Friday, January 14, 2011

The Brisbane flood

Queensland's summer is also its wet season, so Queenslanders (and I've been here nearly 5 years so I guess I am one) know that summers are warm, wet and humid. Christmas Day will be wet, the grass will grow 6 inches overnight and the barbie will have to be moved under cover. It's normal.

This Christmas was no exception, and Boxing Day was even wetter, so everyone went to the sales! By New Year the weather had cleared, families confined by rain and visiting relatives burst outdoors, and we all enjoyed a few fine days before going back to work.

Well, that was in Brisbane. Further north, massive inland storms dropped huge volumes of water into catchments that are often dry. Town after town flooded, first the scattered inland farming communities, and then larger coastal towns. From Brisbane it seemed academic, a roll-call of towns I've driven through, local landmarks I recognise now surrounded by water, and a lot of places I've only seen on a map. The view's always the same though, swirling brown water, sometimes 15 to 20m above normal, with rooftops poking through like angular islands. Sunburnt locals in shorts surveying their homes from boats or waist-deep water, people living in church halls waiting for the brown, muddy tide to recede. It's easy to say that they should have built on higher ground, but in many areas Australia is dead flat. There isn't high ground, and the waters stretch for kilometres. We watched it all on the news, like disaster tourists.

For Brisbanites, Monday the 10th was the same as any other. It rained off and on. The usual Monday grumbles and tales of weekend escapades were exchanged, we checked our email, drank too much coffee and snuck out early for lunch. We watched the Rain Radar to judge the best time to head for the train station. The view from our office on the tenth floor was interesting - storms inland over the previous few days had turned the Brisbane River brown, and the CityCat ferries had to negotiate floating logs and entire trees washed out of tributaries upstream of the city. Something different.

When we got home that night we turned on the news and saw that some of the storms we'd watched passing Brisbane by had dropped their contents inland and caused massive flash floods in the city of Toowoomba, up on the plateau of the Great Dividing Range. Buildings washed away, streets scoured of cars, people killed. Downstream in the valleys, the water had been funnelled through communities, washing motorists off the highway, demolishing homes and leaving dozens missing. One couple had been swept out of their kitchen while having lunch and drowned. The disaster tourism was getting closer.

The destruction in the Lockyer Valley was the only topic of conversation at work on Tuesday. We marvelled at the amount of debris floating past our office. Was that a fridge or a washing machine? There went a table, there a fully grown gum tree, right through the heart of the city. Yachts were heading downstream in ones and twos, and late morning, both of the paddle steamers which moor at the Eagle Street Pier undocked and headed downriver. Paddle steamers are slow, graceful ladies usually seen splashing up and down the central reach of the river, their decks sprinkled with well-dressed urbanites clutching drinks, a genteel wisp of smoke from their stacks. Not today - they charged down the river like racing hippopotami, heeling over as they rounded the bend under the Story Bridge and vanished around the headland of Kangaroo Point. It was like seeing your great aunt strapping on roller blades and carving up the kiddies! Mental note - paddle steamers not always slow.

By lunchtime a rumour went around that many buildings in the CBD were closing early and workers being sent home. The river was rising, it was still raining, and authorities feared that if roads were cut, people might not be able to get home later in the day. The resulting traffic jam was amazing, worse than normal morning rush hour as the city discharged its own metal flood, a wave of commuters bent on reaching the safety of their homes. I stayed until mid-afternoon, not out of bravado but because I knew my route home would be fine, and because I didn't want to jump into the melee on the streets. By 2pm it was all over, the cars were gone and the city was as quiet as a Sunday afternoon.

Before catching a train home, I wandered along the river and through the botanic gardens. The river was higher than I'd seen it, covering walkways I use most mornings and roaring past the bridges. Restaurants were stacking tables, shops were lifting stock and the city was going into lockdown. Once home, I went to the supermarket and stocked up on cat food, milk, eggs, cheese, pasta and vegetables. The most important, of course, was cat food - I didn't fancy being housebound with hungry, nagging cats!

Disaster averted? Wednesday was fine. No rain, just blue skies and a gentle breeze. If you didn't turn on the tellie you'd never know anything was wrong with the world. If you did turn it on, though, it didn't matter which channel you chose. They all showed shots of a rising brown river, people sandbagging their houses and moving possessions upstairs, interspersed with shocking footage of the devastation left behind in the Lockyer Valley and Toowoomba. The death toll was constantly revised like some bizarre sports score - 10 dead and 51 missing, then 12 dead and 90 unaccounted for, and so on. The Premier was constantly on our screens, in turn reassuring and then and warning us to stay in our homes if they were out of the predicted flood path, or to get out if we thought we were in danger. Outside it was peaceful and sunny, people mowed lawns and hung out washing. The perfect day for a natural disaster, or housework if you didn't watch the TV.

The flood peaked on Thursday, accompanied by a crescendo of media coverage from reporters thigh deep in still, brown streets, reporters in evacuation centres, reporters in helicopters. Disaster tourism had come to town. The river's peak had been slightly lower than predicted, but thousands of houses were filled with water and thousands of Brisbanites were living out of suitcases. There was little bitterness evident on TV, as most people either accepted the inevitable or talked of rebuilding.

After lunch I jumped on a bike and did what so many others had done, went down to the river. Unsurprisingly it was just as seen on TV, but being there, watching for minute after minute as debris surged downstream - there a table, there a plastic barrel - made it far more immediate. TV chops disasters into 10 second scenes and soundbites, with disjointed images of people, buildings, destruction. Just sitting and watching the power of the river, marvelling at its speed and size, listening to the gush and gurgle, smelling the silt and sulphur in the air, gave it a life and character that shots from 2000 feet couldn't bring to life. I might have sat there for half an hour, just watching, listening, smelling.

I took the long way home, past streets filled with water and cordoned off, houses sandbagged against waters that in some cases didn't reach as high as estimated, or past front gardens three foot deep with water. Oxford Street in Bulimba, one of the city's most flood-prone suburbs, was dry and open for business as normal. The cafes and restaurants were filled with people, the cinema was open, and if you ignored the discarded, unused sandbags around doorways and a hovering helicopter, it was a normal sunny summer afternoon. Two streets away, meanwhile, houses had a foot of water through them. Disaster tour and then a coffee, anyone?