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Published: February 9th 2011
Murky floodwaters had covered an area the combined size of Germany and France in my home state of Queensland, and it was heading my way. Heavy rains came for days and though they didn’t fall much on me in Brisbane, they were pounding the already saturated catchment area which formed an “inland tsunami” (to quote a local politician) that roared through the valleys west of Brisbane and killed more than a dozen people.
Sitting at my 24th floor work desk on Tuesday 11 January I could see the now brown waters of the Brisbane River slowly rising. Stories spread that public transport would soon be interrupted so our office was soon reduced to a handful of people as most departed to beat the rising floodwaters. I remained since my home was only a 20 minute walk away and could see my apartment complex from the office window, so knew that my passage home was still guaranteed. Late that afternoon, the Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, warned that within 48 hours the flood would exceed the 1974 levels – an event well recorded in the many black and white photos and films of the time. On this occasion, the media would be
able to provide its extensive coverage in colour.
Knowing the street where I live was badly inundated during 1974, it was time to leave. Bidding the only two co-workers remaining (John and Alan) farewell, I was not to know it would be almost a week before I could return to work. Since there was a real possibility of my isolation by floodwaters, I needed to purchase food supplies. Arriving at the supermarket saw me enter a scene of apprehension and mild panic; many shelves were empty (I grabbed the last loaf of white bread) and there were huge gaps where vegetables, eggs and bottled water used to be located. “We won’t have any stock tomorrow,” quipped the man on the checkout as people kept streaming into the store.
I headed to my apartment in Southbank, a very popular destination where Brisbane’s two million inhabitants and countless tourists visit for its gardens, a beach that overlooks the city skyline, a lovely boardwalk, and over 50 restaurants within a few minutes stroll of each other. However, the place looked anything like a destination of choice as many businesses were already closed with sandbags and plastic sheeting protecting them from the
predicted floodwaters. However, there were still numerous people wandering the area to observe the floodwaters steady rise.
Once home, I immediately moved my possessions stored in an underground car park shed, for any flooding would see these items lost to the floodwaters – and this proved to be a wise decision. After more than three hours of moving boxes to my apartment, I flopped onto the bed knowing that the task was complete. During this moving, I noted that the building was already very quiet, over 90% of my fellow residents at the Arbour on Grey complex had evacuated the area, but being two floors above ground level, the only danger to me was isolation and loss of electricity.
Under sunny skies the following morning I wandered the Southbank parklands, and was surprised to see that the river had risen dramatically. The faces of onlookers had changed from curiosity to that of concern. The water had totally inundated the now closed boardwalk and was lapping at the BBQ areas and public seating. The threatening floodwaters were flowing so incredibly fast that it is difficult to convey this speed on any photo and video, and it contained a vast
array of debris, pontoons broken from their mooring would rush past every few minutes, and some would have small aluminium boats perched atop. Large vessels and trees would bobble along the turgid waters and some would violently slam into a bridge pylon, causing all manner of debris to be scattered skyward. The banks were lined with numerous sightseers, as history was being made, though a dark one; comparable to the car accident you are compelled to watch, even though you shouldn’t.
One could discern the river rising as it crawled along paths and up stairs. More concerning was the lax attitude to this looming disaster by those in charge of Southbank Parklands. Families were strolling dangerously close to the water and some even had prams, a situation that would make it impossible for them to flee quickly if the water rose dramatically – a highly irresponsible situation.
I was able to provide some assistance to others, but after filling a few sandbags, it came time to protect the entrance to our foyer, where three people in the space of five minutes offered to help. It demonstrated that Australians excel in their willingness to help others in times of
adversity. Australia donated over 1.3 billion dollars to the victims of the Asian Tsunami in 2004, far and away the highest contributor based on GDP of any nation. When these floods were over, residents whose properties were flooded reported seeing dozens of people cleaning their gardens and homes, and they didn’t know any of them. This volunteer army numbered in their thousands and they typified the vigour with which the Australian community rallies together in desperate times.
The return to my apartment saw the unfortunate discovery that the electricity had been cut. Now was a good time to visit the resident manager of my apartment complex, Lorraine. For the next few days, Lorraine and a fellow neighbour Brendan, would be at the centre of the monitoring and recovery of the apartment block. With Lorraine receiving as many as 300 calls and text messages a day for updates, it fell to Brendan and I to trudge seemingly endless flights of stairs to monitor the rising floodwaters (even during the middle of the night) and to allow entrance to trades people during the recovery phase.
After an agitated call from Lorraine warning Southbank of their public liability risk by allowing
people so close to the floodwaters, the area was finally cleared of sightseers in the late afternoon, barricades were established, and the whole place was hushed. It was unusual to witness my apartment building sitting within a cordoned police zone. I undertook a final reconnaissance of the area near my apartment, water was gurgling up through the drains and had already flowed around the far end of the adjacent building to where I lived. Roads were made impassable by waist deep water, and this was only 150 metres from my home. I checked the underground carpark, water had even seeped into there from the rising water table, and the still brown waters covered a fair portion of the area. If this inundation continued as predicted, then my building would be surrounded by water at least knee deep and possibly higher.
Night fell, and though my shower was cold, at least the food was hot as I still had gas supply. The benighted streets usually filled with laughter and lights were dark and foreboding. The only illumination was provided by the patrolling police whose lights emblazoned the streets with red and blue hues. There was an obvious tension, the navy
reserve had been brought in and my street was in lockdown, and all non-residents were directed elsewhere, but the number of sightseers trying to access the area was frustrating the authorities. One car stupidly stopped at an unmanned roadblock trying to calculate a way to progress when a police vehicle arrived and an angry officer’s voice echoed across the buildings “What are you doing! Get away, you idiot!!”
On this night, hundreds of streets would be cut, over 100,000 properties in the region would have no electricity, and by the morning, 36,000 homes and businesses would be directly affected by the flood. The rising waters had activated sirens in neighbouring buildings, and this was the most distinctive sound to penetrate the darkness. I was living in the middle of a declared State of Emergency, and this title felt well deserved.
I was fully prepared for peak at 04:00 on Thursday morning with spare batteries, canned food, and many litres of bottled water in case of contaminated supply. With windows and doors opened to cool the summer’s evening, and with my phone and torch resting beside me on the bed, I quietly drifted to sleep whilst waiting for the
My slumber was interrupted just after midnight by the sound of rushing water – had the floodwaters arrived this early? I leapt to the balcony and peering down, was surprised to espy a dry street, but then noticed heavy rain drops appearing on the railing. I sighed in relief and returned to bed, knowing that next time I woke, the floodwaters would be at their peak...
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