Australia is more prepared for storms after a Dh110m donation from UAE

As Queenslanders braced for the monsoon season, a Dh110 million donation from Abu Dhabi meant they had new emergency infrastructure to protect them.

Queensland's Mission Beach on February 3, 2011, a day after it was hit by Cyclone Yasi, Australia's biggest storm in a century. It made landfall at around midnight, with winds up to 290kph, in a region still reeling from record floods.

Anyone who lives in Australia's cyclone belt is inured to the floods and gale-force winds that lash the region every summer. As the locals put it, that's just the price they pay for living in paradise.

But even by Australian standards, the summer two years ago was bad. First, storms inundated an area of Queensland equal in size to France and Germany combined.

Then a mammoth rainstorm hit the south, causing floods that killed dozens and flooded the state's capital, Brisbane.

And as the state reeled from that, cyclone forecasters announced that the biggest storm in a century was forming in the Pacific and was heading for the state.

By the time Cyclone Yasi was done, it had left a trail of destruction costing billions of dollars. Around the world, media coverage of the devastation shocked millions.

Among them was Reem Al Hashemi. But unlike most of those watching, as a Minister of State in Abu Dhabi, she had the ability to do something about it. She contacted the Queensland government and said the emirate of Abu Dhabi wanted to donate US$30m (Dh110m) to build cyclone shelters so Queenslanders would be safer when this happens again.

"What has struck me particularly is the strength and resilience of the Queensland people," she said when announcing the donation in May 2011.

"This commitment signifies Abu Dhabi's long-term conviction in the relationship between the emirate of Abu Dhabi and the state of Queensland."

The motivations of Abu Dhabi were in keeping with the UAE's national policy of helping communities in need. The UAE's $100m donation to the United States in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, was the single biggest foreign gift and 20 times the size of the grant from Britain or China. That trend has continued with substantial grants to Joplin, Ohio, after the 2011 tornado and to the New York area after Hurricane Sandy late last year.

But for some in Queensland, as in the United States, the pledge was a surprise, particularly for those who are used to any donation being intertwined with a political agenda.

That was especially so in Queensland, where cyclone shelters had a particularly murky political history. Shelters had been pledged for every large coastal community in central and northern Queensland in the aftermath of 2006's Cyclone Larry, the most powerful to hit the state in more than a century.

But when Cyclone Yasi formed five years later, quickly taking Cyclone Larry's title as the storm of the century, only one such shelter had been built on the east coast.

Add into that mix Queensland's Labor government, which was lagging behind in the polls and facing an election. It matched Abu Dhabi's donation dollar for dollar, expanding the programme to build 10 cyclone shelters.

But why, some asked, is a country with an annual foreign aid budget of $5.2bn accepting donations from foreign governments?

For those in central and northern Queensland, a common refrain is that their needs are routinely ignored due to a bias towards infrastructure projects in the populous south-east part of the country, where most of the states are located.

With the Abu Dhabi Investment Council recently signing a $1bn deal with an Australian property investment group and with a new strategic alliance between Qantas and Emirates Airline, it seemed impossible to some that Abu Dhabi's generosity could really be as simple as it was being presented.


At a beachside cafe north of Mackay, lattes are served under palm trees swaying in the warm onshore breeze. It's a scene straight out of a picture postcard and helps explain why people are drawn to live in this area despite the cyclone risks.

But the beachside location that makes it so appealing also makes it vulnerable to a storm surge, where a combination of high tide with the force of the cyclone can send water levels seven metres higher than the normal high-tide mark.

Storm surges are the Achilles heel of cyclone survivability. Stricter building codes since the 1970s mean most modern homes can survive all but the fiercest cyclones, but they can't protect against storm surges, leaving residents with no option but to evacuate. It's these people who will be seeking refuge in cyclone shelters. It's why the new high school being built in the low rolling hills a few kilometres behind the cafe was chosen as the site of one of the 10 cyclone shelters built using the Abu Dhabi donation.

One of the cafe's customers is Sandra Christensen, who moved from Norway six years ago and lives nearby with her Australian partner and their two children.

She says Abu Dhabi's donation, which she read about in a local newspaper, is "absolutely a good thing".

"I live a sheltered life as a stay-at-home mum but I'd be pretty certain the reaction in this area would be positive," she said. "It's definitely going to be needed. How could it be a bad thing?

"Surely there must be some business transaction [but] I'm not going to question the motives of the people behind it if it keeps people safe in a cyclone.

But another couple having coffee, including a former expat businessman, is more cynical.

"There's always an ulterior motive," he says. He did not want to be identified, but his career took him throughout parts of the developing world.

"You have to ask the question: why? Do they want access to the ports? Or coal? We know they don't need oil.

"If it's political, there is always a payback somewhere. There has to be a motive. That's the way business is done. Nobody gives away $30m unless there's something."

In a shopping mall, Lyn Laffin said she knew about the cyclone shelter being built nearby but had no idea is was partly funded by Abu Dhabi.

"I think it's a good thing for the community because a cyclone hasn't hit yet but sooner or later our luck is going to run out completely," she explained.

"I've been here for more than 30 years. We've only had a couple of cyclones. They aren't that bad - we've had a few roofs lifted. It's just lots of rain."

Ronnie Jose, a South African immigrant working as a butcher, welcomed the creation of the shelter. He said Cyclone Yasi affected this area, even though Mackay is hundreds of kilometres from where the storm crossed the coast.

"It left a bit of damage, with trees over the house," he said.

"At least with cyclones, you get a warning that they're coming. And at least Australia does something for people. In South Africa, they don't."


South of Mackay in Campwin Beach, there are homes vulnerable to storm surges in a cyclone but this area missed out on the cyclone shelter in favour of the more populous location north of Mackay.

Brian Jenkins said he had been through a few good storms since he moved here with his family in 1946.

"With a lot of cyclones, you just sit down and hang on. I've been [through] a few b.......," he said.

"We've had some near misses, but nothing like Yasi. The first big one was in 1950. We had three in the 1950s. There was one in 1971 that came down the coast. I'd just built my house. It went down past Rocky [Rockhampton] and then turned and came back.

"Then there was another one, Ada, that came through the islands. There was one in 1977 that blew houses off their blocks. I copped power lines on my roof."

His home is equipped with a generator ready for the big storm that will eventually hit the area.

His friend, John Boland, said he is concerned because he lives in a low-lying area.

"The tide surge is the worry for me. I live in a swamp," he says.

"Sarina Beach is only a few feet above [the high tide line]. Armstrong Beach is the same."

His sister lives in Mission Beach, which is located exactly where Cyclone Yasi crossed the coast two years ago.

"They were right under it. They put the three little kids in the bath then locked the door and stayed in the bathroom," he said. "They're still there. If it was me, I'd be gone."

Both welcomed the Abu Dhabi donation. Boland's knowledge of the UAE is mostly restricted to having seen documentaries about the building of the Burj Khalifa and he thought Abu Dhabi was a person rather than a place.

"I saw it on television when they made the approach with the money. There was some elderly bloke paying money," he added.

The reaction in the community to accepting a donation from abroad was muted, he said.

"I don't think there was much said about it. I'd have thought it was a great move, to get something done."

Architectural flamboyance is clearly not on the agenda for a building designed to withstand 300kph hour winds.

That much is obvious from the first glimpse of the design chosen for all 10 of the shelters. The walls are reinforced concrete with buttresses to add strength and the roof is screwed on using far more fastenings than would be found on any conventional house.

All the windows are covered by metal grills and on each corner of the building, metal barriers have been designed to take the brunt of any object picked up by the cyclone and flung against the building.

Inside, there is room for 800 people, with water tanks and a generator system with backup batteries. An office nearby will become the control room for the emergency team responsible for operations before, during and after a cyclone.

For Ian Boon, principal of Yeppoon High School, having his school chosen as the site for the southernmost of the 10 cyclone shelters is like winning the lottery. And until it's needed for a shelter, the school gets the benefit of a multipurpose hall.

He has not yet lived through a cyclone, but has been through enough storms in the region to know the power they can unleash.

"When I was in Bundaberg, I remember waking up during one tropical storm and wondering if our windows were going to be smashed in," he said.

"We came out the next morning and the tree trunk was red raw where the bark had been blown away - and that wasn't even a cyclone."

All this gave him an appreciation of the building he watched being constructed on what had been a couple of outdoor tennis courts.

"It's designed to be hit with debris. They were very pedantic in ensuring they had the right materials to withstand strong winds and debris.

"The amount of concrete that went into the footings was amazing."

He acted as the master of ceremonies when the cyclone shelter was opened, the first of the 10 being built, in November. The audience included Khalid Al Ghaith, Abu Dhabi's Assistant Foreign Minister for Economic Affairs.

Before the announcement of the donation, he said Abu Dhabi had a relatively low profile in the community.

"From a narrow perspective, I'd say people were aware of Abu Dhabi but couldn't find it on a map.

"After the announcement of the Abu Dhabi government donation, I think people were astounded that there was such great generosity to support the community.

"I think people seemed to be saying: 'How come this is happening when we should be contributing to other countries in the Third World'. But I think people understood that it's generous. That certainly came clearly across in the opening ceremony."

Another of those who were at the opening was Bruce Young, the local member of state parliament who was elected after the donation was announced.

He said everyone in the community was "over the moon" with the generosity of Abu Dhabi.

"It's just the kindest gesture - I couldn't get over it," he said. There was nobody against it. As far as I'm concerned, understanding the very generous offer, I think everyone is very impressed.

"If it wasn't for this donation, I firmly believe it wouldn't have happened."

As with anyone who has lived in this part of the world for long, he has his share of cyclone stories but his gratitude for Abu Dhabi's donation is heightened by having seen the destruction wrought by Cyclone Yasi.

"After Yasi, my wife, Geraldine, and I drove up to Mission Beach to have a look. As we were driving towards Mission Beach, we saw houses like ours and I said to her: 'Mate, I told you this house was tough'. They were still standing," he said.

"But in the epicentre, there were houses that looked like ours and there was nothing left."

Between that and having lived through Cyclone Davis in the mid-1970s, which destroyed the rock seawall at the marina, he is under no illusion about the destructive power of a category five cyclone and paid close attention to the design for the new shelters.

"It's timing. It's like the rolling of the dice and it will happen.

"The facility itself is magnificent. Even on the hottest day, it's cool inside," he said.

"We've got a building engineered for strength, but it's multipurpose and can be used for everything. Even with just the fans, it keeps cool because of the ventilation.

"They're designed for 800 people but you could whack a lot more in. If there's a raging cyclone outside, you'll lose power. They've got a generator set for emergency power and with battery backup."

Cyclone policy changed in Australia in the wake of Cyclone Tracy, which devastated Darwin on Christmas Eve in 1975. Soon after that, building regulations changed so that all new homes had to be able to withstand a category four cyclone.

"Eighty per cent of the houses are cyclone proof. A lot of people retrofitted their homes," Young added.


Queensland public works minister Tim Mander, the minister responsible for building eight of the 10 shelters, said the donation was "totally unsolicited" and was a sign of the close bilateral ties between Australia and Abu Dhabi.

So far as he knew, the process of Queensland accepting donations from a foreign government was unprecedented.

"It was definitely a major catalyst in building this so quickly. Without this injection of funds, [building] this would have been very difficult to achieve," he said.

"If we hadn't had these funds, we couldn't have done this in the time we have.

"I think it's a sign of friendship and in fact a sign of the relationship we have and that they want to continue to build. That's what friends do - they help each other.

"This was a devastating event for Queensland, having a flood followed by a cyclone. It was a very traumatic event and it knocked us around, obviously functionally as well as psychologically. I think this was an act of generosity and I suspect the government was moved by the situation.

"Now the community is feeling far safer as we roll into cyclone season.

"The opening was very positive. The people were incredibly appreciative.

"This is a wonderful facility because it fulfils two great roles. The primary one - and the reason for its existence - was to protect the community in case of a serious cyclone.

"Secondly - and we hope it that this is the majority of its use - it's a wonderful multipurpose indoor community centre."


In a nearby shopping mall, some of those who might potentially take up residence in the Yeppoon cyclone shelter were glad it was there but questionined why it had been partly funded by Abu Dhabi.

Dean Hinton, who has lived in Yeppoon for 40 years, said the talk in the community was that "this bloke, Abu Dhabi" was a person involved with a stalled tourism development down the coast.

"Two or three years ago, they were going to build a resort - they even built a four-lane road up to it - but Rockhampton Regional Council knocked them back.

"That Arab bloke gave money to the council. They don't know it [but] I think that's what we think the idea was. There's a link between the resort and [the donation]."

Another resident, Kerry Sullivan, said the shelter was essential because there were homes such as hers that would be susceptible to a storm surge.

"People need a proper shelter. You could go to the cyclone shelter and you'd be safe," she said.

"I'd go to Rocky [Rockhampton] if I needed to take shelter from my house. If it was that bad, because I live across the causeway it's likely there'd be no road left [after the cyclone]."

She knew about Abu Dhabi because friends had travelled there and said the money donated offset the millions of dollars the Australian government spent on international aid each year.

"I think people are positive [about the donation]. We send so much money overseas.

I've only heard positive things, although most people are a bit puzzled. People weren't saying 'What do they want'."

John Henzell is a senior features writer for The National.