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Australia: supporting children after Cyclone Yasi

I’ve just visited the first of our ‘child friendly spaces’ set up in far-north Queensland following Cyclone Yasi, the most powerful tropical storm to hit Australia since 1918.

It’s situated in an indoor sports hall on the outskirts of Tully, the small town about 1,500km north of Queensland’s state capital Brisbane where the tropical storm – a category five – caused severe damage. 

According to the local authorities up to 90% of the buildings in Tully suffered damage, a third severely.

We witnessed the damage first-hand. As we drove up Tully’s main high street it became clear why media had focused so much attention, albeit briefly, on this tiny centre of population.

Strewn across the roads and pavements are large sheets of mangled aluminium roofing that have been torn off buildings by 200 km per hour cyclonic winds. Down the road at Mitchell Park, opposite the Tully Civic Centre, the lawns are covered with debris.

Trees as tall as three-storey buildings have been wrenched from the ground. I witnessed one tree resting on top of a 20-metre-high building. Sights like these give some appreciation of the awesome power of this immense storm.

Thankfully there no were fatalities or serious injuries in Tully. Far-north Queenslanders are hardy people used to cyclones and massive storms or, as they’re referred to locally, “a big blow”.

That said, there’s obviously a huge clean-up operation ahead. According to the Australian government, the cost of Yasi to the Australian economy could run to half a billion dollars.

There’s no doubt this town and others like it such as Cardwell and Ingham will need help for a while to come. And that’s the primary reason why Save the Children chose to establish a child friendly space in Tully’s indoor sports hall, now a cyclone recovery centre.

The centre is a hive of activity. Volunteers from Australian Red Cross and staff from the Queensland Department of Communities register people for emergency assistance and to ensure some of their basic needs are met.

Joining them is a three-person team of qualified childcare workers from Save the Children. From early in the morning until late in the afternoon the team entertain and play with cyclone-affected children. They play games, read books and draw together. The team also give parents a break from childcare duties so that they can focus on registering for emergency assistance and assess the damage to their homes.

On the day of our visit the centre had no electricity – power lines had been damaged in the storm. The temperature in the building was stifling. Hardly surprising since it was a humid 30 degrees outside, and there were still well over a hundred people in the recovery centre – three days after Cyclone Yasi struck. 

To provide a welcome breeze for the children and childcare workers our team leader Dan Kerr, a former Captain in the Australian Army tasked with establishing a network of child friendly spaces in cyclone-affected areas, arranged for battery-powered fans to be brought to the centre.

You may ask why we place such a high priority on providing children with a safe place to play following a disaster. Save the Children has decades of experience responding to disasters at home and overseas like the Pakistan and Queensland floods. That experience tells us that safe play is an important part of the recovery process for children who have lived through a traumatic event. Put simply play can help ward off psychological trauma following a life-threatening event.

A child plays in a child friendly space set up by Save the Children.

In the coming days we will identify new sites in cyclone-affected Queensland to set up these safe play centres. So far we’ve established sites in Townsville and Tully. We plan to set up in places like Cardwell.

One thing’s for sure. Wherever we establish our child friendly spaces, we will continue to do what we’ve done since the early 20th century, and that’s provide care to vulnerable children and their families.

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