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The floods in Queensland

We woke in Brisbane this morning to emergency warning sirens on the news, despite the welcome news that the river had not risen to the peak of 5.5 metres that they feared. 

Still, 4.6 metres has been enough to cause untold devastation - there are estimates that more than 15,000 homes and businesses have been affected.  Aerial coverage shows that there are areas of the city where houses are still completely under metres of filthy water. 

And that's just in Brisbane - in my hometown, the place where this disastrous chain of events began on Monday, there was an inland tsunami of some eight metres of water that utterly devastated the town without warning.

Eight metres of water which had to go somewhere, and that was down the Great Dividing Range, picking up speed as it travelled down the 2400 feet and then destroying the small communities of Murphy's Creek and Grantham in the Lockyer Valley.

These places, like my hometown, had no warning of the wall of water that was about to hit them.  A wall of water that demolished houses, tore them off their foundations and carried them along before smashing them to pieces.

There are still people missing from these tiny towns - people who are more than likely going to be found dead once the water recedes and search and rescue teams can get in and search properly. The death toll stands at 15, with probably 100 people reported missing. They've warned us the death toll will rise.

Here in Brisbane, and in our neighbouring city of Ipswich, that wall of water added to an already potentially deadly mix of weeks of rain in a wet season, the likes of which hasn't been seen since I was a child.

In 1974, when I was 12, we suffered the Australia Day floods, where the combination of a wet season, a cyclone (or hurricane) off shore and unusually high tides raised the Brisbane River to 5.5 metres and inundated the city.

The reason the tides are significant is that Brisbane is built on and around the Brisbane River, a very large tidal river.  We're used to the river coming up with the tides, used to the ferries being out of service around king tides.

After 1974, and in an effort to ensure something like those floods never happened again, the Wivenhoe Dam was built - partially to supply water to the city, but mostly to provide flood mitigation.

And then, in one of those Australian twists of fate, we endured years of drought.  I can recall the Wivenhoe being at barely 17 percent capacity not too long ago.

Dorothea Mackellar, in 1908, knew what she was talking about with her poem "My Country":

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror -
The wide brown land for me!

After so many years of drought, and what we know now as el Nino, the pendulum swung and we came under the influence of la Nina - in the terms I grew up with, it's a wet season.

Weeks of torrential rain, interspersed with occasional dry days.  Humidity so high that mould and mildew become a constant factor.  Everything feels damp and smells manky.  Yeah, it's unpleasant.  But it's the weather - you deal.

But all that rain, it's got to go somewhere.  There's an initial period where it all runs off, because the land's too parched to take it in.  Then things equalise, and it starts to seep in.  All to the good, as it's replenishing the water table.  And it flows into the dams - again, good, we can use the storage.

The dams rose to near 100% - and then over it.  The way dam capacity works, at least for the Wivenhoe, is that up to 100%, they're talking water for consumption.  Over 100% and we're into flood mitigation.  Experts watched with concern, and then alarm, as the dam approached 150% capacity.

Wivenhoe is rated for 225%, but to keep it safe, they have to release capacity.  And the water that comes out of the floodgates goes into . . . the Brisbane River.  The dams engineers worked with city engineers, and the hydrologists from the Bureau of Meteorology, to work out the best time to release the water but the rain just kept coming.

On one day, they released 490,000 kilolitres of water - only to have it instantly replaced by rainfall and runoff from the catchments.  They were fighting a losing battle.

Over the last month, town after town in Queensland has fallen prey to rising floodwaters.  Because of the rain - not all of these communities are downstream of the Wivenhoe.  Bundaberg, Maryborough, Hampton, Emerald, Gympie, Warwick, Chinchilla, Dalby - the names might not mean anything to you, but to a Queenslander?  I've worked in some of these cities, have family and friends there, know them from my childhood.

What happened in my hometown of Toowoomba, they are putting down to a "super storm" - a once in 100 year occurrence.  Some four to six inches of rain (reports and measurements vary) falling in the space of maybe 30 minutes.  My mother, who still lives there, has never seen anything like it in her life, and she's 78.

So we had something akin to what was portrayed in the movie "The Perfect Storm" - a confluence of events that, alone, would have been bad, but together created something that no one was prepared for.

Monday, the inland tsunami caused by the super storm ripped through downtown Toowoomba.  Fast enough that people were caught in their cars and swept away.  There were some 150 cars tossed along in this incredible wall of water, and left stacked up like kids toys.

Then the water tore town the Range and devastated Murphy's Creek and Grantham, again without warning.  Leaving us stunned as we learned about it.

Tuesday morning, I headed to work as usual.  So did hubby.  My first act once I got there was to call my mother and make sure she was okay - I knew she wouldn't be caught in the floods, as she's well out of the downtown area.  But she had 18 inches of water flood her laundry downstairs and short out her power.  Which fortunately could be restored by turning off her water pump and flipping the fuses.

The newspapers were distressing, and a lot of my colleagues have family in Toowoomba, so we were checking in with one another.  And then the warnings began - we hadn't thought of it, but that water had to go somewhere, and where it was now heading was the Bremer and Brisbane Rivers.

Where more of that "perfect storm" stuff was already happening.  The Wivenhoe was approaching 200% and they needed to open the floodgates.  It was pouring rain - torrential downpours.  And we were due for a high tide on Wednesday and a king tide on Thursday.

Hubby called me, saying his boss was telling folks if they thought they would have trouble getting home, or if their homes were at risk, to leave mid-morning.

Now, I'd checked our flood map for our property - our land is 4.1 to 4.7 metres above sea level, and we're built at the highest part.  However, we are close enough to a tributary of the river to potentially be affected.  The road at the end of our street has been cut a number of times in the wet with six inches of water over it.  But they were forecasting a flood peak of 5.5 metres, which was definitely cause for concern.

But no sooner was I telling hubby we'd be okay, we could stay a bit longer, when one of the managers came to tell me they were sending everyone home.  There were too many people worried about flooding (a lot of whom live far closer to the river than we do), and also people like me who may not make it home if public transport was cut.

I was at the train station at 11.30am, and it was jam-packed - there'd been no evacuation ordered, but obviously plenty of businesses were hearing the news and thinking, better safe than sorry.  Thanks to my bosses, and all the other bosses out there, who thought of their people first in the situation.

Hubby's workplace?  Well the higher ups were saying "Go home" but some of the managers were trying to convince people to stay if they weren't at risk.  They're not in the city, but still close to the river.  I couldn't quite credit it.   But more on that later.

On the way home, looking out at the rain still falling, at the river already risen by a good half metre, and this well before high tide, I knew it was going to be bad.  The ground is absolutely sodden, and there was just no place for that rain to go.  The dam needed to be released, or it might put us all at further risk.

By the time I got home, I was soaked to the skin and getting pretty nervous.  The news on TV wasn't helping - seeing the devastation already caused, hearing the forecast peaks for the river.  They were modelling the data almost hourly, based on rainfall and tides, and the first maps I saw had us in the clear, although parts of our suburb would be affected, and roads would certainly be cut.

I have two sisters living in the city, both fortunately away from the river, although my younger sister only moved out of her old house ten months ago.  A house that I'm pretty sure right now is under water.

Both of them offered to take us in if we needed to go.  Unfortunately, my younger sister lives across the river, and getting to her would be almost impossible once the river went up any higher. 

We weighed the situation and decided to stay put.  Worst case, if the flood maps showed we might be inundated, I wanted to stay and see if we couldn't sandbag and protect our property. Because we're not covered for flood damage. 

That's right - and you can believe I'm switching companies when the policies come due.  There is a company that doesn't differentiate between storm damage ("water from the sky") and flood damage ("rising water") - as far as they are concerned, if there's water in your house, they'll fix it.

Unfortunately, there will be a lot of people who will discover just this thing as they go to their insurance companies to get things fixed.

So, Tuesday night was pretty sleepless, and I was up at 3.00am, checking online for the latest information.  The flood maps then showed we'd still be okay, even if the water went as high as they feared.  But the roads between us and the train station were closed, and the trains were iffy.

My supervisor checked in with me - not to say, are you coming in to work, more wanting to know we were okay.  Hubby's boss called him, and did want to know if he was coming in.

I couldn't believe it!  The river was still rising, even if the rain had stopped - we knew we'd be flooded, we just didn't know how badly, and this doofus wanted him in the office!

As I said, they aren't in the CBD, but anyone using public transport to get there would have to come to the city and then go back out.  And cross the river into the bargain.

Public transport which was already changing, because obviously train and bus drivers, engineers, station masters, are residents of the city.  And might have been in the process of evacuating their families, sandbagging their houses, moving valuables to high ground - and so not available to work.

The electricity company was already saying that there were a number of substations in the CBD and surrounds that would be under water in the flood, and they'd be shutting those off before they blew up, thank you.

Hubby stood firm and said, no, I'm not coming in, and his boss countered with, well can you do some work from home?


Sure, boss, I'll sit at my computer and work instead of moving valuables to higher points in the house, or stacking sandbags. 

This same doofus doesn't live in Brisbane himself, so perhaps he just didn't "get" it.  But seriously, hubby is a debt collector.  How much bloody success is he going to have contacting people in the area at this point in time and getting them to cough up money?

So, yesterday, we waited for the high tide mid afternoon to see what would happen.  Watching the TV constantly, seeing more and more images of what had happened in Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley.

It was kind of amazing to see social media kicking in with good results - Twitter and Facebook were both used by the Brisbane City Council and the Queensland Police Service to disseminate vital information and to dispel myths and rumours.  One persistent one was that the Wivenhoe Dam was failing - it worries me to think someone might have started that deliberately.  Because what the city needed was a complete bloody panic on top of a panic.

And people were panicking - supermarkets were emptied as people bought up supplies, and service stations had long queues as people waited to fill their cars with fuel.  To what end, I don't know - I guess if you knew your house was safe, you might be concerned about when you could shop again if other roads were cut, but otherwise it didn't make much sense.

Our Premier Anna Bligh was and continues to be magnificent.  She's kept her promise about regular media briefings, and all along she's urged people to stay calm, and make good choices.  If you're going to evacuate, go early and go wisely.  Prepare, listen to the authorities, and look after your neighbours.

Public transport in and out the CBD was going to cease from 1.00pm, and they were already warning of power shutdowns there ahead of high tide.  I'm glad hubby didn't go in - the last thing they needed as they were bunkering down the city was people who really didn't have to be there.

Ipswich were going to get their flood first, and they were predicting 22 metres, higher than the 1974 floods.  A third of the town under water.  But again, local officials, particularly Paul Pisasale, were rock steady and on top of the situation. 

The news that Ipswich's flood "only" went to 19.4 metres was very welcome - I say "only" because they still had major inundation, but at least it wasn't as bad as it could have been.

Our high tide came and it too wasn't quite as bad as expected.  The river broke its banks and homes started to go under, but we were still waiting for the king tide, due at 4.00am this morning.

Predictions started to change around 7.30pm, revised now down to 5.1 metres.  On that level, our house was probably going to be safe.

As I said, this morning the radio alarm went off, right before the 5.00am news, and it began with the emergency siren - a sound which, since my childhood, has always frightened me.  It's usually only used for cyclones, of which I am deathly afraid, so hearing it first thing this morning was sickening.

But the news was better than it could have been - the river had peaked at 4.61 metres, and wasn't likely to go any higher.  During the night, there had been major devastation, though - I'd recommend you see for yourself on one of the Australian news sites.  I've been watching this one and it's been pretty good.  Be warned though, some of the video and photos are distressing.

Family checked in with us this morning, all relieved to find we were unscathed. And hubby's boss called . . . again wanting to know if he was coming in.  The freakin' Lord Mayor said this morning that he wanted people who weren't involved in essential services to stay off the roads and out of the CBD in particular and . . . words fail me.

Even if he had wanted to go in, the trains are yet to start running on our line.  And they had all the bridges closed because there was so much debris in the water last night, they wanted to be able to check them and make sure they were safe.

We have no idea if hubby will be paid for these days, since he couldn't work.  Or if I will, for that matter.  I strongly suspect that our Board will pay us, because they understand this was totally out of our control.  I hope the higher ups - hubby's boss's bosses - at his company do the same.  If not, well, we'll cope.

It's strange - the city, even the far-flung suburb we live in, has been so quiet all week.  Tuesday in particular was surreal.  Monday, when the rain was bucketing down, there was a sense of impending disaster.  Tuesday dawned clear and sunny.  And yet the disaster was still looming.  We knew the flood was coming - but it was a perfect Queensland summer day.  Unless you lived near the river, and could see it inching higher with every minute.

Today is similarly quiet.  But again, beautifully sunny and dry.  Which isn't going to last, unfortunately - there's rain on the way again, a cyclone in the Coral Sea that's predicted to impact around Australia Day, and another just forming up north.

There's another high tide due this afternoon, but the river dropped down to 4.25 metres by 8.30am, and continues to fall.  So even if it rises again, it's not going to inundate anything new, and authorities are still keeping people out of affected areas until such time as they can get the power back on at least.

They're saying it's going to take months, even years to repair the damage.  We're facing higher fruit and vegetable prices because so much of the state's valuable farming areas have been flooded.  There was a lot of hope being pinned on Victorian crops being available, but since they're also undergoing flooding (albeit not on the scale in this state), it looks like that's a bust.

What's really heartening is the amazing offers of help and the sense of community in adversity.  People have been volunteering all along - from working at depots filling sandbags to helping actually putting them in place for those who couldn't do so themselves.  When the RSPCA shelter at Fairfield, from where we adopted our beloved Maxie-man, put out a call for foster carers as they were going to be flooded, hundreds of people turned up, not just to take the animals but to help shelter staff move food and medical supplies onto trucks so they could be saved.

The evacuation centres have been supplied with beds and bedding, food, clothing - some from businesses, but a lot from people who just showed up with bags of clothing to donate, very welcome to people who might well have escaped with only the clothes on their backs.

For now, charities are not accepting donations of goods, because there's no way of knowing what people will be most in need of.  They are asking people to instead donate money.  The official flood relief fund is the Premier's Disaster Relief Fund.

Thank you so very much to dr_kittym for her generous offer to make icons for donations at the Queensland Fandom Fundraiser - this touched me more than words can adequately express.

As our Premier said earlier today, we are facing a recovery of post-war proportions, but she reminded us that we are Queenslanders - the ones bred tough up north.  The ones who when you knock us down, we get back up again.  As soon as the floodwaters go down, thousands of volunteers are poised to start the massive clean up.

We'll get on with it, because that's what we do.  Sure, every time there's another confirmed death, another missing person found who isn't among the living, we'll shed a tear.  Every person who walks back into a family home that's been devastated will do the same.  But then, we'll go on.

But for now, if you could keep us in your prayers while we do it?  We'd sure appreciate it.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 13th, 2011 06:12 am (UTC)
I already donated to the premier's Relief Fund last week & will be donating more now that Pay-day has come around.

I hope you & yours are safe & dry - or at least barely damp.

We here in South-East NSW are in-between the floods - Queensland & Victoria have floods, & WA have the bushfires - it's from one extreme to the other across this land of ours.
Jan. 13th, 2011 06:56 pm (UTC)
I don't currently have much money, but I will be sticking as much as I can of the little I have the Fund's way as soon as I go and get my wallet in a minute. Thoughts and prayers, though, I've got an unlimited supply of, and I'm sending them you guys' way as I type.

*hugs tight* Be safe, hon. Take care.

And thank you for taking the time to make this post. I think one of my favourite things about the internet, in the greater-good-of-mankind sense, is that it allows people far away to truly empathise when something like this happens - because we don't just hear it from news anchors and interviewed strangers any more, we hear it told in our friends' voices, and we feel it for them.

So thank you for telling this in your voice, and making me, all the way over here on the opposite side of the planet, care about it in a way that I can't just get away from by switching channels. Thank you. <3
Jan. 13th, 2011 10:37 pm (UTC)
Ich hoffe auf dich.
Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand,
und keine Qual rühret sie an.

J Brahms, in honour of those lost.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )