Thursday, January 20, 2011


I arrived in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland, January 5th. 2011. Within days I would witness a natural disaster that stunned the nation and world alike, and then a clean up effort that simply made me proud to be Australian.

This is how one of the worst natural disasters in Australian history played out. Armageddon was the term used by survivors.


Northern Queensland had been experiencing heavy rains for weeks, with a cyclone coming to shore on Christmas day to add to the burden, and thereafter came more heavy rains and wide spread flooding that went from bad to worse to inconceivably devastating in the weeks to come. La Nina, a weather phenomenon where cold and warm currents in the Pacific Ocean blend together to play havoc with atmospheric pressures, was unleashing storm after storm that pounded central and eastern Australia without reprieve. By January 9th, 75% percent of Queensland was declared a disaster zone, being an area 2.5 times the size of the England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined that had gone under. Supply routes in the north of the state had been cut off from relief and emergency rescue teams, leaving populated areas, in dire need of food and clean water supplies, to fend for themselves. Towns in the southeast prepared for the worst as the storms moved down the coast, with rivers and flood waters swelling to record levels.

Courtesy of SUNDAY MAIL, QLD
And then it happened; a culmination of events that were impossible to believe, let alone prepare for.

What would later be described as a-once-in-a-hundred-year super storm was spotted on radar January 10th, heading north east across Queensland toward the Lockyer Valley. Hitting the Great Dividing Mountain Range, which shadows the coastline, and rising upward, the storm ran into another storm that had been creating havoc on the other side of the range, becoming one, causing an extreme weather and flashflood event that dumped over 200 mm of rain in an hour.

The city of Toowoomba, perched on a plateau 700 meters above sea level and surrounded by escarpments and the mother of all storms overhead, was hit first, hard, real hard, with massive rapid-like torrents of runoff coursing down the mountains. Bursting the banks of two creeks positioned east and west of the city, floodwaters roared into the CBD without warning, picking up cars and trucks like they were toys, tossing them into houses and buildings with terrifying force. Rescuers fought bravely against the deluge, saving people who, going about their daily business, were caught totally unaware. Images of people on top of floating cars, in trees, on rooftops, were too surreal to fathom. Tragedy struck when a mother and son were swept away in the torrent after the force of the water snapped the rescue line they were hanging on to. But this was only beginning of what was to come. The death toll was soon to rise.

Merciless in its unprecedented rage, the deluge quickly spread out across the elevated city as the storm’s temper worsened, and once flooded to the brim, the water, with nowhere else to go, thundered down the steep range, becoming a voluminous force of epic proportions that unleashed Hell on Earth across the lower planes.

A nation in shock watched the news coverage as horrifying reports came in from the Lochyer Valley, located at the base of the range and only 110 km from Brisbane. The towns of Murphy’s Creek, Withcott, Postmans Ridge, Helidon and Grantham had been annihilated by a massive wall of water 25 feet high. One town after the other had simply disappeared as the inland tsunami, laden with debri, picked up and tore apart everything in its path. Houses, cars, trucks, bridges, ferries, trees and screaming people all went for a ride, along with an airliner that was dragged one mile from the tarmac. Families trapped in their homes were either sucked out by the force to their deaths, or managed to scramble to the rooftops, one man punching a hole in the ceiling through which he passed his 15 year old sister to safety, while other family members vanished in the rising turbulence below. The force of the surge was so powerful by the time it hit Heildon, that Sheeps Creek, which skims the town and flows into Lochyer Creek, actually began to run backwards, its water unable to continue on its natural course as the torrent roared past. Grantham was the last to be wiped off the map before the momentum eased briefly, spreading out across the planes, only to regain strength when it met with record releases from the Wivenhoe Dam, the last line of defense that safeguarded the capital. After three years of drought in Queensland, the dam’s level had been at 17%. Now it was at a very dangerous level of 190% and rising quickly. The operators had no choice but to open the floodgates, adding to the devastation to come.

January 11th: the city of Ipswich was next in line to be hit, then Brisbane. Bridges closed, power grids systematically were cut off, emergency, rescue and military teams were out in force and on full alert in both cities. 45000 homes were expected to go under as the water forged its violent path toward the coast. Fortunately, there was time to prepare, if only a little. Possessions were hauled to higher ground as neighbors worked collectively with relief teams to secure the cities as best they could. In the face of adversity, the Australians would not go down without a fight. 90000 sandbags were distributed throughout in a quick, yet orderly fashion. Residence in flood prone areas were advised to evacuate. Despite all the warnings, despite all the devastation already witnessed, some people still chose to stay, their actions based on the fact that if they'd survived the historic floods of 1974, they could survive anything. The '74 floods were a record breaker when it came to devestation. Sadly, for those who stayed, the flood coming was far far worse.

Unlike the towns upstream, Ipswich went under very slowly, eerily, unstoppably as the Bremer River breached its banks, the devastation exceedingly worse than ‘74 due to the increase in population throughout the region. Nearly a third of the city went under. In the capital, under siege as flooding in the outer regions began, the work continued to fortify its walls, and to prepare for mother nature’s next catastrophic blow that would come with the changing of the tide. A mass exodus of office workers in Brisbane’s CBD, numbering tens of thousands, had taken place at midday, with traffic jams and flooded roadways hindering people’s progress as they raced the clock to evacuate. The rain continued, the Brisbane river continue to swell, and the streets emptied as the populace fled to higher ground to wait it out. Police and roadblocks around the CBD were ubiquitous. By nightfall, the city was deserted and strangely quiet as the Brisbane River flexed its might and took control.
Brisbane’s D-Day (Deluge Day) would come at 3am, Wednesday, January 12th, at high tide, noting many homes and suburbs had already disappeared under the coffee colored water that writhed its way toward the city’s heart. As the residents slept restlessly in a blacked-out city, the water crept through streets like an approaching nightmare, rising up stairs and entering one house after another, until swallowing entire neighborhoods completely. Some vanished within an hour, while others died a slow and painful death as the water gradually closed in from all directions.

Come first light, for ironically it was a perfect cloudless day, the first in many weeks, surveillance aircraft and news helicopters took to the sky to assess the damage. 67 suburbs had been affected, totaling 30 000 houses in all, with many lives and businesses destroyed, and countless jobs lost...

As people collapsed in despair at the sight of their homes being inundated, others were there to lift them up. Those from areas unaffected descended on those who needed help, and through the floodwaters many lines of people, up to their chest and shoulders, could be seen passing sandbags or personal possessions from one to the other, over their heads, doing anything and everything they could for those whose lives had been turned upside down. People with boats and dinghies joined in as the fight continued against the elements throughout the day, for more devastation was expected with the next high tide at 4pm. Once all had been done that could be done, the activity slowed as the people retreated to higher ground, to look down over the flood that was consuming the city.

Courtesy of SUNDY MAIL, QLD
Spectators in their hundreds broke through police tapes and searched out vantage points along the flooding river, while others took to safer ground, atop cliffs, as a parade of debris, of things both great and small, rolled about in the powerful currents that overflowed into the streets of downtown, and into neighborhoods that lined its banks. A one mile long cement river walk-way that had broken its ties, was spotted headed down stream like a giant serpent caught in the wrath of the river. The potential danger was obvious, prompting a tug boat driver to take action, who braved the river and guided the walk-way out of harms way. Boats, torn from their mooring, either capsized and sank, or became high speed projectiles that smashed into bridges and luxury apartment complexes that had been swamped when the river breached its banks. A water-front restaurant, uplifted from its pillars with its pristine white tents still in place, drifted along with the surge until it hit a bridge, and was forced under. On and on the debris passed by, eventually becoming mundane for spectators, who upon departing were replaced by others, until night fell and the show was over, only to resume the next day as the river raged on...

Then came talk over the news about the dam not holding, and that another cyclone was teasing the coastline, and all throughout the city people looked wide eyed at each other, knowing now that the impossible was indeed possible; that things really could get worse. A lot worse.

By Friday, January 14th, all threats had passed, and a calm fell over the city once more, followed by an astounding determination to get things cleaned up; to make things right again. Much like during the height of the crisis, the Australian spirit was far from broken. As the water retreated back to its normal course way over the coming days, leaving a thick blanket of mud and filth in its wake, the most extra-ordinary act of compassion and community, of what it is to be Australian, was witnessed by the world. On what was promoted as Salvation Saturday, January 15th, 20 000 volunteers showed up at pre-arranged facilities with their own mops and brooms, to help clean up the city, and on Sunday, “Muddy” Sunday, the number rose to 50000; with relief funds pouring in from around the country: a clear sign that all were in this together, and that as a country, the Australians stood as one.

Update: In the following days and weeks, the storms that caused so much devastation in Queensland crossed the border of two other states, where record flooding was also experienced. And then came two more cyclones, one hitting Queensland again, up north in Cairns, which was a category five, the other, a category 2 cyclone, that hit Darwin in the Northern Territory. And still more storms are expected before the season comes to a close.

Footnote: Flood waters aren’t the only worry that Australians have to contend with as they battle major flooding. Deadly snakes are very common in rural and suburban areas, and they take to water with ease, so warnings are constant about people being wary. When the water retreats, other displaced wildlife also start to appear where they normally wouldn’t be. In Queensland, for instance, a crocodile was marooned in a suburban swimming pool after the floods, and a bull shark, renown for its aggression, was left stranded in a supermarket isle.

Only in Australia :)

For travel assignments and inquiries.
Bradley Rae
Freelance Photographer/ Writer
San Francisco