Looking back on: Cyclone Yasi

Joe Vella: When word of how powerful the cyclone would be came through, caution became the state of play.

We swung into action to get the office prepared – making sure we had sandbags ready, moving all our records and computers up high and making sure everything was the way it should be.

The general brokers’ phones were running red-hot, with customers calling to find out what they were covered for, along with whether they can increase, amend or change their cover.

There had previously been a bit of complacency. Then, we just had to wait to see what happened.

Into the storm

I saw out Yasi at home and it was such violent storm. It was dark when it hit and it is daunting, because you can’t see what is happening. Your power is out and you really don’t want to be near a window.

Our property copped a battering from the wind. The wind gusts were horrific. It sounded like a sledgehammer hitting the building.

The wind was so violent the windows were flexing and it was pushing mist through the house. We could see trees being bent 45 degrees.

The aftermath

Once the storm passed there was an eerie calm. I drove out to Tully and then Cardwell; it looked like an atomic bomb had hit. I saw forests that had been totally stripped. All you saw were sticks.

What impacted me the most was seeing a client in Mission Beach. They were nestled in amongst the rainforest and their house – it was $2.5 million home – had been totally destroyed.

It was cyclone rated but was on a cliff face and the eye of the storm passed right over it. It was flattened. I remember cassowaries coming to their home looking for food, because the rainforest had been totally stripped. That was the most unsettling time.

It sounded like a sledgehammer hitting the building.

Once the cyclone had crossed, more damage was done by weeks of constant rain, in immense volumes.

It caused more pain and angst than anything else.

Businesses struggled because North Queensland relies on tourism, so nothing could be done with the rain.

People had to reschedule flights and vacations.

That hurts businesses and is not covered under insurance policies.

Getting to work

I think we were the only brokerage in the Cairns district that had a generator. Three minutes after the power was disconnected, we had power back.

We had most of our team taking phone calls and as always we invited assessors to use our offices.

The team stayed positive. We put our fears behind and used our experience to cope with the volume of claims.

One of the challenges was we were getting assessors who weren’t acquainted with the North Queensland building codes, particularly the assessors from overseas.

But what made things really difficult is that we were right in the midst of the global financial crisis.

Some of the businesses had just been hanging on for two or three years when the cyclone hit.

They were already hurting financially and didn’t need this.

You become a counsellor and a lot of them wanted us to become bankers as well and get it fixed now.

We really copped a tough time trying to appease people and get them back on their feet quickly.

We were seen as their saviour or last resort to survival. It was an emotionally draining time.

Yasi’s legacy

The cyclone changed our work practices.

We now have offices out in Tablelands where we are able to work remotely, should anything disastrous happen.

Before Yasi hit, they were talking about three-metre storm surges, which would have taken out our generator.

We now have stands in order to raise the height of the generators.

We also make sure we educate our staff who have not experienced cyclones before.

I would imagine for all North Queensland brokers, Yasi was particularly draining.

 Joe Vella is the Managing Director of Joe Vella Insurance Brokers and will be speaking at NIBA14 about catastophes and claims.