THE RFCA AND CYCLONE WINIFRED
Five days after the cyclone, the Innisfail Advocate published a small article prepared by the RFCA and the DPI informing growers how to care for their damaged trees. The RFCA then undertook to compile a detailed report of the extent of the damage to fruit growers and nurseries on the coast from Cardwell to Cairns. Exotic fruit growers do not have any organization representing them at the moment, apart from the RFCA, and it was felt appropriate to support the many members in the district in this way. Growers were asked to prepare estimates of the numbers of trees of each type damaged, the ages of those trees, and the degree of damage of each tree. This information was then recorded on standard sheets drawn up for the exercise and then the damage translated into financial figures using an agreed method of valuation.
Two figures were derived. Firstly, the partial or total loss of a tree was translated into a capital loss, i.e., the amount of money that had been outlayed in growing the tree to that stage, that had been lost. Secondly, the farmer sustained an income loss from losing the crops that he would have harvested during the remaining life of the tree. In most cases, the income loss was larger than the capital loss. About 80 farmers were involved with the survey, and about a quarter of these had negligible losses. The others had capital losses totalling $1.5 million, and income losses totalling $4.5 million. The 7 largest growers had income and capital losses totalling $3.8 million.
This amount of damage has been a major setback for the industry in the area, and has caused serious financial difficulty for many members. Some have seen many years work destroyed in a few hours. This report is now on file with the RFCA records and the Innisfail DPI. A copy of this detailed report was presented to the Minister for Primary Industries during a meeting with him in Babinda. It is not being published in full because it contains confidential information about growers' losses. The report has enabled the RFCA to gain important knowledge about cyclone damage, about the kinds of trees that suffered most and those that withstood the winds best.
HOW TREE VARIETIES FARED
When the forests and orchards are inspected carefully, one realises that trees just do not survive 250 kph winds very well at all. Wind intensity in a cyclone is patchy, and for this reason some areas survive better than others. At lower wind speeds, one begins to see a better differentiation in survival ability. The following appraisal is a general, district-wide one, but by no means the final word, and hopefully more information will be published. It is the result of combined reports from many growers.
This means that the trees generally maintained their upright position in the ground with only some structural damage, leaving enough branches to allow reasonably quick recovery and a crop within 1 or 2 years.
Black Sapote, carambola, mango, mamey sapote, most citrus varieties, most Artocarpus sp., Spondias sp., most small trees e.g. 1- or 2-years-old trees with sparse foliage, mangosteen, sapodilla, canistel, guava, white sapote, jaboticaba.
This means that the trees generally survived but often with significant damage. Some trees were destroyed but most were recoverable, with a setback of perhaps 2 years or more.
Rambutan, lychee B3 and Bengal, longan seedling, avocado, abiu, mamey apple, durian, soursop, Syzigium sp.
This means that the trees generally were severely damaged or totally destroyed.
Most large trees, lychee Tai So and Wai Chi, macadamia, custard apple, uvilla, longan marcots, marcots in general, trees with a dense foliage, star apple, rollinia, santol, Inga sp.
PREVENTION OF DAMAGE
Conceding that in a cyclone such as Winifred, absolute prevention of damage is impossible, I suggest that our general aim should be to minimise damage and return to a cropping, positive cash-flow situation as soon as possible. The specific aim would be to lose one year's crop, or at the most, two years' crops, and this I believe is possible.
When selecting a site for an orchard, the most sheltered location should be chosen. Winifred appeared to funnel down the valleys and reach down into the gullies with destructive force. However, on the sheltered side of hills, there were many places where no damage occurred at all. Winds in a cyclone can come from any direction, but in a protected site there is at least some chance that the wind may come from the right direction!
A tall, mature windbreak, several rows wide would have had a very positive sheltering effect during cyclone Winifred even if the windbreak trees themselves had been damaged. Most orchardists do have windbreaks growing, but few if any had them old enough to be effective. Windbreak trees need to be fast-growing.
Prior to the cyclone reaching the coast, one farmer staked and tied about 40 of his most valuable trees. In an area where much of the dense rainforest was devastated, all of the trees which were stayed, survived in place with very little damage. The estimated cost of routinely staying orchard trees is $5 - $10 per tree initial outlay, with a much smaller annual maintenance cost. For a tree that is worth $100 to $500, this is small insurance. Trees 3 to 7 years are probably the most suitable for this treatment, and I suggest that it be standard practice. Tree staying is a slow job, needing adequate supplies of stakes, rope and rubber tubing. It is not the kind of activity that you can decide to do the day before a cyclone hits, unless you are doing a small number of trees.
I have already stated that weather reports would normally give 6 to 12 hours warning before a cyclone hits. This would allow an activity that would be drastic, but lifesaving for a tree. A farmer would have to be prepared beforehand with a team of helpers and the right pruning equipment, such as large shears (75cm), small saws, etc. A decision would then be made whether to severely prune the trees or not. This decision would be based on the severity of the cyclone, risks of damage, size of tree, path of the cyclone, etc.
If the decision was to prune, each worker would then set about an emergency, severe pruning, of a type not normally done under any other circumstances. Most trees have about 3 to 10 main branches, and this pruning I suggest, would aim at leaving the main trunk and main large branches, with very little foliage. With large trees, it may be necessary to have an experienced timber-getter with a chain-saw. One worker should be able to prune 30 to 50 trees per hour (each tree requiring 3 to 10 cuts). Five workers would prune 150 to 250 per hour, and in 3 to 5 hours, prune a significant number of trees. It may seem like a lot of very hard work, but it is 10 times easier to do that than to try to resurrect fallen, broken trees afterwards. The net effect of this activity would be to retain an undisturbed, healthy root and main branch system, with significant carbohydrate reserves from which the tree rapidly shoots away. Cropping would commence the next year, from an orchard large enough to provide a cash flow adequate for survival.
Farmers, aware of the uncertainty of cyclone frequency and damage ought to make financial allowance for such catastrophes. In profitable years, it would be wise to make investments that would be unaffected by cyclones, or if possible, by any natural disaster. Diversification into many areas such as these is becoming easier with money management specialists freely accessible.
Farmers may also make provision in their budgeting for money to be set aside for restoration after a cyclone. It is not a matter of if a cyclone comes, but more of how long before it comes. Their provision may be within their own financial circle, eg. putting a proportion of their annual profits into a special fund. This activity borders on the field of insurance, which is unavailable to an orchardist for his trees. It is rather uncommon in business these days to have a large capital asset such as an orchard, with a large earning capacity, that cannot be insured. Orchardists are in a different situation to farmers with cash crops. Losing one crop most farmers can cope with, but losing the mature capital asset that produces the crop is almost impossible to survive without outside income. Orchardists ought to group together and press for an insurance scheme that will give some benefit if their trees are destroyed by storm and tempest. This ought not to be looked upon any differently to buildings, boats, etc. Even if the full value could not be insured for, a modest insurable figure would at least allow a farmer to repair his orchard, replant, and get a little way down the line towards the production years.
1. Palmerston, Christie. 'Mourilyan to Herberton', a diary, published in "The Queenslander", Vol. XXIV - NEW SERIES Nos. 417, 418, 419, 1883.
2. "Cyclone Winifred - A Pictorial Record", published by the Innisfail Advocate, 1986.
3. Hunt, H.A., "Australian Hurricanes and Related Storms", Bulletin No. 16, Bureau of Meteorology, Australia, 1925.
4. "Tropical Cyclones - Queensland", Bureau of Meteorology, Department of Science and Technology, Australia, 1983.
5. Banfield, E.J., 'The Tempest', a chapter in Last leaves from Dunk Island. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1925.
6. Taylor, R.J., "The Lost Plantation", G.K. Bolton, Cairns, 1982.
DATE: July 1986
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