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The 1918 Cyclone

In January 1918, Mackay experienced the worst natural disaster in its history when struck by a violent cyclone.

Typical of the damage done by the 1918 Mackay Cyclone.  The remains of the Cremorne Hotel.
(Mackay Historical Society Archive No. 03-8989b)

 

The first warning reached Mackay on the afternoon of Sunday, 20th January.  Further messages during the night stated the cyclone was approaching and heavy rain might be expected.

When daylight broke on Monday, residents witnessed unbelievable damage that had been inflicted on the town during a night of terror.  The barograph at the Post Office had registered 27.90 degrees, and the wind velocity was estimated at 120 mph. (194 km/hr). damage spread over a wide area, right through the Pioneer Valley.  Trees were uprooted, buildings unroofed or collapsed entirely, with storm water and a tidal wave adding to the destruction.

The number of fatalities was recorded as 22 with hundreds of injuries.

About 8 o'clock on Monday morning the wind changed direction as the eye of the storm passed over the town.  The south-east gale had partially or wholly destroyed many buildings.  When the wind shifted to the north, it completed the work of destruction.  A lull occurred late in the afternoon, but during the night heavy rain began which continued until Thursday.  In 83 hours, 55.56 inches (1389 mm) had fallen.

While the cyclone was at its height, a tidal wave swept the town.  A wall of water 25 feet high submerged the town as far as Nebo Road.  Wharves and stores along River Street were inundated and their contents washed into the street.  Sugar stores were saturated or washed away.

The "Brinawarr" and a barge tied up at the Adelaide Steamship Co. Wharf were carried off by the wind and tide with Captain Hine, his son and the cook on board.  The "Brinawarr" struck the Sydney Street bridge and was so badly damaged, she sank.  The three men managed to scramble on to the bridge.  The barge and the tender "Tay" stayed until the bridge gave way, then drifted up near the Cremorne.  Other small vessels suffered almost total destruction.

One local vessel, "Eleanor", built and owned by Mr. H.C. Rose, was not damaged and was found in Brisbane Street opposite the Police Station.  It was used in rescue work after the cyclone.  Then helped to ferry people across the river while the Sydney Street bridge was repaired.  The "Eleanor" is now being preserved by the Mackay Historical Society at the Mackay Museum.

Most of the buildings in River Street were damaged, the worst being the hotels.  Shepherd's Anvil Stores, Hossacks, Ungerer's blacksmith shop.  Practically all of the town's hotels were severely damaged as were the District Hospital, the Lister Private hospital and Mrs Gibb's Nursing Home, as well as scores of homes.

Hundreds were left homeless and accommodation was found for them in the Ambulance Station, Technical college, Town Hall, Red Cross rooms, School of Arts, Fire Station, Drill Shed and catholic club as well as larger private homes, and undamaged railway carriages.

Probably the worst aspect of the cyclone was the fact that the terrible plight of the town was unknown to the outside world for three days because of the breakdown of communications.

The flat Top lighthouse was badly damaged and the keeper, George Randall and his family almost lost their lives.  With the light damaged he was unable to signal the "Bingera", the first vessel on the scene, and the heavy rain prevented a semaphore message being sent, and the ship moved off, believing all on the island were dead.

On the 23rd of January, the "Arawatta" anchored off Flat Top and a message semaphored to send a boat.  She decided to wait till morning in case there was a message from Mackay, which proved to be the right decision.  Soon after dark a flashlight SOS was received from the town.  The message was relayed to the "Arawatta" who sent a wireless call for help to Brisbane.

The SOS message was sent from Mackay by 17 year old Jack Vidulich who had learned to signal when his father was in charge of the light station at the mouth of the river.  He signalled the news of the town's devastation from the roof of the Grand Hotel, then on the corner of Victoria and Brisbane Streets.  The light was supplied by Dr. Kay whose surgery was on the adjacent corner, now the site of Dunkheld Gardens.

After three days help was forthcoming to the stricken town.


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Mackay Historical Society



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created 27 July 2004.
last updated 09 August, 2006 .
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