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Cyclone Debbie – A Year on

flood insurance

Although usually over in hours, the havoc a cyclone wreaks on small businesses can only be truly understood in retrospect. Here’s a brief account of our experience.

Sunday 26th March

As TC Debbie weaves towards the Whitsunday coast, the Region’s disaster response committee orders a mandatory evacuation of certain areas, including our office, located on the usually idyllic beach front at Cannonvale, Whitsunday.

That order alone robs us of tomorrow, and almost 100 hours’ working time. The cyclone isn’t due for 36 hours.

Monday 27th March

Our team of 11 is reduced to the two owners with everything to lose, after we send home two senior staffers who appear to help despite the evacuation order. Waiting for us are the usual client meetings, deadlines, mentions, settlements, critical dates, urgent emails and calls. Conscious that power and internet connectivity will be gone for who knows how long, we set to work on:

  • re-routing and auto-responders for emails, main line and individual phone lines, web and social media updates;
  • off-site data backups;
  • some urgent, important and unavoidable work; and
  • dousing countless other transactional deadline flames,

until the now hourly meteorology updates of TC Debbie’s looming arrival can be ignored no longer.

It’s very confronting to disconnect every computer, server and auto fax/scanner/copier (without tech assist) and relocate them to the strong room, watching deadlines pass by the hour and hearing phones ring off the hook. We’re dismantling and unplugging our livelihood while it’s running white hot, hoping it will be there when we return. We take some keep sake photos.

Tuesday 29th March

TC Debbie arrives. All essential services are down.

Wednesday 29th March

We find our office intact, less some roof iron, flashing and essential services. Carpet and floor coverings are soaked, plasterboard and ceilings damaged from roof leaks and door seals which had yielded to 18 hours of torrential rain driven by 260kmh winds. We’re relieved though. Some homes and business premises don’t have rooves, or walls.

Thursday 30th March

Office has now been closed for 3 working days.

Family and friends meet to start the clean-up. It’s hot, dark, wet, hard work but we toil to a stand- still ripping out ruined fitout.

Mobile reception is patchy, and phones can only be charged in the car (or the home generator if you have one, and fuel to run it – no service stations have power). We fluke a call to the local waste management boss and get a skip bin delivered so we can load our ruined fitout. We fluke another to a seller of generators and are promised a couple to get the office going – arriving any day we’re told.

Of course we need an electrician to safely wire them. Electricians reach demigod status locally.

Friday 31st – Sunday 2nd April

Colleagues unaware of our plight are told via diverted mobiles, and express concern and understanding.

The perspiring continues as does the bonus weight loss. Buckets of sea water from the beach and then fresh water from a nearby swollen creek are carried to wash debris covered windows, mop and re-mop reception, and to slosh out detritus throughout the office.

We panic about re-opening, and after half daily updates the generators arrive Sunday. Our saintly electrician works hard to let there be light and power. Sunday is spent re-connecting things that should never have been disconnected and they all miraculously come to life when we throw the now safe electrical switches.

Relatively speaking things look great.

Some other good news – we’re apparently on the ‘emergency services’ NBN node and so our internet and phones are back online early. Nodes only have a few days’ battery power before shutting down. Noted.

Monday 3rd April

We open. The office is an industrial shed: concrete floors, missing plasterboard and no air conditioning. A dozen pedestal fans shunt damp air about the office. Front and back doors are jammed open. Still no power or water. Everyone’s tired. Workstations, servers, networks and phone service are powered down every four hours to allow for generator re-fuelling. The work environment’s tough and home is no sanctuary either.

Damage control – literally dozens of transactional deadlines have passed. Other clients’ urgent matters have slipped and some golden opportunities evaporated. Every matter has collateral damage we need to fix. People are glad we’re back online, but want action and are frankly tired of waiting. Who cares that we have a makeshift office and are down approximately 600 working hours. Empathy has gone with the wind and the 24 hour news cycle.

We divert our tightening funds to market re-opening, and our limited time to deal with brokers, insurers, builders and assessors.

Post script

We could regale with war stories but that’s not the point. In all, we were without mains power and safe, running water for about 10 days, and a regular postal service for about 2 weeks.

So what’s Plan B?

No-one escapes natural disasters unaffected, and if it’s not a cyclone it’ll be something else.  Assume your time will come.

  • Check connectivity and NBN especially if on VOIP phones;
  • get a generator and an electrician now;
  • take pics of damage for insurer but get moving on your own clean up – there’s no cavalry;
  • Set and re-set client expectations – lost hours don’t come back;
  • Check insurance – especially business interruption and fit out, ask your insurer to appoint a claims preparer;
  • Check lease – especially rental abatement;
  • Watch cash flow – a couple of weeks lost/delayed receipts will hurt;
  • Back up all data – assume you’ll lose everything in its current format;
  • Watch your team – everyone copes differently; and
  • Encourage resilience.

Cheers from the team at PD Law