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The Brisbane Floods: A Year On

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been a year (and a week) since the devastating events of January 2011. So much has happened since then, but it still seems like just yesterday that I was glued to the TV watching events unfold. It seemed so surreal, yet I could walk 100m down the street and see very well that it wasn’t. I could have stayed sitting on my couch with the TV and I still would have known that something was not right because of the constantly circling helicopters.

Dock Floating Downriver

A dock floating down the swollen Brisbane River on Tuesday, January 11.

The floods hit South East Queensland in full force on Monday, January 10. A very routine visit to the dentist’s office (driven to through pelting rain, which had been coming down for the greater part of a month and a half) turned into shock as I sat in the waiting room watching cars and houses being carried away by raging torrents of water. I simply could not believe it — how could Toowoomba, a town built on a mountain range, flood like that? And how could entire towns just be wiped out?

Empty Coles

The local grocery store after people had finished panic shopping.

Needless to say, it was difficult to concentrate the next day at work. Not only were people talking about the tragedy in the Lockyer Valley, but we were watching the evidence of the floods slowly creeping towards our front door. Our street in West End was closed to all traffic and at lunchtime, the river was very close to its banks just a few blocks away. It was time to head home and batten down the hatches, although that proved to be much more interesting than usual since the train through Milton and Auchenflower seemed to be on a bridge crossing the river rather than just elevated above normal suburbs. The local grocery store, which I thought I should stop by to get some basics in case we lost power, was packed with people busy doing their panic shopping but devoid of produce, meat, baked beans, and various other staples.

The Underwater Club is...underwater

The aptly named “Underwater Club” at UQ.

The next two days were a blur of sad images, either seen on TV or witnessed in person. It was strange being in the centre of a disaster without being physically affected. The end of my street flooded and I only had to walk a few hundred meters to stand on the Walter Taylor Bridge and watch the Brisbane River rage, carrying docks, water tanks, and various other large objects downstream.

Just after the flood peak on Thursday morning (which was luckily 1m lower than the predicted 5.5m height), I went for a walk around St. Lucia and the University of Queensland. The wakeboarding club — which is ironically housed in a shed with the “underwater club” — was just visible over the flood waters and the tennis courts were slightly more wet than you could easily squeegee up (since they were many meters underwater). Plus, I never thought I would see the Coolum Surf Lifesavers launching a rubber ducky in the middle of Warren Street in St Lucia, where I had lived as a study abroad student. Through all of this, the sun shined brightly, because the rain had stopped as soon as enough had been dumped to cause the floods.

Mitre St Floods

Popular takeaway shops at St Lucia (Nando’s, Indian, and a few others) completely underwater.

The Coolum Surf Lifesavers were some of the many brave volunteers that worked throughout the floods to help keep the community safe. The SES did their best to save the people that were struggling for their lives in the torrents rushing through Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley. Some risked their lives wading into dangerous waters to save those that were stranded in cars or clinging to trees; others took on the demanding task of rescuing people off of roofs barely sticking out of raging rapids.

Even Anna Bligh, who until that point had been a rather unpopular premier, did an outstanding job. I must admit that there was a tear or two when she gave her famous speech, saying “As we weep for what we have lost, and as we grieve for family and friends and we confront the challenge that is before us, I want us to remember who we are. We are Queenslanders. We’re the people that they breed tough, north of the border. We’re the ones that they knock down, and we get up again.” While I’m not a born Queenslander, that speech made me feel proud. It made me happy that I had chosen a place to live that has such a strong community.

Cleaning Up

Cleaning up at a friend’s house in Jindalee.

On Friday the 14th, as soon as the floods had receded enough that some roads were reopened, I headed to Jindalee to help some friends clean the mud out of their house (since my company was good enough to let me have a day off for volunteer work). It was terrible to see — 1.7m of water in a house that they’d only purchased the year prior. Between all of us, though, we managed to remove most of the damaged belongings and the (visible) mud by the end of the day, often by using lines of people with brooms that formed a sort of conveyor belt of mud pushers.

No one in the neighbourhood was short of hands because there were so many roaming volunteers, armed with a broom or a shovel, offering help to anyone that needed it. Those that weren’t helping with the cleanup itself were there to ensure that the volunteers were well fed and watered; we even had a heavily pregnant woman make her way up the muddy driveway to offer us a box of Subway subs. The street was a veritable hive of activity in amongst the piles of muddied mattresses, books, and other belongings that towered in front of every house.

Cleaning Up in Graceville

The cleanup in Graceville.

The next day, being a weekend, was even busier. It was nearly impossible to get into the flooded suburbs because so many people — both residents and members of the “mud army” — were trying to get in and be part of the cleanup. After it took me almost 20 minutes to get across Indooroopilly and all of the banked up traffic going towards Oxley, I took my car home and chose a simpler form of transport — my bike. This wasn’t necessarily the best idea, as I found out very quickly that they don’t handle particularly well on the muddy goo that covered the recently-flooded streets!

I eventually made it to a friend of a friend’s house in Graceville without major injury, where I worked alongside the (actual) army clearing mud off the street and out of the front yards of houses. There were so many people there that some were finding trouble doing work without getting in each other’s way. Again, the difference between when I got there and when I left in the early afternoon was stunning.

What an experience it was to cycle back to and then along Oxley Road. The sheer enormity of what had been destroyed was overwhelming, but between many of these piles was a BBQ for all of the neighbours. Even a convenience store that had been fully flooded was putting on sausage sizzle to help buck up the neighbours’ spirits. And, there were many more smiles than I could reasonably expect from such a sobering experience.

Cleaning up at UQSki

Pushing mud back into the river where it belongs!

Even later that day at the wakeboarding club — well into the UQ campus, where a lot of the cleanup was the responsibility of the university — we had a few volunteers who had wandered in from St Lucia after having been turned away from every house they went to. I have to say that the mud-sweeping I did there was the most gratifying of all, because we were able to push mud from the back of the shed (where it was calf-deep) straight back into the river where it belonged!

All of this really struck a chord with me, as someone that is used to living in another disaster-prone area (the US Gulf Coast). We saw the hell that Katrina put New Orleans through in 2005, but were people rushing in to Louisiana and Mississippi like they were into Chelmer and Jindalee? No. When Houston was flooded by Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, did 25,000 people register as volunteers (and tens of thousands more just rock up with smiles and shovels) to help clean up the inundated Medical Center, or the many houses that had been swallowed by small waterways like Clear Creek? No. But here, they did. It didn’t matter that they risked getting sick or had to get a tetanus shot before they could even start cleaning (and I for one ended up with a chest infection and a foot infection). They just wanted to be there and do what they could to help.

It’s now over twelve months since the floods, and still the city bears the marks of it (as it will for years to come). There is still a lot of work to be done, and there are special people that will always be missing from their loved ones’ lives. But I know that every time I see a house still being repaired or a missing dock on the river, I think of how the people of Queensland pulled together during that trying time and how, if faced with another difficult situation, they no doubt would again.

Want to read more personal experiences of the Queensland floods of 2011? Please check out “It Was the Worst of Times” by Jack McClane, one of my Twitter buddies that helped me keep up to date with news during the floods (and who also provided the transcript of Anna Bligh’s speech).

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