After Yasi: Finding the Smile Within by June Perkins is more than a memoir. It’s the honouring of a community’s collective experience of a devastating cyclone and a celebration of healing in the aftermath.
June’s poignant, light-filled photos draw the reader in. Neighbours, aid workers, and family members tell their stories in their unique voices. After Yasi: Finding the Smile Within is an uplifting read about the power of art and community in the face of difficulty.
In February of 2011, Yasi, a category 5 severe tropical cyclone, scarred the Cassowary Coast in far north Queensland. Winds gusts of 290 km/hour (180 m/h) uprooted trees, tore apart homes, and displaced families.
But in the ravaged landscape left behind, beauty took root. As June’s book shows, tears and heartbreak intermingled with joy and laughter.
Spilling Ink is honoured to play a part in the launch of After Yasi, offering a stop on the blog-hop to celebrate June’s accomplishment in her book on the occasion of the cyclone’s fourth anniversary.
Children & Natural Disasters
My interview focuses on children and the trauma of natural disasters. I asked June about how major weather events affect children and what support strategies were helpful. Her kids were aged between 10 and 15 at the time, and they had lived in the Cassowary Coast region for six years.
This post is longer than usual, but I think you’ll find June’s insights so interesting. Make a cup of tea and get comfortable. While the kettle’s boiling, here’s her son’s story on video.
Interview with June Perkins, Multi-platform Storyteller
Ali: Cyclones build for days or weeks so there’s often time to prepare. Do you think this preparation helps children cope with the event?
June: The preparation time does help children ready themselves to some extent for what might happen. We did emergency drills as well, just like you do with fire drills to help prepare them mentally.
Some of the media build-up was not helpful though, as they kept saying things like, “This will be as bad as Cyclone Tracy,’ and focused on its enormous size. This was more panic-inducing than helpful to our family’s preparation, so we had to minimise exposure to media coverage. We tended to go with ABC radio and the BOM site (Bureau of Meteorology).
Ali: Often a child’s age determines how they cope with a natural disaster or other traumas. Did you witness this with your kids?
June: I am not sure if it was age or personality, but my children certainly all experienced it differently. My eldest had been so resourceful during the crisis, helping his dad secure the house a couple of times. The morning after the cyclone, he kept falling asleep, even whilst walking up stairs. This gave us a bit of a cause for concern but passed after the first two weeks. He took to playing his guitar with an absolute passion. He did not want to talk about it directly for a while, but he was happy to talk about in conversations with close family and friends.
Our youngest was nervous in storms for about a year after the cyclone. He’d wake up to check on all of us. He was later keen to vocalise his experience in an interview, not just with me, but also with an external visitor collecting cyclone stories. He participated in an ABC Open workshop with Leandro Palacio, where the children spoke about what made them happiest during or after Cyclone Yasi. He spoke about our guinea pigs.
Straight after the cyclone, my daughter became extremely irritable and emotional. Not all the adults around her appreciated this, and one person we knew, but not that well, even told her off and lectured her when she uncharacteristically slammed a door. This was probably not the best thing at the time to happen to her, and I felt torn between wanting the said adult to be understanding of her and being a bit mortified she was acting up. She became withdrawn after that, especially when our pet bird died.
However, luckily for my daughter, she wrote and did art, and this helped her to release the feelings of loss and recover a more balanced mood.
I think she has some songs in a notebook somewhere about it all. These are very private things to her. I was very sensitive to how she was feeling and perhaps would have taken her for some counselling if it had continued too long.
The hardest thing about our situation was that everyone was equally stressed by what had happened, and sometimes some people did or said things that, looking back, were caused by their own stress.
I do think adults have on onus on them to be more understanding and patient when children have been through a trauma, but this is hard if they have been through it too.
Everyone reacts in their own way, and you can’t predict that even people who are usually mild-mannered and kind might become angry, protective, and concerned for only their own families ahead of all others. Some become generous, and some become more family-centred. This is where counsellors can be helpful.
June: They met some amazing people they might not have otherwise have met, who encouraged them to go for their dreams, including Phil Emmanuel (musician) and Damien Martyn (cricketer).
They bonded closely with some of the families in the area, and one friend stood in as a grandmother for my daughter at a high school grandparent event. Our bond with her family was definitely strengthened by the cyclone.
My children all began to pursue their talents in life with far more passion than before, music, cricket and art. Who knows what the future will hold for them?
They learnt from the experience that they are strong and resilient. They are not attached to material objects. They know that things can be replaced. Since moving to the city, they notice things where people’s priorities can be about what school you go to and what uniform you wear, and they are not impressed by things like that. Not sure if that’s the cyclone or having come from the country and an egalitarian family or a bit of all of these things.
As a family, we learnt to make decisive, best-for-family decisions as well as community-oriented ones. We moved to the city to help our children make it into and through university and further study they might need.
Ali: How did the children respond to the emergency? Have there been any ongoing issues? For example, do they get anxious about weather events?
June: Some children were lucky enough to come from large extended families and really massive friend networks. Some families stayed with each other during the cyclone for more strength. Afterwards, a few families said they wished they had invited us and others to be part of these networks, as we went through the first half of it on our own, and they wouldn’t have stayed at our house if it was them. But they didn’t say this before the cyclone.
There was definitely some anxiety about weather events for a long time afterwards, not just with children but with adults. After cyclones, you often have a lot of flooding that can go on for weeks.
Ali: What actions of the wider community were most helpful to the kids affected by Yasi and your children?
Immediately after the event:
- Allowing the children who wanted to talk about it at school and getting them back to school as soon as possible.
- Having play areas and counsellors around when people were lining up for government assistance to assist families to feel less stressed.
- Concerts and celebrity visitors. Some visited twice or more.
- School children from other areas sent care packs to some of the worst affected school children and their families.
- Special consideration for the Year 11s and 12s in their examinations.
- I don’t know that enough is being done long-term for the mental health of country areas and in preparation for another disaster. Shelters have been built, but the mental health facilities were only temporarily bolstered and then cut back again.
- Many programs were only temporary, yet the economic set-backs are still making their mark in the community. It will be years for communities like Cardwell, in particular, to make it back to where they were. (Notable exceptions are ABC Open which is still doing workshops in the area and Mission Beach Community Arts Centre.)
- The economy does impact on children and families in the areas and put them under more stress. Many have just chosen to leave.
Ali: Having the benefit of experience, what advice can you give to people who wish to support children and young people in the aftermath of a traumatic event such as Yasi?
Do things with the children that they enjoy, and if they wish to talk about the cyclone, let them; but do not force them.
Take children to events like tree replanting or community joy building, so they know they are not alone; everyone is going through this with them. Encourage them to find gratitude for the positive things in their lives.
Realise some of the effects may come years after the cyclone. They might include their friends moving out of the area and feelings of loss and grief that are not immediate. Keep the channels of communication open.
Ali: Was there anything that was not particularly useful to your children?
June: They received a workbook, which they didn’t want to fill out and found too young for their needs. They are well-meant but just too standard and one-size-fits-all.
Standard disaster workbooks are less helpful than encouraging children to journal whatever they wish in their recovery process. Some of those widely distributed where not age appropriate to all children but more suited to very young children. My children personally did not like being given these and just put them aside. I am sure they were well-intentioned, and there may have been children they suited.
Ali: What do you children think is the most helpful thing after an event such as Yasi? Grown -ups and especially professionals often think we know best. Do they have any opinions?
June: I think mainly that there should not be a one-size-fits-all approach, but there should be a systematic attempt to do something.
Some children require an indirect approach, and others are open to a direct approach and they will tell you how they are feeling.
Artists, maybe with some art therapy background combined with the support of counsellors, can be extremely helpful with an indirect approach, rather than a one-on-one consultation with a counsellor. They just help people to release things from their system in music, painting and storytelling, sport (whatever is helpful to that particular child.)
More helpful rather than focusing on the cyclone itself is posing questions like these:
- ‘What made you feel happy?’
- ‘What made you feel safe?’
- ‘What do you most want to do with your life?’
For some children, physical activities are helpful, and I wish more schools had run long-term tai chi and yoga or meditation programs to teach children more relaxation techniques.
Ali: June, I am so grateful for you candour with these questions. It’s so important for grown-ups and professional helpers to remember to take the children’s lead as we help them.
I wish June all the best with her book and am mindful of her reminder of the ongoing difficulties in remote rural communities.
Buy June’s Book
You can buy June’s book, After Yasi: Finding the Smile Within, here.
For more information on the launch, visit her beautiful blog, PearlzDreaming.