TV coverage of cyclone Yasi became the Race for Tully this morning as it slowly dawned on waking Queensland and Australia that the community was one of the worst hit overnight.

And in that race the commercial networks sped ahead of the ABC which seemed to give up on the challenge by focussing on events on the other side of the world rather than on one of the biggest cyclones in recorded Australian history.

While Seven was pioneering a novel form of mobile reporting and Nine was managing to balance the other big national story — the death of a soldier in Afghanistan — the ABC was stuck fast in its rigid studio-based format with very few outside reports and less sense of being connected to this huge story.

At Seven and Nine it was the weather men, Grant Denyer and Steve Jacobs respectively, who literally forged a trail into the worst hit areas. Denyer used Skype and an iPhone with a handheld camera to travel light and fast into Innsifail and south towards Tully. Along the way he was in constant contact with the anchors, Mel and Kochie, who were broadcasting on-location from Cairns and Townsville, talking to each other across the path of the storm.

Throughout the morning they regularly marvelled at how well the links to Denyer were working. Kochie explained Denyer had given lots of thought to make them work; Denyer admitted more than once he was surprised the system was functioning so well. Even the regular drop-outs, as the audio struggled to keep pace, added to the drama.

Denyer was soon Skyping from a banana plantation near Innisfail, confirming the crop had been flattened. At last there was some respite from all those hackneyed file images from overnight. It didn’t matter — as it often doesn’t — that the new images were grainy. It was the freshness and the accuracy of the information that mattered. Within minutes, Karl Stefanovic on Nine was interviewing Anna Bligh about the plight of the banana crop. Denyer’s innovative reporting was having an immediate affect on the national coverage.

Nine’s Jacobs was travelling with a traditional crew, trying to get into Tully too. He was blocked by a river 38km from the town and forced to do interviews against a backdrop of the swollen water. Denyer meanwhile travelled closer, through what he described as an “obstacle course”. He was travelling with rescue teams, filming them cutting down trees as they went.

Over on the ABC the cyclone had been relegated behind a repeat of Ben Knight’s report from Egypt. Normally it would be a big story. But today it struggled to get any traction. Later the network rigged up some live pictures from Cairo. But it could not compete with events in Queensland. Virginia Trioli’s news sense kicked in during an interview with a Red Cross spokesman — she quizzed him about a woman who had taken the initiative to move several elderly people during the cyclone, probably saving several lives in the process.

Back on Seven, Denyer had found a family in its roofless house — laughing at the ordeal they’d survived. “Sorry we didn’t get time to clean up,” said a woman in her dishevelled lounge room. They were powerful images. It was adroit reporting. It was live around the country. Nine went big on the story of the child born in an evacuation centre. The network lucked out during an interview with Cairns councillor Linda Cooper when Carol, the British midwife, came on the phone to talk us through the birth.

Nine focussed on tracking down interviewees by phone. It found “Pete the builder”in Tully who had lost half a million dollars as a banana farmer in another cyclone, only to find himself in the midst of this one. He reckoned the town was ruined. It sounded like he was choking back emotion as he quipped: “I had a shortage of work up here but I don’t now.” He gave a beautiful description of the eye of the storm: he could see the stars perfectly when the wind died, allowing his neighbours to run from their damaged houses to join him. As they were running up the stairs they could hear the wind coming from the other direction. It was “like 10 freight trains”.

Nine also spoke to its reporter Melissa Mallet, who had been based in Tully overnight. She explained: “I can’t see one house that hasn’t been flattened… It looks like the end of the world came through last night.” It wasn’t until after 11am that the first images from Tully emerged, thanks to Mallet’s reporting. In the end, neither Jacobs nor Denyer had managed to get in quick enough to get reports out before the news agenda shifted again when Lt General Hurley called a press conference to announce the death of Corporal Atkinson in Afghanistan.

Early in the morning the ABC had managed to reach a reporter from the Tully Times who gave a moving account of the devastation. She was probably the first to report that about a fifth of the roofs in town were missing. Later the ABC spoke to News Limited photographer John Wilson, who filed some pictures of Tully which the ABC broadcast. It was telling that two of the highlights of the ABC’s coverage came courtesy of reporters from other media outlets.

The conclusion from watching this morning’s coverage is that ABC TV is either too poorly resourced or too cumbersome to compete with either Seven or Nine when it comes to events like this. Over the course of today it will catch up with plenty of fine reporting but it is a shame that it is so poor at the breaking coverage of big events. This morning it dabbled with social media to fill the gap by reading the tweets and emails and text messages of viewers. But even in this regard it was way behind Nine, which made a virtue of social media by making it an integral part of its coverage.

The biggest error of the morning however belongs to Kochie at Seven, who claimed that 18-metre waves had been recorded off Townsville’s coast last night. Even casual viewers knew that Anna Bligh had gone to considerable lengths at her news conference yesterday to say the readings were wrong and should be ignored. To his credit Kochie quickly corrected the mistake.

He probably gets the award for the quote of the day too. It went something like this: “Bush and Obama may have had a war on terror, but here in Queensland we’ve got a war on nature.”