Cyclone memories

By David Kavanagh | posted on June 13, 2019

AN AUTHOR and historian who collated the stories of those affected by a devastating cyclone in the South West more than four decades ago will share his findings during a book tour in Albany and Denmark next week.

Roger Underwood spent two years interviewing more than a hundred people who were living in the region when tropical cyclone Alby swept through on April 4, 1978.

The freak weather event triggered flooding and hundreds of bushfires across the Great Southern and beyond and left a trail of fatalities and destruction in its wake.

One year after the 40th anniversary of the crisis, Mr Underwood spoke with the Weekender this week about his book Cyclone Alby: Memories of the 1978 Western Australian Storm and Bushfire Crisis and about what happened during those fateful days.

“The book has really two objectives,” he said.

“One was to record the personal stories of those involved and the second was to record history and try to see the parallels between what happened then and what might happen today.”

Mr Underwood was living in Manjimup and was the area’s Bushfire Controller when the first inklings of the coming disaster were felt.

He said in late March 1978, a low developed off the Pilbara coast, some 800 kilometres north northwest of Karratha before it moved south.

“When it reached not far north of Perth, it suddenly started interacting with a cold front and the resulting intermixture of the cyclone and the anticyclone produced gale force winds,” he recalled.

According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the tropical cyclone further built in intensity as it approached the South West and the Great Southern.

Mr Underwood said the extreme winds spurred on more than 500 fires in southern WA all on the same afternoon.

“You had a situation where almost the entire southern half of the state was being threatened by bushfires and storms and floods and at the same time there was no communications,” he said.

“They were paralysed because the power went out everywhere, there were no telephones and no radios and roads were blocked by fallen trees.

“Communities and farmers were all isolated and having to deal with the crisis by themselves.”

Mr Underwood spoke to a host of those who were tested by the “shocking conditions” of the crisis, from farmers and foresters to emergency service personnel and medical staff.

“Most rose to the occasion magnificently. The stories in the book demonstrate the tremendous courage and resilience of the people involved,” he said.

But the crisis was not without tragedy.

A total of five people were killed as the cyclone unfurled, including two Albany men who drowned when their dinghy overturned and a woman who died when she was struck by a falling tree in Kendenup.

The overall damage bill was estimated to have reached approximately $39 million at the time – 280 houses were burned, thousands of sheep and cattle were destroyed and the fires razed approximately 114,000 hectares of forest and farmland.

“The storm itself came and went in a period of about five or six hours, but it left behind a period of days, weeks and in some cases years of recovery work,” Mr Underwood said.

“It also left its psychological scars on many people. When I was doing the interviews I had people who rang me up and they just burst into sobbing tears because the memories were just so painful.”

Mr Underwood is an avid disaster historian and worked as a forester for around 35 years before retiring in the mid 1990s.

He said although the storm came as a surprise for many people since cyclones generally head inland, it was not unprecedented.

Two serious cyclones in 1937 and 1945 wreaked similar havoc.

“Most people had forgotten about those. There was a general feeling in 1978 as there probably is today that you don’t get tropical cyclones sweeping across the southwest,” Mr Underwood said.

“I think even today people don’t study history and often don’t learn from the past … it’s inevitable we will have another event like this sometime in the future.”

Mr Underwood will be giving his free talk at the Albany Public Library on June 21 and in Denmark on June 22.