The people along the boardwalk had a look I've seen before, a mix of disbelief, shock and curiosity. You see it in the crowds that gather wherever a disaster has taken place, as they watch firefighters douse the remains of a gutted building, or railway workers assess ways of righting a derailed train.
There is patience in the air at these gatherings. There isn't much happening, not much to look at. The drama is over, but people will stand for hours waiting to see if anything else occurs. Here and there a cluster of people will talk quietly, sharing a little news and a lot of speculation about what has happened and what will happen next. But most just stand in silence, lost in a reverie as they contemplate the changed landscape.
The people on the boardwalk this morning had that same look about them as they watched the diminishing waves from Cyclone Hamish pound what remained of Coolum Beach.
A cyclone isn't like the storms we are used to in Ontario, which arrive, wreak havoc, then move on. This cyclone spent days travelling slowly down the coast, pushing high tides even higher, whipping the waves into monstrous swells, and ripping leaves and limbs from trees. For three days the waves pounded the shore, hitting harder and higher than usual, each one taking a mouthful of sand from the beach and dragging it out to sea.
By Friday morning, the damage was clear. Walkways that once followed a meandering path from dune to beach now end abruptly two metres above the sand. Beaches which had offered many metres of sunbathing even at high tide were now awash, the high tide waves lapping at the base of the dunes in one spot, spitting up against bare rocks in another. Similar damage has been reported all along the coast. Noosa's main beach, which is notoriously prone to erosion anyway, is reportedly now nothing but bare rock. (I've not been there to see it yet, but reports say it will take two or three months of sand pumping to restore the beach.)
But the bigger concern is not what the water has done, but what is still in the water. A container ship was damaged in the storm in Moreton Bay, losing 620 tons of sodium nitrate overboard and sending somewhere between 30 and 100 tonnes of bunker oil into the ocean from its ruptured fuel tanks. It's now started washing up on beaches all along the southern Sunshine Coast.
This morning at Coolum, we watched as a black smear began to take shape in the waves just south of the surf club. Slowly all we idlers drifted down the shoreline, mesmerized by the inky mess being whipped to a froth by the waves. Oil? It sure looked like it. But as people dipped their hands in the mess, doubts began to surface. It didn't smell oily, nor did it leave a residue on the skin. One man said it could be an odd algal bloom. Another suggested plankton. One of the oldest men in our little cluster, speaking with the authority of one who has lived in the area for years, said the black "coffee rocks" that underlie the beach sand sometimes get pounded to dust by the waves, staining the water. "That could be just rock," he said, "but I've never seen it that black before." Over our heads, a helicopter made its way up and down the shore, presumably seeking the same sort of answers we were.
Even if Coolum has been spared the oil, the same can't be said for beaches further south. Lovely sand islands like Moreton and Bribie have been declared disaster areas; so have many of the beaches in places like Mooloolaba, just to the south of us. Cleanup costs are estimated at $100,000 a day or more. There is talk of charging the skipper of the ship, of fining the owners. The premier says this may be Queensland's worst natural disaster ever -- which is saying quite a bit in a state where two-thirds of the land was recently flooded by another cyclone.
Eventually it will get cleaned up. The beaches will recover (Noosa faster than most, since it is equipped with an elaborate sand pumping system that sucks sand from the mouth of the river and pumps it on to the main beach.) With luck the containers of sodium nitrate will be found and recovered before they, too, leak into the bay.
And there is even some good news in all of this. The cyclone has left us with some terrific surf conditions, just in time for the international surfing festival that starts in Noosa this weekend.