After the flood … Brisbane January 2011

We in this fair city have witnessed something many thought we would never see again – our winding, snake-like Brisbane river changing from its lazy, sinuous flow to the sea and turning into a huge, rushing, swirling, mud-laden monster that broke its banks and tore into the heart of suburbs and into the edges of the central business district.

Flooding in the suburb of Rosalie (photo supplied by David Gwyther and Kathleen Kelly)

There was no discrimination by this river – no picking off its targets. This flood tore through the suburbs of low-paid workers and millionaires alike. If you lived beside the river in a palatial mansion, or in a humble, weather-board house in low-lying suburbs not far from the Brisbane River or one of its feeder rivers, you were in the flood lottery – a lottery of countless winners. This time lives were lost and many thousands of people are homeless.

Who would have thought the river would destroy again? Not now we are a modern, sub-tropical fun-loving city, bigger and better than 1974, masters of land and waterways, embracing our beautiful river frontages with parks and cultural precincts, building multi-housed developments in low contours of the land, filling in natural streams, covering the soil with cement and bitumen. Complacent.

Many of us have not forgotten the horrors of 1974, the last time our river broke its banks, flooding into suburbs and into the centre of Brisbane city, submerging homes and leaving behind a foul-smelling, sticky, slimy mud that coated walls and floors.

Brisbane floods in 1974 - photo by Courier Mail

I remember the sound and the smell of that monster river most of all. At the end of the street, even before you saw it, you heard its roar and the thumping, smashing sound as huge gums tossed about like matchsticks in the rushing water. The smell of disaster is not one easily forgotten – nor the sight of drowned cows, boats, parts of house roofs, refrigerators, and the debris of people’s lives – tossing and bobbing in the churning waters.

Never again did we think we would see the brown monster strike – now we had the Wivenhoe Dam, built in response to the ’74 flood, able to contain many millions of litres of water – to mitigate and regulate the Brisbane River’s flow to the sea.

Two years ago, the dam was at a 16% level – the city was on Level 6 water restrictions. Who would have thought it would reach 197% full.

This time, all the circumstances that could cause a major flood happened. Rain in the region for 6 weeks beforehand; soaking the ground to capacity; major tributaries at capacity; high tides at the mouth of our tidal river; record-breaking rainfalls in the catchments areas and in Brisbane itself with its many creeks feeding into the river and forced (controlled) releases of millions of litres from the mitigation dam, Wivenhoe.

After the flood - South Bank parklands

We love this river whatever it throws at us – and it does what it is meant to do as a tidal, floodplain river. It has flooded for millions of years. That is its way. This is its fourth epic-proportion flood since white settlers sailed up its sinuous curves and saw the beauty of its shores and the potential for cultivation on its flood plains. Previous known major floods were in 1841, 1893 and 1974.

Each of those floods and the relatively minor ones since settlement has astonished the growing population, just like this flood of 2011. Brisbanites learned lessons from each disaster.

We will learn more about the river’s character again this time. We will respect its power and its force all over again. We will remember – until the next time?

Flood level - now dropped by 2.5 metres, still falling

(c) Sheryl Gwyther 2011

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19 thoughts on “After the flood … Brisbane January 2011

  1. What a shame the enthusiastic Mud Army wasn’t better co-ordinated. Several people I know were further traumatised when all their possessions were hoisted into skip bins without consultation or time to sort durable items (like family jewellery) from unsalvageable (water damaged) ones. Good intentions sometimes have bad consequences when the people affected are not consulted. We should always aim to empower those we assist, not disempower them or cause further trauma. The old maxim, ‘first do no harm’ is still a good one.

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  2. Those pictures are amazing Sheryl. At Christmas time I was frequenting those Rosalie restaurants and movies, it’s amazing to see how far under they went. It’s been a couple of years since I lived in Brissie, but I still remember making the kids shower together, with 2 buckets under their feet for a maximum of 4 minutes!
    My dad lives nearby but missed having his house flood by about one block – it is so good to see the way Brisbanites get together and pull up their sleeves and help out.

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  3. Thank you all for your good wishes. It’s sobering to think about how the many thousands of people who were affected by this disaster will cope in the weeks, the months and years ahead. And of course, it wasn’t just Brisbane to suffer the 2011 flood. Central, western and southern Queensland also faced adversity. Toowoomba, Grantham, Helidon and a string of country townships suffered far worse because people died in one horrific day.

    In Brisbane, so many people have gutted houses because everything was destroyed, even walls have been torn now and dragged outside and added to the huge piles of stinking, rotting debris. Many are living with friends – how long can that go on? Where will people live until their houses are repaired and their neighbourhoods brought back to life?

    Queensland kids go back to school next week – if their schools are still there unscathed and not drowned as well, it will be the strangest experience for them, but maybe that sense of normalcy is good.

    As you would’ve seen in the media, Brisbanites have turned out in their tens of thousands to help those affected by this flood. Hopefully, this generosity of spirit and hands will continue over the months so Queensland’s flood victims will know they’re not forgotten.

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  4. Hi Sheryl,
    Thanks for sharing your heart felt insights into past and present flood devastation and the human toll.
    I’m a recent Brisbanite so knew little about the extent of the 1974 flood.
    Thanks for the insider view … Karen T

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  5. I agree with Ben’s words and can only add that my thoughts and prayers are with everyone in Queensland as you begin the clean-up and for the months ahead. Some children’s authors have started an auction to raise money for the flood victims. Up for bid are manuscript assessments and signed copies of books, among other things. Sheryl, I hope it’s okay to post the link here. If anyone is interested, it is:
    http://authorsforqueensland.wordpress.com/

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  6. I watch the news and still can’t comprehend the enormity of it all. Fires, earthquakes, floods – we are so small compared to nature. Glad to hear you are ok Sheryl. Caroline

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  7. So sad and tragic, for Brisbane but especially those areas where lives have been lost. Your post made me weep, Sheryl, as have the stories of loss and courage. All we can do here is donate and hope some little will help.
    Your comments on “masters of the land” so resonated. Men change the path of rivers, run-offs and pave over natural tributaries and water courses, and we think we have things in our control until Mother Nature shows us otherwise.
    My thoughts and prayers are with Queenslanders, and all who are suffering floods.
    Stay safe, and dry.
    Best wishes,
    Chris

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  8. *hugs* we can only empathise, but those of us that live along rivers and feeder creek systems, can empathise only too well. We can, and are, donating to help you guys re-build; knowing nothing can rebuild those lives lost.

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  9. Oh such a sad sight- yes there will be many scars too- all the best with the recovery – will be donating to the relief and praying for recovery- so hard!

    Parts of Victoria now experiencing floods also.

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  10. There are and will be scars – there’s so much
    pain out there I can’t imagine – while we out here, lucky to be above the flooding, can only donate.

    I feel for all those poor people who lost their lives and are suffering right now, but a part of me also hopes that a positive within all this is a reminder of the presence of the natural world, a reminder of the context to our lives easily forgotten in the urban world. Perhaps the floods may help people remember that we only survive the extremes of nature thoughtfully and together. Perhaps it will bind us a little more tightly, regardless of politics or superficial concerns like race and creed.

    All the best,

    Ben

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