Newspaper stand reads Batten Down The Hatches

Storm Debbie: Just How Bad Was The Australian Hurricane?

At 12.15 p.m. on March 28, Storm Debbie made landfall in the northeastern corner of Australia at Airlie Beach. The hurricane, or cyclone to use the local term, has since been rated as a category four. But what does this really mean, and how does this storm rate in the history of natural disasters?

“This beautiful seaside town is half-wrecked, but we will rebuild” stated Andrew Wilcox, the mayor of Airlie Beach, according to 9 News.

Arriving at the holiday destination of the Whitsunday Islands, Storm Debbie has continued inland, reaching towns like Collinsville which have never experienced a storm of her force. With sustained winds of 185 km/h, heavy rainfall of up to 250 mm, and tidal surges leading to 8 m waves, Australia remains braced as this storm continues on her destructive path.

A man carries a sandbag towards the front of a building
Townsville residents preparing for the storm this weekend [Image by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images]

While this storm has clearly been very powerful, leaving in its wake uprooted trees, discarded roofs, and a significant amount of other damage to property, it has, at the time of writing, only claimed one life. That was a tourist who died on the road near Proserpine, a death State Police Commissioner Ian Stewart described as being “associated with this weather event.”

As for the insurance assessment on the damage, the Insurance Council of Australia has declared the storm a “catastrophe.” Insurance companies will now be braced for thousands of claims from residents living along Storm Debbie’s path.

In terms of similar storms to hit this coastline in recent memory, Queensland Premier Anastasia Palaszczuk has suggested that Storm Debbie will outstrip recent category five storm Storm Marcia.

Marcia struck on February 15, 2015, with sustained wind speeds of up to 205 km/h recorded. It created $590.5 million (USD) of damage but thankfully no one was killed. There are two reasons why the premier may be suggesting Storm Debbie is worse.

Firstly, Storm Marcia made landfall in the remote area of Yeppoon. By the time it reached the populated city of Rockhampton, it had dropped to a category two storm. While still severe, this storm only gave winds of 113 km/h to areas of significant population. In contrast, Storm Debbie made land over a populated area, though thankfully heading between the two more densely populated towns of Townsville and Mackay.

Secondly, the arrival of Storm Marcia coincided with a low tide, so the storm surge did not have a major flooding impact. In comparison, the town of Mackay, south of Airlie Beach, saw waves of up 8 meters and had sea foam reach the town center.

Two boats are stranded on land after being blown there by a hurricane
The devastation caused by Storm Yasi [Image by Jonathan Woods/Getty Images]

A fairer comparison for Storm Debbie may be to Storm Yasi, which hit Australia in 2011. This storm caused more than $3.65 billion (USD) of damage, hitting the coastline north of Townsville and bringing up to 471 mm of rain in 24 hours. Its wind speeds exceeded those experienced in Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst storms in U.S. history.

It should be noted that we are currently in storm season in the Southern Hemisphere, so residents in these areas are used to receiving these kinds of weather systems. And even though all the attention is on the north-east coast right now, there are other enormous systems near Australia, such as this one, seen just off the south-west coast a couple of days ago.

So where could Storm Debbie rank in the list of all-time worst storms?

Australia’s “worst natural disaster” took place on March 5, 1899. Cyclone Mahina killed an estimated 410 people when the category five storm swept into a remote part of north-east Queensland. Many of the victims were pearlers who got trapped on their boats in a bay as the storm hit. Around 100 other victims were local aborigines who tried in vain to save people from the violent waves.

The most costly storm was the 1999 storm that hit Sydney, NSW. This storm, which had been predicted to be “only a brief one“. What followed was significant flooding and tennis ball-size hailstones. The bill was $1.7 billion (AUD), which would be $4.29 billion (AUD) in today’s money.

For UK readers, this misjudgement by a weatherman may well bring back memories of Michael Fish’s infamous misjudgement of what became the UK’s Great Storm, which left 18 people dead.

Compare these Australian storms to the world’s worst storms and Storm Debbie is placed in some perspective.

The U.S. has seen some of the world’s most damaging storms. The deadliest storm to hit the U.S. came in 1900, when a hurricane hit Galveston, Texas, before heading off into the Great Plains. That huge hurricane left somewhere between 8,000-12,000 people dead.

In 2005, Hurricane Wilma swept into the south of the U.S. with wind speeds of up to 296 km/h. In its wake was in excess of $29 billion (USD) of damage.

A family looks at the rubble of their house and an upturned white car
Residents assess the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 [Image by Ethan Miller/Getty Images]

Yet the costliest of them all was Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 storm that devastated Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. While the storm itself was only a category three storm, it left over $100 billion (USD) of damages as massive flooding followed the storm.

How Storm Debbie rates in this list of storms will be revealed in the days to come.

[Featured Image by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images]

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