major harm. “It was mostly damaged biminis or boats that had bumped into marinas,” Edmonds reports. “But to the boat owners, this was still a difficult time. So it was important for us to be there and get their claims filed quickly.”
On Monday, February 7, the cranes started to arrive in Port Hinchinbrook. The fleet include a 250-tonne crawler crane, a pair of 220-tonne cranes, an 80-tonne hydraulic crane, another pair of 30-tonne trailer cranes and an 80-tonne barge crane out on the water. Marine assessor John Messenger arrived later the same day.
As Greg Fisher points out: “It’s times like these that the benefits of Club Marine’s long history in pleasure marine insurance are obvious. Club Marine knows the experienced assessors and qualified salvage companies.
“We know who, when and where to contact the best people for the job,” says Fisher.
Club Marine’s salvage and assessment operations were fully underway days before electricity or power were restored in the area – and days before even the disaster response team arrived. Through it all, Johnson, equipped with a satellite phone and a laptop computer powered by a portable generator, met with Club Marine members and helped them complete their claims.
“I was settling claims, getting releases signed, and just helping people as their smashed boats were being pulled out of the rubble,” says Johnson. “I was able to handle the claims on the spot, and get the money into the Club Marine members’ accounts straight away.”
Bob and Colleen Ford were the first Club Marine members Johnson met. The couple’s liveaboard catamaran was found lying upside down and smashed, a few hundred metres from where they moored it. The loss of the cat had left the couple homeless, and because the disaster relief centre wasn’t yet set up, they had been sleeping in their car since the storm hit.
The catamaran was deemed a total loss, and Johnson was able to reimburse the couple for the total value of the boat at 7:30am on the Monday morning after the disaster.
“Simply stunning,” was Bob Ford’s assessment of Club Marine’s response. “At a time when you’re wondering about sorting out accommodation and everything else, Club Marine and (broker) OAMPS really came through for us,” he says.
There were 56 damaged boats owned by Club Marine members in Port Hinchinbrook. To deal with the boats quickly and efficiently, a ‘marine triage’ system was established. Marine assessors John Messenger and Darren Williams went from boat to boat, doing physical checks, itemising the damage and determining which boats could be repaired and which were complete write-offs.
Proper assessments hinged on access to the damaged boats, which is where the cranes came in. Excavating a boat with a crane is a precise undertaking that can take hours, and each excavation presents its own unique challenges.
When first confronted with a pile of boats, the likely initial response is, ‘Just dig in there and rip them out’. But it’s only after seeing how delicate the extraction process actually is that observers can understand the time involved, and the importance of having experienced excavators on the job.
Because Club Marine was the first marine insurer on the ground, it was obliged to establish the system that determined the order in which the boats were excavated. Understandably, the boats owned by Club Marine members had first priority, but in the process, crane operators employed by Club Marine removed more than 20 boats insured by other companies, a service greatly appreciated by the other marine surveyors on the ground.
Salvage operations continued for two weeks. On February 21, after recovering every affected Club Marine member boat, Club Marine drew its recovery efforts to a close to shift its focus on expediting claims. Many of the damaged boats were pulled out to a boat yard, provided with temporary patches, put back into the water and driven to other repair yards in Cairns or Townsville. Thirteen boats were completely destroyed and unrepairable. Most amazing of all, a small number of boats escaped with minor damage – they simply rose with the tide, broke from their moorings and floated inland. When the water receded, they gently settled on the ground, as if they were placed there.
With so many natural disasters affecting people on both sides of the Tasman, Yasi has already moved from the front pages to the footnotes. But for those affected by the storm, their memories will linger for years to come.
As we go to press, Club Marine is processing 126 claims associated with Cyclone Yasi, 62 of which were from boats in Port Hinchinbrook, with the rest from affected areas up and down the Queensland coast. Although the total cost of the storm is still unknown, early estimates are that Club Marine will pay out close to $7m to its members.
Phil Johnson has returned to his office, and is looking over the newspaper accounts of the cyclone that have piled up in his absence. As he pores over the photos of Port Hinchinbrook, he points to each boat and tells a story. “This one here sank,” he says. “This one was crushed, this one was pulled out by a few locals.
“You get to know the people. You get to know their boats by name.”
Finally, Johnson says that, although the recovery from Cyclone Yasi has only just begun, he has no doubt that Queensland will pull through it. “There’s a really strong boating community in Queensland,” he says. “I know a bunch of people have already bought new boats.”