Hell of a cyclone, baby postcards from the north gas news today

#

Last time I left you, I was sitting on the back of the boat (metaphorically, at least), waiting to give birth. My first time around—severe pre-eclampsia, an emergency forceps delivery, nearly two litres of blood loss, a platelet transfusion and the cord around Little Tea’s neck requiring him to have a turn on the recuscitation table— did not give me high expectations. At the very least, I anticipated torn and fissured body parts. Faux-cheerful midwives giving pep talks. Offers of one-use medical equipment for our tackle box. My obstetrician to arrive at our delivery room wearing crocs. Sobbing like I was being tortured on a particularly sadistic episode of Game of Thrones. A fractious baby to look after at the end of it all.

I grimaced and stared out the window. Clear skies and clouds of dragonflies. That’s all I could see for hours, as I paced around the maternity ward pushing an oxytocin drip with a wheel like a dodgy shopping trolley. The dragonflies–with their beady eyes, spindly legs, translucent wings–fluttered just beyond the glass, shoving their freedom right up in my face. Everything they promised was far more tantalising than the prospect of childbirth, or the departmental noticeboard, filled mostly with the promise of breastfeeding classes and photographers who would like to put your child in a beanie and then a bucket.

Later, when I was mainlining museli bars, Allen’s Party Mix, and riding contractions, the rain rolled in. The dragonflies kept buzzing, confused but undeterred. But I forgot about the promised cyclone. I had other distractions. By 5.30pm, I was holding my daughter and crying, eating Irish stew one-handed while I waited for the epidural to wear off.

The next morning we woke to news of a direct hit projected for Darwin. Category 2. By 11am. We were still in hospital, Little Tea and my mother-in-law were at home in the Northern Suburbs. By the time we decided Mr Tea should leave and ride it out with them, it was too late.

The radar images showed a whirlpool: all the shades of white and grey and blue, with a reach across the Arafura and Timor Seas but the darkest pigments converging right above us. In the heavy-set hospital building, we were as safe as we could be, but what of Little Tea, my mother-in-law, our house? I was edgy, fidgeting.

Outside, it felt like any other severe thunderstorm I’ve watched slash through Darwin. But there was an eerie edge. The sound of it. Or the lack of sound. I could just hear a faint but angry whistle. Like a heavy mouth breather rattling away on a pillow slip. A kind of pitch and frequency that normally only a dog can hear. I watched two more layers of rain fold onto the verandah and retreated inside, to our room, to Mr Tea, and our newborn wrapped in flannel.

But as it turns out, this is Darwin’s biggest cyclone for more than 30 years. Stories filter through over the next 24 hours before we leave the hospital. Trees down, roads impassable. Smacked up houses, collapsed fences, live wires dangling over pools. Bunnings has sold out of chainsaws and generators.

One of the midwives tells me about her twisted security gate and how a giant pot was upturned on her veranda, a house plant that originally took several people to move. But a lone business card is still firmly planted on the ground where it was dropped days ago. My friend Ange has trees down on her shed and brushing the roof of her house, but her two chickens, Screamin’ Jay and Marty, are not only survivors, they’ve even managed to lay four eggs.

For at least one third of Darwin, the electricity is severed for days, and for some, even longer. My friend Jenelle later describes one of the nights of hot, unbroken air at her house in Alawa. The stillness punctuated by the intermittent whine of a neighbour’s generator. Then at 4am, there is suddenly silence. And then, the sound of metal hitting concrete.

People open their houses to strangers; they offer showers, washing machines, power points to charge mobile phones. They lend generators. They share fridge and freezer space. Even the ice machine at the petrol station is hosting tubs of ice-cream and boxed up left-overs. The local Sikh community hands out meals at the Jingili Water Gardens; the Salvation Army hosts movie nights.

Other folk steal boat motors, raid closed businesses, prey on empty homes. They threaten legal action on the owners of fallen trees. Before we leave the hospital, Mr Tea reads me a story from the paper about an old mate at a caravan park who refused to be evacuated. “I was here for Tracy,” he said. “Marcus is just a baby.” His caravan was still standing, but the bloke next door was not so fortunate. Old mate crowed in victory. “Never liked him anyway.”

As we drive home from the hospital, the damage becomes clear. Flapping corrugated iron, twists of metal, upturned trailers and traffic signs. It’s indiscriminate. A house with the roof caved in nestles between homes that are untouched. The nature strips along Rocklands Drive look like a giant, rampaging toddler has run through, plucking out some of the biggest trees and leaving smaller ones. Not this one! That one. THAT ONE!

On one street, I spy a cluster of neighbours clearing a driveway together with chainsaws. On another, a man carefully aims a leaf blower at an already immaculate and manicured lawn. It’s that best and worst of Darwin in real time, playing out within a hundred metres. A lesson for life, I think to myself. You can choose to be a chainsaw or a leaf blower. Be a chainsaw. Always, always – choose to be a chainsaw.*

Across the suburbs, along Dripstone Cliffs, the Nightcliff Foreshore, and all down Bagot Road, some of my favourite trees are down. Old banyans, spiny casuarinas, the ghost-like eucalypts, some of the great canopies of Darwin shade. They have been toppled, snapped, stumped, wrenched from the soil. Clods of dirt dangle from giant tree roots. I miss them already. People are inspecting the carnage, taking photographs. Cyclone selfies – by the end of the weekend, it’s a thing.