Sunday, 16 January 2011
Brisbane's paradigmatic flood occurred in January 1974, when I was 12. A rain depression in the Brisbane River catchment combined with a king tide to inundate large areas of Brisbane. I remember going with my scout group to Rocklea in the days after it subsided and helping people clear out houses which had been completely submerged. The mud and the stench was terrible.
Our house in Fairfield stood in about 2.5 metres of water in 1974, filling the downstairs part of the house and covering the floorboards upstairs. Our neighbours in low set houses were completely submerged. We didn't live there then, of course. When we bought the house in 1994 we checked out flood levels and were told that the building of Wivenhoe Dam lowered them by about 2 metres.
Fast forward to 2010-11. The La Nina weather pattern dumped huge amounts of rain on Queensland and town after town went under. Rain poured all through the Brisbane River catchment once again and Brisbane was threatened.
On Tuesday, January 11 we listened to the radio and Brisbane's Lord Mayor warned that about 6000 Brisbane properties were at risk of flooding, including four in Fairfield. This clearly wasn't us - there are hundreds of homes in Fairfield lower than we are. In the morning I cheerfully reassured friends and family that we weren't at risk, and cleared a few things off the floor downstairs just in case. Early on Tuesday afternoon a police officer knocked on our door and advised us to evacuate. He had little information - he was just delivering the message. We got some people over to help, moved any valuable stuff upstairs, picked things up off the floor, and decamped to my sister's house with our most precious possessions.
That evening we watched the TV news and for the first time got a full picture of what was happening. The Mayor and Premier used the words "worse than 1974". In 1974 the Brisbane River was 5.45 metres above sea level at the City guage. The predicted 2011 peak, in the early hours of Thursday morning, was 5.5m. Wivenhoe Dam was overfull and water was being released. Huge amounts of rain had fallen in the Lockyer and Bremer Rivers, flooding Laidley and Ipswich and then sending water into the Brisbane River below Wivenhoe. Just as in 1974, incoming tides pushed seawater up river to meet it.
Early in Wednesday morning we went back to our house to find water already lapping around the bottom step. We rang friends and relations and started removing anything we could. As the water rose the evacuation gathered pace as both friends and complete strangers, those we'd called and those we hadn't, helped carry stuff our to the waiting cars and trailers. A man I'd never met from a little way up the hill parked his truck on the corner and we loaded it up. A huge Maori man helped us carry the fridge downstairs. When we called a halt at about 10.00 am, with water up to our thighs at ground level, most things of any value were either on their way to other people's houses, or at least up off the floor in the upstairs part of the house.
Then we waited. The water rose. SEQ Water slowed the flow from Wivenhoe as the tide came up. The flood peaked at 4.46m above sea level.
On Thursday morning I rode my bike down to take a look. Police were stopping cars at the railway underpass, but letting residents through. I couldn't get near the house to see where the water had got to but the high water mark on the front fence looked hopeful. Less hope for the neighbours further down the hill, whose houses sat in deep water. Our local shopping centre was flooded out, the park was a lake.
Thursday afternoon the water receded futher and confirmed hopes - I could get to the house and see the water line half a metre below our upstairs floor. I waded to the front steps and checked upstairs. Everthing was dry, but a mess from our quick exit.
So began the cleanup. All the water had gone by Friday morning, leaving a film of mud on the concrete floors and walls. Our electricity switchboard and hot water system had been submerged. We brought gloves, hoses and brooms. More friends and strangers came and helped. Sodden furniture and possessions were piled on the footpath for the promised Council collection. We hosed, swept and scrubbed. People brought food. The food hastily emptied from the fridge was added to the pile of rubbish. A crew upstairs sorted the rubble in preperation for the return of our possessions. By the end of the day most of the mud was out of the house and off the paths and driveway, upstairs was in reasonable order, the rubbish was out, and we were all exhausted. Saturday most of the furniture came back. We're still waiting for the electrician, and for the phone service to return.
Our neighbourhood is a mess. On the high side of our block its not too bad - the neighbours at the top of the street escaped altogether, the ones next down had small amounts of water. The two houses lower down on our side of the street are low-set, and the residents lost pretty much everything. Down at the shopping centre the mud is ankle deep. No-one will be playing cricket in the park for a while. On the other hand our neighbourhod has never been busier. The whole area is full of parked cars as volunteers stop wherever they can. People in boots, with shovels over their shoulders, wander by all day. People patrol the street with food and drink to sustain the workers. Somene handed the guys working in our front yard some beers. A swarm of Energex workers fanned out across the street yesterday, tagging and leaving forms for electricians still to come.
I'm still trying to think what we can do to recognise all the people who have helped us. I don't even know who they all are. Whoever and wherever you are, thank you from the bottom of my heart.
The story continues here and here.