WILD WELCOME: Sarah Brinkmann arrived in Airlie Beach just days before Cyclone Debbie struck.
WILD WELCOME: Sarah Brinkmann arrived in Airlie Beach just days before Cyclone Debbie struck. Georgia Simpson

'I didn't even know what a cyclone was'

FIVE days before Tropical Cyclone Debbie tore through the region, Sarah Brinkmann moved to the Whitsundays.

Miss Brinkmann grew up in Germany, and had fallen for an Australian man while she was on holiday over here.

Deciding she was going to give the spark that ignited between the pair a chance, she packed her life into a backpack, arriving back in Airlie Beach on Thursday, March 23.

The most severe weather Miss Brinkmann had ever experienced was a hailstorm, and she was oblivious to the destructive weather events that were about to unfold.

"I didn't even know what a cyclone was, there isn't really a German word for cyclone," she said.

"I was so scared, I thought we were going to die."

'Tropischer wirbelstrum' is the closest word Miss Brinkmann could think of, and it translates to tropical storm.

It was a tropical storm like no other for the German.

On the Sunday, Beaches Backpackers where Miss Brinkmann was staying was evacuated, and that's when she realised that it was serious.

She said the Tuesday was 'really bad' and she would never forget the noise of the wind, or the feeling of the house shaking.

"It was so loud, and it was so dark," she said.

She moved in with her boyfriend, into a house with three other couples to wait out the storm.

"The roof was ripped off and there was no power. I couldn't contact my family in Germany."

The last thing she said to her family before her phone lost power for several days was 'just watch the news.'

Understandably her family spent days worrying about her welfare, before she was able to get in touch with them a few days later.

Miss Brinkmann describes seeing the devastation when she first drove through town post-cyclone; uprooted trees, debris littered everywhere and boats washed up on the beach.

She recalls the look of shock, frozen on people's faces, which she realised probably mirrored her own.

"I remember seeing all these birds just sitting on the grass, because they were so exhausted from fighting the storm," she said.

Miss Brinkmann said her housemates had to leave town, because they couldn't find work after the cyclone, but she was lucky to find a family who needed a nanny.

Despite the terrifying experience, Miss Brinkmann is still living in Airlie Beach with the Australian who stole her heart, Jiah Graham.

She said the community spirit after the cyclone was what kept her here, and although she was lucky that her only belongings could fit into a backpack, she acknowledged that people were still fighting for insurance claims and businesses were still working hard to reopen.

"I know there are people who lost everything, and I know there are people who are still struggling," she said.

Never in her life had she witnessed people, many of whom had lost their homes, band together to help get the tourist town back in order.

On March 24, 2019 her bridging visa was approved, and she is now in the process of applying for permanent residency.