Cyclone Vance strikes Exmouth
as experienced by Rod, Heidi, Jasmine
and Luke Ellison
at the Lighthouse Caravan Park
We were still more worried about Elaine when Vance made
his first appearance off the shores of the Northern Territory and our
initial reaction was: "That's still miles away!" and: "What's
it's name? Dance? Lance? ...Vance! What sort of a name is that?"
Little did we know then that the name would soon be engraved in our
We'd been living at the Lighthouse Caravan Park for thirteen months
and packing up all the extra belongings we had accumulated in that time
into a twenty foot caravan just because of a cyclone which might not
even come was no fun, especially as dismantling the annex was a divorce
case at the best of times. Our two kids, Jasmine and Luke, had been
doing School of the Air, so we had schoolbooks, maths kits, a radio,
desk etc on top of all the other stuff. We were still stuffing it into
every available space in the van while the park was rapidly emptying
out, with most people heading for the allegedly safer shores of Carnarvon
or even Geraldton, although Carnarvon was on blue alert as well and
the cyclone may very well have struck there.
Exmouth was our home now and we decided not to join the exodus but to
put our van into an old light aircraft hangar south of town, packing
a few precious things like the photo albums (and Rod's surfboard - one
has to get the priorities right) into the Landcruiser, just in case.
We were obviously novices at this - we took plenty of candles but no
matches, two films but the camera was accidentally left behind, and
plenty of food which we never ended up using because most unfortunately
needed cooking, a task that proved impossible when we lost power. Well,
the only cyclone we'd ever experienced was a Cat1, and barely more than
a strong sea breeze!
Thus equipped we headed back out to the Cape to help with the last of
the preparations with a surf check on the way in which Rod complained
that he was missing all the good waves in all the rush!
The air was still, too still. Dark clouds were sitting on the horizon
like ominous messengers of disaster. At about 5 pm, back at the caravan
park, a violent dust storm blew up, followed by a half hour torrential
downpour. We weren't overly worried. Vance, should he indeed strike,
would not reach us until lunchtime on Monday, the radio had assured
us. Right enough, the rain stopped and it was still again.
We decided to spend the night in a unit at the park which Robbie Atkinson
kindly let us have as it was one of the most solidly built. The next
morning, should the need arise, we would seek shelter at the Harold
E. Holt base.
It proved to be an uncomfortable night - by two am we lost all radio
and TV reception and not long after the power went, too. The wind had
picked up that much that even a pillow over the head could not muffle
the howling and rattling as the little building shook on its foundations.
The kids, surprisingly, slept through it all, but I started to worry.
I tried repeatedly to get radio reception, remembering how I'd been
told to listen to the radio at all times to be informed about what was
going on. At around 4.30am I poked Rod in the ribs: "We've got
to find shelter now or we won't make it!" Outside the car was rocking
in the now heavy wind gusts. "I'm not driving through this!"
Rod mumbled, "let's worry about it at daylight!" And he promptly
fell asleep again.
I was getting frightened. Without radio contact we had no idea what
was going on, and I did not feel safe to weather a Cat5 cyclone in a
little hut a mere two hundred metres from the angry ocean. Visions of
the devastation Tracey had left behind loomed in my head whenever I
closed my eyes, and the ominous warning: This is even stronger than
Tracey! Also I worried about the threat of the huge storm surges we
had been told about, and what one of those waves could do to our little
hut. I'd never before been in a situation where I truly had to fear
for my life, but this was it. Being unable to drive even to the base
without the danger of getting blown off the road, we were trapped. The
kids were still asleep and their innocent faces touched me: had we endangered
their lives by staying here?
The worst was not knowing anything: whether the cyclone had crossed
the coast or was still heading towards us. And if it was, what was in
store for us. There was nowhere to run, we were trapped. Accepting our
powerlessness was hard. Once I came to grips with the fact that there
was nothing at all I could do I felt a lot calmer. We did the little
every day routine things like every morning, trying to hide the panic:
wake the kids and give them breakfast - I was too scared to eat anything.
Get dressed. Steel a quick worried glance out of the window. I got some
blankets and towels and put them in the kids bedroom, since our bedroom
already leaked a lot of water through a broken window behind the storm
shutter, and packed some food in a bag in case we had to move somewhere
Michel and John, two of our friends from the park who'd stayed in their
vans overnight decided to shift into one of the new little cabins which
had just been built to lock up stage and which consisted of four solid
concrete walls with a welded on roof. John had been through many cyclones
before and thought that they would probably be the safest under the
circumstances. We took his word for it and did the same, Rod carrying
the kids one by one as the wind was already too strong to walk in for
them, while I dragged a few blankets and food and water with me, fighting
the heavy gusts that nearly knocked me off my feet, too. We took the
cabin next to the two men and settled in for a long wait.
The cabins were not quite ready yet, and all that was in them was the
tile floor, a sink and a new fridge, still in its box in the corner
in the main room. Rod managed to drag two chairs in so we would have
a dry spot to sit, as the water was coming in and pooling on the floor.
There were two small rooms: the bigger one, facing SW, with a big sliding
door and two smaller windows on the other two walls, and a smaller room
with a solid concrete wall on the NE side, where the wind was coming
At first it didn't seem so bad: we had opened a small window in the
main room and watched as trees and caravans shook in the wind, feeling
relatively safe on the lee side of the storm, protected by a wall. So
far everything seemed to hold up pretty well. By about 9 am the strain
began to show: the first tree branches gave. Little bits of ridge capping
blew off the homestead. Caravans rocked and strained against heavy tie
downs. We still had no idea whether the cyclone was still heading directly
towards us, but according to the last radio news we'd heard it had been
moving at about 17 km per hour and would be crossing the coast around
lunchtime somewhere between Onslow and Exmouth. Three hours to go.
Around 10am things changed dramatically as the wind suddenly swung around
and was now coming straight at the big window on the SW side. The rain
was so strong that at times we couldn't see anything anymore, total
white out. But in one strong gust as the rain eased for a split second
we watched in horror as a whole park home was flying through the air
from the hill at the back of us. It was no longer safe to be in the
main room. The wind carried debris straight towards us, slamming it
into the little building. A big piece of roof iron or maybe the wall
from another park home crashed into the window, knocking out the centre
aluminium strip. The kids screamed in terror, cowering in the corner.
So far the real danger of the situation had not been apparent to them,
but they were scared now. For some miraculous reason the window held,
although there was now an inch gap between the two glass panes and any
other debris would surely knock them out. I thought in horror that if
the window went we would have no protection from flying debris and it
would create a dangerous wind tunnel. There were no beds to crawl under,
no mattresses to protect us from flying glass, no door we could shut
to the other room. We pushed the chairs against the wall in the smaller
room, as far from the window a possible, feeling very vulnerable and
exposed, praying that the windows would hold. The big glass sliding
door, set into the side wall in the main room, was bowing under the
force of the wind, nearly popping out of the wall, frame and all. The
only buffer we could find was the new fridge, and in a combined effort
we pushed it across the doorway, at least giving us some protection
should any of the windows break.
The roar was deafening. 10.30 am. "Two hours to go", Rod said
between clenched teeth. Oh my God, I thought. Is this going to get even
worse? The walls were solid concrete and yet we could feel them vibrate
if we put our hands on them, not to speak of the ceiling which was visibly
moving as the wind whistled through the widening joins in the plasterboard.
Water was coming in everywhere, climbing the walls vertically and gushing
through the tiniest gaps. I sat with Luke on my lap, blankets draped
over our heads for protection - as little as it would offer - while
Rod held Jasmine, our feet ankle deep in water. Every now and then there
was a loud thump as flying debris slammed into the walls. Rocks? Roof
iron? Walls of other buildings?
There was nothing we could do but sit it out and hope for the best.
There was nowhere to run. If our hut went, we would go with it.
I was beyond fear now. Sometime a resigned acceptance in our fate had
set in - my life wasn't exactly flashing in front of my eyes, but I
knew it was possible we could die. My worst worry was probably that
one of us would get injured, with no help at hand, and for the safety
of the kids.
But in the thick of it all some sense of inner calm and strength took
over. It was probably the strangest feeling of all, but one that taught
me that deep inside we do possess that amazing inner strength, and that
we can tap into it when we most need it.
We sat like that for hours. Time meant nothing any more. We sat and
waited. Luke fell asleep on my lap, mercifully oblivious to the chaos
By 2 pm Rod had run out of beer, but the worst seemed to be over and
he gestured some frantic signals through the window to the hut next
door, where our friends had sheltered. They gave us the thumbs up -
they had made it through as well.
Looking out through the rain we saw only total destruction. Where park
homes had stood was now an empty space. One lonely door frame swayed
in the wind, the rest of the building was a pile of debris in front
of our door. Luckily it had wedged in the narrow passageway between
the cabins in such a way that it prevented other things slamming into
the big glass sliding doors of our cabin. Rocks and sand had slammed
into the building with such force that the paint had been stripped off
Caravans had vanished or were reduced to useless piles of rubble, with
the cyclone straps still tied but dangling uselessly from their iron
bolts set into the concrete. The roof of the homestead had gone, a small
toilet block opposite was a mess of walls twisted into one another,
folded like a house of cards. We thanked our lucky star that our cabin
was still intact, realising how lucky we had been.
The creek behind the cabins, usually a habitat of dry grass that has
to be burnt off regularly was now a raging torrent as the skies opened.
Muddy water with the flotsam and jetsam of what had once been tourist
accommodation. Washing it all into the ocean. An ocean, I imagined,
which would retaliate with equal fury as the huge storm tides hit.
John and Michel dashed over, heads bent low, anxiously looking out for
flying objects as it was still not safe to go outside. We greeted one
another with the relief of fellow survivors, each bursting with our
own tale to tell. The thought of: "We've made it! We're safe!"
replaced resignation. Nobody thought of our material possessions yet,
we were just so glad to have come out of it all unscathed and were more
worried how the town had fared.
As the winds died down a bit the kids became restless. "This is
so boring!" was Jasmine's classic statement "There is nothing
to do! Why can't we go outside?"
Robbie came over from the homestead, worried about how everyone had
fared. Despite all the damage to his home he was also unhurt.
We looked out from our windows unto a battlefield, speechless. Then,
for some absurd, cruel reason, the wind picked up again. "These
things can turn around and come back, you know", one of the guys
said. "It does happen." That was the time I felt real despair,
more than in the thick of it all. The thought of having to go through
it all again was too much. Without radio or telephone contact, of course,
we had no way of telling what was happening.
The human body is a great machine: I fell asleep. Amidst the wet blankets,
the chaos, the roar of the wind, my little son in my arms, sitting on
a tiny chair, I fell asleep. It was an escape, plus the hours of fear
had taken their toll. When I woke up again, maybe half an hour later,
the wind had not picked up. I dared to think to myself: "This is
it. It's all over. We've survived!"
I look back at Vance not with regret but with a new strength from looking
into the abyss and coming back stronger. We have been among the lucky
ones. Not only did we survive unscathed, but so did most of our possessions,
despite the destruction all around. The car, which had been parked in
front of the unit we slept in and was surrounded by debris only sustained
a few dents and scratches, not even a broken window. A roof from a carport
from the chalets on top of the hill had been carried all the way down
and now lay on the track in front of the cabins, but had luckily missed
That night, making our way across flooded creeks into town, we went
back to where we'd left our van expecting to find there was nothing
left, but although the shed had been destroyed the van was still intact,
the most damage caused by a boat parked next to it, which had repeatedly
slammed into the side and punched a few holes through the walls, and
of course the water which flooded it right through. A huge metal strut,
bent to the ground by the amazing force of the wind, had just missed
the front of it - had it fallen the other way it would have crushed
the van like an eggshell. Nothing that couldn't be fixed in time, give
and take a few things.
We have also met the best people through it all: Axel and Eske Passeck,
who have not only given us a place to stay but have also become friends.
Countless SES workers, Western Power and Telstra guys who have helped
to get the town running again and also gave us moral support during
the clean up when tiredness took its toll and everything seemed too
much. And all the people from the community who went through their own
drama but always asked if they could help.
I count myself lucky and I'm glad now that we stayed - both through
the cyclone and the clean up afterwards. It has taught me many lessons
and one more thing: We're here to stay.