The flood - Page 3
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 32: Wicked Problems, Exquisite Dilemmas
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Matthew Condon
BRISBANE AND HISTORY have a complicated relationship. It is, for whatever reason, a forgetful city. It has no great attachment to historic buildings and monuments, yet howls indignantly when they are demolished. It has legislation ostensibly to protect its past that reveals hidden loopholes when it is actually tested. Brisbane, the young city, is more interested in tomorrow than yesterday.
Of course Oxley followed the water when he stepped ashore near the Old Western Creek. Of course he found swampland and a chain of ponds. For millennia, that’s where the river, on this coastal floodplain, has always rushed into on breaking its banks. Just as it has always washed over areas we now know as Jindalee, Brookfield, Fairfield, Rocklea, Yeronga, Graceville, Indooroopilly and West End. That’s precisely where it inflicted its greatest damage in 1974, and 1893, and 1890, and on deep into the past.
Rosalie has always had problems with water. It was inundated in the great flood of 1893. The Queenslander reported: ‘Going from Milton towards Rosalie one finds most of the houses on the left have suffered, and that the whole of Rosalie flats have been underwater. Far up...in the paddock is a building lying on its side, deposited like a matchbox in that position by the silent but overwhelming force of the flood. In Rosalie the general appearance is as though a mighty hand had played chess on the flats, with houses for pieces, and in a moment of anger brushed them carelessly into a confused heap.’
In February 1925 the Brisbane Courier carried the article ‘Drainage Matters. Neglect at Rosalie.’ At a meeting at the local tram terminus a council candidate, LH Tooth, expressed dismay at the appalling state of the drainage and playgrounds in Rosalie, and how the suburb had to continually address water channelling. In 1932 the Brisbane City Council investigated the need for a stormwater drain beneath Beck Street.
But we forget, especially in this restless place where history finds it hard to take root. And here, in the young city, we are at least two generations from 1974, and all of the city’s new inhabitants, squinting into tomorrow, just wouldn’t know about the floods of 1974; and if they did happen to see one of the many plaques and markers around the city they might find it cursorily interesting, but it wouldn’t be something that triggered in them a change of life every time the rain fell hard across the city. There are more people in the city today without the watermark of 1974 than there are people with it.
Which is why – with the exception of Mrs Guy, sitting at that window, her yard saturated, the water rising and rising further down Beck Street beyond Nash Street – the floods of 2011 took almost everyone by surprise, again.
THE 2011 DISASTER had its origins last year in North Queensland, drenched throughout September by what meteorologists called a ‘La Niña effect’. Then it just kept raining all the way to Christmas, when Cyclone Tasha crossed the coast at Cairns.
For the next two weeks the people of Brisbane turned on their nightly television news and watched as regional towns on the coast and in the west slid under the floodwaters. It was impossible to see a pattern, to join the dots and know that the end point of this catastrophe would be the city of Brisbane. Something happening in distant Theodore or Emerald couldn’t logically conclude in Brisbane. It wasn’t a narrative that made sense.
On Monday, 10 January, though, it is not an exaggeration to say that the collective consciousness of Brisbane altered. That’s when we saw the images of the carnage in Toowoomba, up on the Great Dividing Range and just a ninety-minute drive away. The pictures and stories of children being swept to their deaths, and cars lifted and thrown through the town, and then that horrifying weight of water cascading down into the Lockyer Valley towards Brisbane did, in an instant, tell everyone in the capital that something deadly was on its way.
By chance, the afternoon before I had taken my family for a stroll along the banks of the Brisbane River at West End, close to the heart of the CBD. The children had been cooped up in the house for weeks with all the rain, and we jumped at the first opportunity of a break in the weather. We walked about a kilometre to the Gallery of Modern Art, perched on the river bend at Kurilpa Point.
Already the river was nipping at the concrete pedestrian walkway and it was running at a pace I had not seen before. Perhaps it was the old watermark in me, but I knew something unusual was happening. I told my son dozens of times to stay away from the edge of the river. Don’t be so overprotective, my wife said; let him run. My wife was born and grew up in Sydney. She didn’t have the history.
WE GOT DRENCHED and my son, wet to the bone, declared it the best day of his life. Then, the next day, came Toowoomba.
On the Tuesday I went back to West End to see how high the river had come. It was impossible to retrace the path of our Sunday walk – it was well and truly underwater. The rowing sheds on the river’s edge were going under. Hundreds of people were stacking sandbags.
I looked to the river again, and it was faster than when I last saw it. This time it was carrying debris.
What astonished me were the numbers of young Brisbane people gathering to photograph the rising waters. They stood in groups and watched it in silence, as if taking in a movie. They took pictures of each other in front of it. I met a Buddhist monk on her regular afternoon walk. Was she concerned? I asked. What can you do, she said; life goes on. She was from interstate. She didn’t have the history.
Wednesday, 12 January was a magnificent summer day. It was hot and humid and exactly what you’d expect of Brisbane at this time of year. But the river was roaring through the city now, and the lower sections of GOMA and the State Library of Queensland were submerged, and numerous streets in West End were closed and guarded by police officers, and in the CBD there was frantic sandbagging and business men and women packing equipment, computers, crates of wine and even sides of beef into vans and utes.
Much of the CBD had lost electricity. Parking meters had been removed. Underground car parks were filling with water, or already full. I spoke with a restaurateur who’d just opened his latest eatery at the bottom of Edward Street. He was pale and sweating, and he had the look of a person who could not comprehend what was happening, and why the day before his downstairs kitchen was producing Wagyu steak and duck ragù and now it was underwater.
I asked him if, when he embarked on his Brisbane restaurant adventure, he was aware of what had happened to the bottom of Edward Street during that other major flood, in 1974. He was from England, he said, and didn’t have a clue about what happened in Brisbane in 1974. He didn’t have the history.
On that Wednesday, around 1 pm, I was standing at the railing of the Victoria Bridge with hundreds of other onlookers, peering down at the river. Pontoons swung around Kurilpa Point and smashed into bridge pylons. Whole tree trunks sailed past. The water, a cacky brown, seethed and hissed and caught the sunlight. It smelled like dirt.
As I watched my mobile phone rang. It was my wife in tears. She said a friend had just heard a rumour that Wivenhoe Dam, eighty kilometres up the Brisbane Valley and built after the 1974 flood to help protect the city from another similar disaster, was not going to hold. What should we do?
She was at home with our two children, just a few kilometres away in our wooden house near the chain of ponds, and I felt nauseated. Should I have evacuated the children? What if the dam wall breaks? Would the millions of litres held by Wivenhoe traverse this far if they were suddenly let go? Had I doomed my family without thinking ahead and making adequate preparations?
The river peaked on the Thursday. Thousands of homes were inundated. Evacuation centres were full across the city. That weekend the river finally went down, and once again left us covered in a sheet of mud that gave off not an odour of mud itself but of garbage.
By early the next week the river was its quiet, dull, brown, dreary old self. For the first time since I’d returned to live in this bright young city that constantly tries to reinvent itself, it looked to me shabby and ordinary and tired. If the city had to be identified by colours, Brisbane was ordinarily green and silver and purple and red. Now it was brown and grey. The flood had leached its palette and stolen its sparkle.
I wondered then, and still do, whether Brisbane’s status as some New World City, its flash and twinkle, its grasping for some sort of cosmopolitanism and modernity with a subtropical twist, wasn’t all a surface illusion. It felt, momentarily, like the city I couldn’t wait to escape from in the mid-1980s. With the trimmings scoured off and hurtling into Moreton Bay the place had, to my mind, returned in an instant to its perhaps inescapable and immovable bedrock. This has always been a tough and extreme landscape, its white settlement born of hard graft, violence, incarceration and death. Since the flood, much of the city felt dead too.
RECENTLY I WANDERED through Rosalie, the village ravaged by the floodwaters and businesses still closed more than five weeks after the flood, and I thought of modern Brisbane and its phenomenal growth and how, with a built environment that much bigger than 1974, it seemed logical, despite the muscle of Wivenhoe up in the valley, that flooding would continue to beset this place.
I turned the corner into Beck Street – something I have done countless times over the past forty years or more – and thought of Oxley’s chain of ponds beneath my feet. When there was no Brisbane city, the river flooded the same way. And it followed its template not long after settlement, and when I was a boy, and in January just past. That’s history, even in a place staring into tomorrow.
I approached my grandmother’s old house, now renovated and almost a different building to the one that sits on concrete stumps in my memory. I stood out the front and looked through the fence at under the house, where the old Buick used to sit, flat tyres and all, alongside my grandfather’s workbench. It’s been built in now, with rooms and French doors. There’s a carport too, filling most of what used to be the front yard. But to the right, as high as the top step of the house, the same frangipani tree I knew as a child continues to grow strong. Much of its trunk went under in 1974, and it’s still here throwing off its perfume.
I turned and looked across the street to Mrs Guy’s house. There she was, sitting at her front window.
I waved. She waved back. She may no longer recognise much beyond that little white wooden window frame. But Mrs Guy and me? We have history. ♦