Flooding Rains

Posted by Jenny on Jul 8, 2011 in Snapshot |

The rain was relentless.  For a couple of weeks it had poured out of the sky with only intermittent breaks. Every few days the sun half-heartedly peeked through the clouds for an hour or so.  It was no surprise when on Monday flood warnings for the Bremer and Brisbane River were issued for Wednesday and Thursday.  Over the period of a couple of days and despite previous releases Wivenhoe dam had filled to almost double its capacity.

At 1:30pm Monday 11 January, a freak flash flood swept through  the centre of  Toowoomba (population 128,600) perched on the crest of the Great Dividing Range, roaring through the main street, sweeping cars, trucks, debris and people away.  Some managed to cling to poles, car roofs, and trees; most were rescued but a mother and her young son were not. The wall of water continued eastward, descending down the range and devastating many small hamlets and farms in Lockyer Valley over the next few hours.  The small town of Grantham (population 360) was particularly hard hit when – with no or minimal warning – cars, trucks, houses, boats, small planes and people swept helplessly away leaving only one street of houses standing, many dead and with many still missing.  Overall, the “insland tsunami” took 21 lives and over 100 families were significantly affected by flood waters in Toowoomba, the Lockyer Valley and the Condamine region.

The combined waters from the Lockyer Valley, necessary flow releases from the Wivenhoe dam and Bremer river and had swollen the Brisbane river into red, muddy, raging torrent.  By Wednesday night a third of Ipswich (population 155,000) was under water as the Bremer overflowed its banks with homes and business flooded and many more cut off by flood water and/or without electricity.  Brisbane (population 2,000,000) was next.  While the waters did not reach the worst case scenario(4.46 m rather than 5.5m),  low lying areas close to the Brisbane River, Breakfast Creek and the Pine river were engulfed in the steady rise of flood waters including much of the Central Business District.  Homes, businesses, the Rocklea markets, the iconic Suncorp Stadium (Lang Park), schools, parks, pools and recreation areas were swamped.  Upstream the Moggil Ferry broke one of its two tow lines threatening to torpedo down the river.  A picturesque floating Restaurant, the River walkway (stretching along the vibrant bank of the river), most of the city’s Ferry cat terminals and platoons as well as many private platoons and boats were submerged, damaged and in many cases swept away. In total over 20,000 thousand homes were inundated,  80,000 homes lost power (and another 30,000 in Ipswich), 35 suburbs affected and at least four suburbs totally cut off for three days.  The Central Business District CBD (or City) was virtually deserted with many skyscrapers flooded, power turned off to a large area and all buses and most trains into the city cancelled.   Startling images of flooded streets, a raging debris choked river, freeways turned into rivers, families and even cows stranded on roofs, individuals navigating in tinnies, canoes and even spas through once quiet leafy suburbs, a frog perched on a swimming snake’s back and a fox on a floating tyre in the midst of swirling waters flooded the TV and computer screens of a stunned nation.

It is 37 years since Brisbane has experienced rainfall and flooding of this magnitude.  And while the flood peaked lower in most areas, many more homes, businesses and infrastructure were affected than in 1974.  However this disaster was not confined to the southeast of Queensland.  During the 2010/2011 Queensland Floods  over three quarters of the State was declared a diaster area.  Even before Toowoomba, the Lockyer Valley, Ipswich and flooded over half the area of Queensland  ( or about  1,000,000 square kilometres – the size of France and Germany combined) had been been flooded with many hamlets and towns completely cut off and with others having only just finished cleaning up the thick mud and debris from homes and businesses when they were flooded again and then again.  Over 80 towns were significantly affected by flooding across Queensland. To the south, in northern NSW the Grafton and the Clarence River valley was also experiencing major floods and in a few short days after the flood in Brisbane and Ipswich, large areas of Victoria were inundated (many like the area around Rochester for the second time in months).  Within weeks the North of Queensland was hit by two cyclones, including the devastating Yasi.  Ironically, on the other side of Australia, Perth in Western Australia was experiencing a dry, burning heat with fierce home destroying bushfires lit deliberately.  Overall, in the summer floods of December 2010/January 2011 35 people died, countless livestock and wild life perished or displaced, with a massive economic impact (estimated at over a billion dollars).  Nor has the flooding and its inpact ended with many people dislocated and/or living in temporary accomodation, roads and infrastructure still being repaired or replaced and many Queensland coal mines remaining closed due to flooding.  The scale of the devastation is hard to imagine yet despite its extent loss of life was relatively minimal (compared to the 1,836 deaths with Katrina in 2005 which affected 90,000 square miles or 233,000 square kilometers or over 1,800 deaths in the 2010 Pakistan Floods affecting approximately 796,095 square kilometres).

Yet this is not just a tale of disaster, devastation, grief and horror.  It is also a story of rescue, bravery, resilience, mateship, compassion and practical help. There are in fact too many of these stories to relate though some stick strongly in my memory.   In Toowoomba, a brave young boy clinging on the roof of the car urged the rescuers to rescue his younger brother first.  His brother was saved but minutes later a wave of water swept him and his mother away.  At Murphy’s Creek a brother helpls saves his sister by pushing her into into the roof space of their house though he doesn’t have enough time to save his parents.  In Grantham, seeing a wall of water bearing down on them two brothers evacuated both their families and  neighbours, transferring from 4WD to boat to get them to high ground before going back in the boat to pluck people from the raging waters.  At Moggil the captain of the ferry spent a turbulent night on board his stricken vessel to ensure it did not careen down the river causing more damage in its wake.  Down the river a tug boat captain risked his life to steer sections of the broken River Walkway away from the threatened pylons of the bridge.

On Tuesday and Wednesday as the Brisbane and Bremer Rivers began rising rapidly, many volunteers  turned up to help sandbag homes and business, to move people’s belongings and furniture and to help evacuate areas in the hours before the flood waters arrived.  On Wednesday evening, Kevin Rudd, Australia’s Foreign Minister and former Prime Minister, waded through knee deep, brown murky water blocks away from his own house, warning people it was time to go and helping carry suitcases of belongings out of the flooded area.  During the crisis Queensland Premier Anna Bligh, Brisbane Mayor Campbell Newman and Ipswich Mayor Paul Pisasale worked tirelessly to keep people informed and the flood response coordinated.  In the days immediately following the flood, as the waters slowly receded, so many people turned up to help with the clean up that roads were gridlocked.  Christened the Mud Army over 55,000 volunteers (neighbours, community groups, churches, family, friends, strangers), army and emergency services (SES and fire brigade) all pitched in to help clear the mass of muddy debris, once valued possessions, and metres deep thick, smelly, sticky mud that covered everything.  Our local church sent out a number of teams to help, our thrift shop donating clothes and other necessities to and taking up special offering for flood affected people, a church from the Gold Coast turned up with a sausage sizzle to help feed the army of volunteers in Graceville, a group of Muslims arrived to help feed the volunteers in the West End.  Family, friends and concerned strangers have opened homes to flood displaced people.  Family Radio 96.5 had to offer of temporary accommodation accepted gratefully by another flood-affected FM Radio station.  So many stories of people caring about their neighbour (of good Samaritans seeing the need and doing something about it) that outweigh by far the more dismal stories of opportunists (a few looters, people making bogus charity collections, or trying to take advantage of flood affected people’s disorientation and shock to sell exorbitant insurance or buy houses for a faction of their cost, others taking the government’s emergency handouts under the pretence of being flood affected).

Life had begun to get back to some semblance of normality when in the north of the State, Cyclone Yasi hit the coast at Mission Beach, between the cities of Cairns and Townsville. As a category 5 cyclone (hurricane), Yasi had winds of up to 300 km an hour at its epicentre.  With a diameter of 1000 kms it affected towns from Cairns to Mackay and only petered out as a tropical rain depression by the time it had reached Mt Isa some 500 kms from the coast, continuing on in the next couple of weeks to bring rain and wind to Darwin and the west coast of Australia.   Providentially, Yasi’s eye did not cross the coast at a major population centre like Townsville or Cairns and fatalities and serious injuries were surprisingly minimal.  Nevertheless, one man died, the small communities of Mission Beach, Cardwell, Silkwood, Tully, Ingham and Innisfail were devastated with up to a third of houses unroofed or smashed to pieces;  with many businesses, community buildings and infrastructure damaged and hectares of banana and other crops flattened in areas that had just begun to recover from the devastation of Cyclone Larry in 2006.   The major power grid along the coast was shattered with at one point close to/over 300,000 homes without power (many of them for days or even weeks), water treatment plants damaged in Townsville and Magnetic Island and flooding from storm surges submerging roads, businesses and buildings and hampered access of emergency personnel to communities devastated by the cyclone.  While the morning after the cyclone hit there was a huge sense of relief with minimal loss of life and with the major population areas largely spared, a sense of “dodging a bullet”, the devastated communities that took the brunt of the monster cyclone are still reeling, still coming to grips with the scale of the disaster and the long, slow process of recovery which was hampered by more heavy rain in the days following the Cyclone.

It will  take many months, even years before those most badly affected by the floods and cyclone will recover. In Brisbane,  many homes and businesses still need to be declared safe before electricity and services can be turned on and people are allowed to return home.  It will take years for damaged infrastructure like most of the Citycat (ferry system) along the Brisbane River, damaged roads etc, to be fully restored across Brisbane and the State affected by floods and those areas affected by the Yasi’s fury.  Stagnant and debris filled flood waters, mould, the arduous task of cleaning up has its own toll of illness, injury and even deaths. More pervasive and in some ways more damaging though less visible will be the mental toll as people grieve the loss of loved ones, deal with the loss of possessions, homes, livelihoods and the suffer anxiety and depression in response to such a capricious, sudden, overpowering, fearsome series of epic natural disasters which have buffeted this state and nation in the course of a few short weeks.  Queenslanders are a resilient lot – in the midst of the crisis thankful for what they had not lost.  And it has been heart warming to see the community banding together, neighbours who may never have spoken to each other in the years they lived side by side, suddenly working together to help each other; friends, family, community groups, churches and strangers pitching in to help.  As the disaster fades from the headlines, many families and individuals will still need a helping hand as they come to terms with what they have lost.  And while the Government is still struggling to respond to those in personal need, for many the church have been on the ground, in their communities, with effective and pratical help.

In the aftermath, questions begin to surface – could we have done anything better, what can we do to prevent this from happening again, will climate change mean that floods like these (as well as droughts) will become much more frequent (a once in a decade rather than a twice in a century events), is anyone to blame and what lessons can we learn?  Certainly a combination of providence (the raining stopping on Tuesday with a lower than predicted flood peak in Ipswich and Brisbane, Cyclone Yasi crossing the Queensland coast in a less populated area) as well as an ordered and timely response by Government at all levels, the hard work and courage of emergency personnel (many volunteers), building codes and the common sense and preparedness of general population has meant minimal loss of life and serious injury though property and infrastructure damage will cost billions of dollars.  An inquiry into the government response to the Flood and the management of Wivenhoe has already delivered interim findings – probing the flaws and breakdowns and exploring better ways of responding to such an overwhelming diaster.  Houses in less flood prone areas and the traditional Queensland highset houses will be probably become more popular again in Brisbane.  Cardwell picturesquely perched next to the ocean may be rebuilt differently.  Larger questions about the human contribution to climate change and global warning are being asked.   At least a few lonely voices have claimed that these disasters as God’s punishment for certain societal trends though there are other more considered views.

As a Brisbane-ite , I experienced the relentless rain, the slippery driveways, the falls and empty supermarket shelves, but in our homes in the hilly northern suburbs we were only indirectly affected by the floods only a few kilometres away.  We like many have watched and listened to the desolation and heartache, the heroism and stoicism, the uplifting community spirit in so many of the devastated areas.  We saw familiar landmarks inundated or blown away, worried about friends and family living in more directly affected areas  and listened to their stories by phone, email or facebook.  We, (family, friends and local church community), like so many others have commiserated with our friends on facebook, prayed fervently, contributed materially to those affected by floods and cyclone, helped with the clean-up and continue to keep those whose lives have been devastated in our hearts.  And in the mist of all the post mortems, the assessments and reviews, the questions asked, I find a strange uncanny silence.  Unlike with the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina – I heard virtually no one in the media  asking “where is God in this?” Does it matter?

Does this silence of the public media reflects a major trend in 21st century Australia – a decided move away from our traditional theistic worldview?   While there is no doubt that this reflects the mind-set and experiences of a growing number of people in our society, perhaps even the majority, for many in Brisbane, Toowoomba, Innisfail, Townsville and the other towns across our State and nation, God was NOT conspicuous by his absence in the midst of the rain and wind. For those who listened, he was present in answered prayers -  in the sunshine on Tuesday morning before the flood when the rain finally stopped; in the sense of relief on the morning after Yasi struck that no deaths had been reported; in the hearts and hands of the volunteers who turned up to help strangers begin to rebuild their lives and as a source of help, strength and protection in the midst of uncertainity and in the days and months ahead as Queenslanders reflect, grieve and rebuild.


Looking deeper:
“In 2011, a great many Australians have faced the full force of nature’s fury and many are still picking up the pieces.  …” http://jennysthread.com/building-on-bedrock/

Experiencing God in the everyday from CPX on Vimeo.










“Its Showtime in the Bush” in Courier Mail, 5 March 2011, p4











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