Over the last three weeks, a combined area the size of France, Spain and Britain combined (or Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma for US readers) has been flooded in Australia’s north-eastern state of Queensland. Over 80 towns and cities, including the capital Brisbane has been seriously affected, many isolated with roads cut, changing the lives of 100,000s of people and flooding over 30,000 homes. Numerous people have been moved including the full evacuation of a number of towns.
Last week I returned to Sydney from a Christmas trip to Brisbane, where I grew up seeing the initial aspects of floods in rural Queensland but before waters in Brisbane started to rise. As with many Brisbanites, I can recall vividly the floods of 1974 as a ten year old, water lapping into the street that I lived, the community systematically evacuating people as the waters rose. Our house contained the furniture of three other houses, the local shops only having their rooftops sit above the flood waters.
News stories and photos start to purvey some of the hardship and cruelty of these floods including Ipswich’s Queensland Times and Rockhampton’s Morning Bulletin. The photo to the right shows Rockhampton from the air taken by a commercial pilot with the city centre in the top right.
It is ironic that this same state (as has much of Australia) has suffered from one of the country’s worst droughts for the last decade, dams that were near empty are now brimming at well over 100 percent capacity, water lapping at the top of dam walls. Brisbane’s main water supply is held in Wivenhoe Dam holds over one billion litres when full (two Sydney Harbours worth) but now holds two billion litres (four Sydney harbours). A delicate balancing act of releasing water to maintain the effect of the dam but causing further flooding downstream is only one of numerous wretched decisions.
With water washing down the main streets of many towns, drinking water remains in short supply, water treatment works having suffered inundations. Power is cut to numerous areas, supermarket shelves are empty and fixed line telephones have often been down.
As the waters start to subside, people return to homes covered in mud and debris, a monumental cleaning effort confronting them.
Over $55 Million dollars has been donated by individuals and businesses of Australia and the volunteer effort has been extraordinary, people helping complete strangers evacuate, sandbag properties, clean debris or provide accommodation and meals. As always, the various emergency services groups, army and charities (especially Red Cross) have been unstinting in their work. Major summer sporting events have stepped in – cyclist Lance Armstrong leads a 10,000 ride through Adelaide on Saturday, tennis player Andy Roddick donated $100 per ace in a recent Brisbane tournament (the court ironically underwater now) and then doubled it and England and Australia playing a seven one-day match cricket series around the country with money raised going to the flood appeal. Along with the obvious effect, the money will greatly assist to rebuild communities and towns, local businesses benefiting from the employment and retail spend.
A previously deeply unpopular premier, Anna Bligh, has been exceptional in the state’s hour of need. Possibly in a parallel to Mayor Rudi Guiliani during the 9/11 tragedy, the state leader has been untiring in her efforts – two hourly press briefings including remarkable detail across aspects of numerous different towns and cities all unaided by notes. Bligh has struck a perfect chord between passion, leadership, pragmatism and care.
In one extraordinary heroic effort, a tug driver drove his boat up the raging Brisbane River in the middle of the night to safely steer a 150 metre, 300 tonnes floating walkway that detached from Brisbane's scenic River Walk through bridge pylons and into the bay, preventing a potential major catastrophe.
While 24-hour commercial TV coverage has been sensationalised and voyeuristic, the public ABC network on radio, television and the internet continues to provide stellar detailed coverage of evacuations, road conditions, safety advice and flood news across the state. The Twitter airwaves bubbles consistently (with hashtag #qldfloods) though sorting the truth from opinion and hearsay has caused some issues. Missing folks are being located via Facebook, though tragically around 50 people remain unaccounted for.
In many ways, the efforts have just started with years of work and billions of dollars to rebuild lives, homes, communities and businesses. January 2010 will be etched on the mind of many Australians for decades to come.
Editor's Note (19th January): The Queensland flood appeal has hit $85 Million and continues to grow. The estimated damages bill varies with $20 Billion regularly mentioned. The states of Victoria (mainly central and west) and Tasmania have also suffered horrifically from floods in the last week with further heartache for citizens of these states.