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Cyclones in Port Douglas

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In the 15+ years I’ve been living in Port Douglas (intermittently), I’ve never seen a big cyclone. With Cyclone Jasper heading our way in December 2023, in a few days, I thought I’d share what it’s like living with tropical storms and cyclones in tropical north Queensland. Extreme weather events are an interesting aspect of living in the tropics.

At the end of this post there are updates for during, and after, tropical storm/cyclone Jasper.

Port Douglas Beach
Port Douglas Beach (Four Mile Beach) in summer. A stormy February day. Summer storms and wet weather always leave debris on the beach.

Nobody ever knows exactly where a cyclone will hit. The predictions are that this one will make landfall anywhere between Mackay (south of us) and Cooktown (to the north). That leaves Port Douglas, Cairns, Palm Cove, Townsville, and quite a lot of places on cyclone alert.

Cooktown Endeavour River
Cooktown sits on the Endeavour River (Named after Cook and his ship, The Endeavour, he fixed it here), just north of the Daintree Rainforest. It’s a really cool town.

But of course, cyclones change direction, they fizzle out, and they intensify.

We’ve been watching this one developing over at the Solomon Islands for a few days now. To track cyclones the BOM website (Bureau of Meteorology) is usually the go-to. Go to BOM.gov.au/cyclone. I can’t give you the link as it’s not a secure site. The US Navy site, has a very different track for this cyclone at the moment (https://www.metoc.navy.mil/jtwc/products/sh0324.gif) and they tend to be the most accurate from what we’ve seen. Windy.com is also a good site for tracking cyclones.

Port Douglas marina empty cyclone
Port Douglas Marina almost empty, the day before the last cyclone was due to arrive. It didn’t. The weather must cost local businesses a fortune.
Boats in Port Douglas marina
Port Douglas Marina on a normal day.

If we, or you, want to see how the beach is looking, we go to the Port Douglas beach-cam. It will be interesting to keep an eye on how things are down there, it’s windy now.

The beach is usually closed in bad weather because the stinger net won’t work in rough seas. Take a look here (opens in a new tab). But you can normally swim year-round, in summer you have to use the stinger net.

The Wet Season in Tropical North Queensland

It doesn’t rain all day, every day in the wet season in Queensland, but we do brace ourselves for a lot of rain, humidity, mosquitos, and the possibility of tropical storms and cyclones.

Cyclone season in Australia
Cyclone Season in Australia – experiences, preparations, and tracking. The waiting is the worst!

Not being aware of mosquitos (and crocodiles) is part of our post on mistakes not to make in holidaying here.

We quite often see intense thunderstorms in the afternoons after sunny mornings, but if a cyclone is in the area we can see days of rain. We can get in the region of 20 inches of rain in a day around here.

The record for Queensland is 35.5 inches of rain in a day, in the Sunshine Coast Region.

Tully, wettest place in Queensland.
Tully holds the “Golden Gumboot” for the wettest place in Queensland.

Surprisingly not in Tully, the wettest place in Queensland.

Cyclone vs Hurricane

cyclone flooding
Flooding caused by Cyclone Jasper (later Tropical Storm Jasper) in Julatten, near Port Douglas.

Yes, a cyclone and a hurricane and a typhoon are basically the same thing. In the Southern Hemisphere, a hurricane is a cyclone. The numbering system is slightly different though. I believe a Category 5 cyclone is a Category 4 hurricane, but check that for yourself, I’m no meteorologist.

Both numbering systems go from 1 to 5, with 5 being the most severe.

They’re severe tropical storms that bring high winds and a lot of rain, and they have an eye.

If you want to read more about the worst cyclones to ever hit Australia, this is a good source.

When a cyclone makes landfall and starts to lose force, it often becomes a Tropical Storm. In the case of Jasper it was the Tropical Storm phase, which laster several days, that brought us the most rain and flooding. We had around 2.5m of rain during Jasper.

When Do We Get Cyclones in Port Douglas?

Broadly, we can have cyclones in Port Douglas in summer, which starts on December 1st in Australia, through to the end of February, but cyclones and tropical storms can happen way past this date, into Autumn. November to April is often quoted as cyclone season for Queensland Australia.

To be expecting a cyclone to make landfall in early December is fairly unusual, although the last cyclone I experienced, a Category 1, also arrived in December, that was 2019, Cyclone Owen.

Cyclone Owen blew down a few trees and took out our garden fence in Port Douglas. We were on a plane from Bali that morning, it was a bumpy ride.

Cyclone damage Port Douglas
Cyclone damage in Port Douglas after cyclone Owen, a category 1. There’s always a lot of debris after storms. This was the day we came back to Port Douglas for the first time after travelling. We didn’t stay long.

Cyclone Yasi in February 2011 was a Category 5, (severe tropical cyclone) we were expecting Yasi in Port Douglas. I got on a plane and went to Sydney with the kids to avoid it. Yasi was huge. I remember being intensely worried about the kids being terrified if we stayed through Yasi, so we got them out of town.

I’d been reading stories from Cyclone Tracy (category 4 on Christmas morning) in Darwin. I didn’t want the kids going through that.

Cyclone Tracy Museum Darwin
Part of the Cyclone Tracy exhibit in the museum in Darwin.

We’ve now seen the Cyclone Tracy exhibits at the museum in Darwin. If you can get there it’s well worth a look. See our post about The Northern Territory for that. Winds got up to 250 Km /hr in Tracy.

The Cardwell sea front this year. Cardwell is about 270 Km south of Port Douglas (a 3 hr drive) and was hit hard by the monster cyclone, Yasi. Yasi was a category 5 and over 1000 km wide.

In the end, Yasi went further south and smashed into Cardwell, just north of Mission Beach, causing devastation. Cardwell is our usual lunch stop if we’re driving south to Townsville, about a 6 or 7 hour drive.

Waiting for a Cyclone To Arrive

Once we are on cyclone alert the Port Douglas Marina empties. Chef is going soon to help move boats. Most of them go up The Inlet (a creek) and are moored up there in a safer spot.

Those of us who don’t own or work on boats start to think about cyclone kits, power outages, flooding, and emergency supplies. A lot of people stock up at the bottle shops.

For us, cyclone preparation means making sure we have fuel for the generator and car, food in the cupboards, phones charged, first aid gear available, and so on.

If a severe cyclone is on the way we start thinking about taping windows and finding a safe spot away from any glass that could break. We always had a walk-in wardrobe as our safe spot in Port Douglas.

Our followers will know that we no longer live in Port Douglas, we moved to the hinterlands (the Tablelands) and we’re now on a 5-acre farm property. We don’t have a room with no windows on the farm, but I don’t think Jasper is going to be a big one, so I’m not too worried. (Famous last words)

Our power will go down. Our power always goes down in any storm, and it takes a long time to be fixed. We’re well used to power cuts here in Julatten. When the power goes down we may need cash rather than card for anything we need, but I’m prepared to bet the road will be closed in either direction by flooding or fallen trees, so we’ll be stuck.

In tropical summer heat having no power for the aircon truly sucks. We do have solar, but no batteries, so we can’t just switch to solar, we have to use the generator.

We have a lot of animals. Our personal zoo is home to a horse, cats, a dog, chickens, geese, sheep, goats, turkeys, guinea fowl, and far too many guinea pigs. Obviously, we have to make sure they are safe from any flying debris and don’t get too stressed. Most of them will be locked up in sheds over the weekend for their own safety.

I’m a gardener, my vegetable garden is going to take a battering, but there’s nothing much I can do about that.

We have trees laden with citrus, coconuts, passion fruit, and bananas. I’m expecting those to take a beating. We’re working towards self-sufficiency and regenerative hobby farming. It’s fun, and it’s a great lifestyle. But not as much fun as travelling full-time, as we used to. I still miss it.

Cyclone Larry (2006, Category 4) stuck near Innisfail and wiped out banana crops. I remember how expensive bananas were. The “worst cyclone in history” hit Port Douglas in March 1911, there are photos here. In 1920 a huge cyclone again demolished the flimsy buildings in Port Douglas and Mossman.

Buildings are a lot stronger now (we hope). So cyclones aren’t common, but they happen.

Some people pack up their families and move into hotels on higher ground when a cyclone is due. My husband spent Cyclone Yasi at Sea Temple, a big resort hotel here. Parts of Cairns were evacuated for Yasi.

There is a community cyclone shelter in Port Douglas, at the school, but I don’t know if it’s ever been used.

Most of Port Douglas is barely above sea level and we do get flooding sometimes in residential areas. Storm surge in the event of a big cyclone is something that I hope to never see.

That’s one of the reasons we moved up the mountain to higher ground.

Visiting The Great Barrier Reef During The Wet Season

The reef fleet continues to take snorkellers out to the Great Barrier Reef right through the wet season. It can be a very good time to see the reef. Some days will be super flat with excellent visibility, but there’s also the chance of storms which will stop the reef boats running.

We’ve got a post on the best time to visit Port Douglas or Cairns.

The summer months bring warmer sees and marine stingers (deadly jellyfish). Stinger season runs from November to May, or thereabouts. During this time we can still swim at the beach or on the reef, we just need to wear lycra stinger suits.

So, that’s about it. This is what happens every wet season, cyclones develop, but mostly they don’t hit. If Jasper hits us here, I’ll be out with my camera taking photos. If not, I’ll be glad. I’ll let you know how it goes. One thing that is always a positive is that a good storm cools the water on the reef. Nobody wants coral bleaching, we’ve also seen some bushfires around here, a decent soaking could be good, but we’ll just see how it goes.

Saturday December 10 2023 Update: The cyclone was going to hit us directly, then it wasn’t, then it was again. It’s really tense and frustrating not knowing if you should take action, or not. We’ve lost 2 days to preparations already but there is still a load more to do IF it happens. At this point, people are saying it will hit the Daintree, the Windy.com website has it hitting south of Cairns, Cardwell again, probably on Wednesday, but things change. They’re saying strong wind gusts here from Tuesday afternoon. A lot of long-time locals are saying nothing will happen at all. No interesting weather today, no rain, just hot. Life as usual, just with added extra stress and uncertainty. I’m doing my best to try not to think about it and not check the BOM website 10 million times per day. Predictions change so much and so often that it’s hard not to. I dare not look at the news channels, they’re wall-to-wall clickbait and horror predictions, as always.

Sunday December 11 2023 Update: Still sunny, but maybe a little bit breezy mid-afternoon. We did our panic shop at the supermarket, along with everyone else. They’d sold out of baked beans. They closed the beaches along the coast. Latest predictions are for spicy winds starting early Tuesday.

Tuesday December 12 2023 Update: Cyclone Jasper’s path is still changing constantly, it goes a bit south, a direct hit, a bit north. Nothing is happening here (at noon) other than a bit of drizzle and some light gusty wind. The sheep are locked away, most of our animals are locked up. The generator is good to go, we’re watching a movie, waiting for things to happen. Port Douglas Marina is closed, red alert, Cairns Hospital has cancelled elective surgery and there has been some talk of evacuations on the coast. Our neighbour told us the power went off for 5 days here after the last cyclone.

Wednesday December 13th 2023 Update: It started raining about 9am. We saw photos of storm surge flooding in Port Douglas on Helmet Street about 10am. The King Tide was at about 9am. The power just went off in Mossman according to our friend there. We’re expecting to lose power soon. The maps currently show Cyclone Jasper hitting Wonga Beach, Wujal Wujal, between Port Douglas and Cooktown. We’ve been getting notifications to seek shelter since last night. The Julatten Pub is planning to stay open today, at this point, but the Rex Range Rd is closed.

Friday, December 22nd 2023 Update: That was a wild ride! We went 8 days with no power, there was flooding, the roads were closed, there was no food in the shops, and more. Throughout the days of rain the community spirit and support was fantastic, everyone pulled together to help their neighbours. This morning things are almost back to normal. There is food in the supermarkets again, and our power is back on, our wifi came back on yesterday. Some people are still without power, we think. Port Douglas has no water, but hopefully that will be fixed soon. The boats are going to the reef again, others are ferrying people up and down the coast. To drive from Cairns to Port Douglas, use the range roads. I’ll publish a full update post with more photos soon!

Saturday, December 23rd 2023 Update: The water is coming back on in Port Douglas!

January 2024 in Port Douglas: Port Douglas is much quieter than normal. The road from Cairns to Port Douglas is now open. The road/ferry to the Daintree Rainforest is closed. Most people have their water and power back on. Reef boats are running and there is a ferry service taking visitors between Cairns and Port Douglas. Things are back to normal for us other than the much longer journey to Cairns by road, via Mareeba or Atherton. Any questions? Ask in the comments.

January 22 nd 2024 I just published some tips on cyclone preparation as we now have Cyclone Kirrily heading for the QLD coast, around Townsville, Bowen and Innisfail. Read about the cyclone prep mistakes we made. It’s not looking likely that Port Douglas will be affected by Tropical Cyclone Kirrily at this point, but – the water is off again in Port Douglas.

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