Brisbane is the capital city of Queensland, Australia. Queensland is known as the Sunshine State and it is also known to have some extreme weather. This is an account of what happened in early 2011.
On 11th January 2011 residents and business owners near the banks of the Brisbane River were made aware via news reports that the river was likely to break its banks and flood large parts of the city. A similar weather event took place in 1974 when a one in a hundred year flood occurred. It seemed that this was going to happen again, but it was happening 63 years early!
I work in a primary healthcare field and we were having a busy day. It had been raining for days and as it was school holidays, mothers were using the time to bring their kids in for an annual check. Because we are in a community shopping centre, they could get some shopping done and perhaps have some lunch. They were in no hurry to get back out into the rain.
However the threat of flooding was on the minds of many people. Amanda, a 39 year old German university lecturer, came in for an early appointment. She told me that her husband had woken that morning and said "We have to sell this house. It's too close to the river and I am worried about his flooding thing".
The 1974 event was not expected to happen again. The gigantic Wivenhoe Dam had been built 50 km upstream to address the drought problems that Queensland was having. The dam was expected to mitigate the flooding risk through controlled release of water. But according to news reports, the Wivenhoe dam was on that day holding over 110 percent of its capacity. I could not comprehend 110 percent capacity but apparently it takes into account supplementary water storage capacity which acts as a buffer to prevent catastrophic damage to the dam wall. For some reason, (this is still being investigated) no controlled release of water had taken place up to that fateful day. It seemed the fear of drought still overshadowed the concept of flood mitigation.
So the dam was full and there was no sign of the rain stopping. Water from the catchment areas was rushing towards the Ivanhoe dam.
My colleague Rajeev and I closed up the office at about 3pm. I had just finished seeing a mum and her four kids. Water was rising at the intersection outside and time was running out. Our premises were seemingly a couple of metres above the road level and I anticipated returning to work the next day to find wet floors and carpets at the worst. I did not imagine that within 12 hours our office would be under four feet of water. Nearby houses would be inundated up to their roof tops.
I got home safely and watched the rolling TV coverage of events. News reports indicated that water from the Wyvenhoe dam would now be released in large quantities to preserve the integrity of the dam wall construction. The unanswered question was “why the hell wait until now?”
Later that night came the SMS on my cellphone, complete with spelling error:
Flash Flood Warning-Brisbane River to reach 18-19m Wednesday AM.Residents close to River or associated tributories monitor situ overnight & evacuate if required.
In the middle of that night Amanda and her husband evacuated their house which became inundated up to the ceiling. The mum and kids I had seen that afternoon had loaded their lounge furniture, beds and TVs onto a friend's pickup truck in the dark of night as the electricity began to fail. They had to evacuate and are still living with relatives. Elderly women and men stood on their first floor balconies watching the water rise and were eventually evacuated by emergency services workers in powerboats. This scenario was played out up and down the Brisbane River in dozens of towns and suburbs. I have since met several older residents who have now lived through 2 flooding events of the same home (in 1974 and 2011).
Seven months later, hundreds of people have been unable to move back into their own homes. Our suburb, along with many others, has rows of deserted, unrepaired homes. There is also a smell associated with the flooding which is due to the fact that the flooding waters contained organic matter, fertiliser products, waste, and sadly, many dead animals. This smell filled the air in January, and six months later it sometimes still surfaces.
Businesses have had to close and those that have re-opened have taken out loans to get back on their feet. A local cabinet maker has borrowed a million dollars in order to keep on his staff of 17 people employed and meet his commitments. Many others do not have the resources or capacity to claw back their lives.
But this pales in comparison with the flash flood that devastated the Lockyer valley community further upstream on that same day. Entire homes were carried away in the torrent without warning. People had to be airlifted from their rooftops. Sadly many lives were lost. This is a story far sadder and more horrific and perhaps a subject for another node.
Today Brisbane is still under repair. Large swathes of suburbs have rows of houses in disrepair awaiting insurance claims which are still being contested. Ferry terminals have to be rebuilt and riverside parks and walkways are gradually reopening.
The event brought together communities and forged friendships. It created the informal "Mud Army", a happy band of young and old whose homes were not affected and who went forth with spades, wheelbarrows, brooms and buckets to help anyone who needed it. Others spent the next 2 weeks making sandwiches and lunches for victims and workers. Gas barbecues were trundled down the streets to set up snack stations.
It brought out some of the best of the people of this city. Sadly the less economically well off found it more difficult to find the positives. To use an Australian expression, there are still many people who are doing it hard.
An enquiry is under way into the management of the Wivenhoe Dam relating to the flooding events of that week. To date, no specific person or action has been held responsible. However it has been stated that procedures relating to the management of the dam will be reviewed.
The people of Queensland await further outcome and for the most part are getting on with their lives.