Monday, February 10, 2014

Special Collections Fossickings 31: Communications of disaster

When you heard news of the season’s first cyclone did you feel alert and prepared or had complacency set in over the long, dry, calm-weather months? Do you even remember how, twelve months ago, floods from ex-cyclone Oswald took out two fibre-optic cables severing internet, mobile and landline communications in the north? Did you feel isolated, frustrated or anxious when it was revealed that even the emergency triple zero number might not work? How great was your relief when you could once again email, call or text your friends?
Wreck of the “Presto” (on Magnetic Island) which was sunk  during the cyclone Sigma, dated 1920, E. R. Hayles Album, NQ Photographic Collection, ID 4064.
Imagine the situation 117 years ago when Cyclone Sigma struck Townsville, causing widespread damage, flooding and 18 deaths, including 5 children. The year was 1896, and the date 26 January – was  coincidentally the same as the one on which our own communications blackout occurred.  With whole suburbs under water and streets transformed into rivers, all but one of these deaths resulted from drowning in the days after the cyclone had passed. The storm wreaked havoc on ships in the harbor and on the Bay and local newspapers reported the courage and skill of harbour pilot, Captain Colbert, who rescued the stricken vessel Diamantina, at risk to his own ship, bringing both to safety.
Townsville Harbour pilot, Capt Colbert, who rescued one of the stricken ships, 1890s, Mays Album, NQ Photographic Collection, ID 19485.
Communication was just one of the casualties with telegraph poles flattened and cables tangled and twisted. It took the hapless workers three days to repair a major break across the Ross which at least restored communication between the city and Oonoonba, with its important meatworks, then less than four years old. Re-establishing contact with the rest of the state took five days, involving repair of the lines progressively westwards to Charters Towers. From here contact could be made with Brisbane via the Muttaburra telegraph station in central Queensland.
Ross River in flood near meatworks, dated 1927, Townsville Albums, NQ Photographic Collection, ID 4345.
It was another week before a direct telecommunication link was restored between Townsville and Brisbane. The only other form of communication, ordinary mail, was carried by steamer up the coast and it would be nearly 30 years before completion of the northern railway line meant mail could be carried by train. Perhaps the lesson to take from Sigma and Oswald is that, while essential human communications may always be threatened by natural forces, they can also be restored by human ingenuity and effort.

A brief account of the impact of Sigma is included in “The Townsville Story” (1951) but the most detailed, contemporary account is the one compiled by J.W. Fawcett. He carefully documented the major damage to ships, homes, churches and businesses throughout the city, and praised the compassion and support its residents showed to each other.

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