At the water’s edge
From Griffith REVIEW Postscripts
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Friday, January 14
WE HAD TIME to prepare.
Unlike those in Toowoomba who were affected days earlier by devastating flash floods; or any number of people across Australia and around the world who have been the victims of more sudden forces of nature or acts of violence, the residents of Brisbane – and my neighbourhood, West End – knew for days that the flood of 2011 was barrelling downstream.
After tuning in to the terrible images and stories coming out of Toowoomba on Monday night, many of us awoke on a rainy Tuesday, January 11, braced for a repeat of the 1974 Australia Day flood which unleashed a deluge that brought Brisbane to its knees.
Whether at home or at work that morning, we were distracted by news reports, radar images from the Bureau of Meteorology and advice from well-meaning friends and family on how to prepare for the flood. Among neighbours and colleagues, we traded guesses about how bad it would be; even the official reports varied, at one point saying that the peak would exceed the ‘74 flood levels by a metre or more.
My husband and I were sent home from work early that morning – he from the University of Queensland, and I from Griffith University’s South Bank campus. We knew from the 1974 flood maps that our section of Ryan Street, sitting fifteen metres above sea level, had been high ground – but only just. Our neighbours to the east, west and south were on land that sloped and dipped right down to Orleigh Park and the water’s edge.
Mid-morning, hundreds of people wandered through the park to assess the water level, as news cameras captured B-roll footage of people in thongs and gumboots splashing through growing puddles. The Brisbane River lapped at its banks, already several metres above its usual placid level, forcing small crabs out of the flooded mangroves and onto lamp posts along the footpath. Children dipped their toes into the eddies of muddy water, while adults tried to imagine what was to come, as the run-off from floods upstream combined with the overflow from Wivenhoe Dam (nearly 200 per cent capacity, testing the dam’s structural integrity) and knowing that a record king tide was due in less than forty-eight hours.
There was a run on fresh produce and canned goods at the West End Coles; police crews began blocking off streets near the river and ferry services were suspended. Back in our apartment, we gathered our valuables and important documents and sketched out an evacuation plan. But at a certain point that day, for us, there was nothing to do but wait.
We wandered back down to a lower point along the street and met a homeowner named Chuck, who was moving tools and boxes out of his garage and up to his three-story house. We offered a hand but he was nearly done. Peering out from the hood of his yellow raincoat, he seemed relaxed. He had lived in the same house during the ‘74 flood, although at that point he had no garage, just a sloping back yard, and the house was an old Queenslander up on stilts. Since then he’d added the garage and built in a first and second floor that were now directly in line with the predicted high water mark, but he had bought and built the house with full knowledge of the risk of disaster and the memory of recovery.
In 1974, Brisbane was a city of approximately 911,000 while today it’s home to nearly two million. The ‘74 flood inundated just over six thousand houses in Brisbane and Ipswich; this year the estimate is 20,000 properties – and flood levels were nearly a metre below the ‘74 peak.
WE LOST POWER at 4am on Wednesday. The sudden stop of our bedroom fan awoke us, and we dressed and ventured back down towards the water. A young policewoman was stationed a few metres up from the river’s edge, which now crept across the front lawns of the properties facing Orleigh Park, and rushed by at a terrifying speed. As dawn broke, we could see pontoons, trees and other large debris speeding down the river’s central current. The policewoman had started a twelve hour shift at 2am, but she had little information or directive, other than to prevent cars from driving into the water. More neighbours were coming out to chat, and we offered her tea and a chair to sit on. She politely suppressed her yawns as one gawker – from some other suburb on higher ground – spouted statistics and trivia about every natural disaster that had befallen Australia since 1974.
We took our leave and walked around the river’s bend to the West End Canoe Club and the reach that overlooks Riverside Drive. Our cross-river counterparts were lining up on the opposite banks, as helicopters cruised low in the sky, their noisy engines becoming a constant background noise for residents of river-side suburbs.
That morning, as waters rose, the collective mood was building to its highest point of curiosity and excitement. Onlookers all along the banks introduced themselves to neighbours and strangers, trading stories about ‘74 or offering help, advice, reassurance and spare rooms to one another.
We spent the morning helping friends and strangers, starting at one of the business parks along Montague Road where friends owned a warehouse and business. They arrived just as we walked up to the property. Together we shifted business and personal supplies to higher shelves and helped them organize the transfer of sixteen pallets of stock to a freight truck, which was nearly cut off as the river’s water had now saturated the subterranean storm drains and was pooling quickly across low-lying areas all over West End and South Brisbane.
While we waited for the truck, we stood by the Davies Park boat shed, looking across the river to Auchenflower and the Drift Restaurant. Drift’s floating fish-and-chips deck was coming unmoored and swirling around in an eddy, while the restaurant itself looked to be sinking. Later that day the deck and restaurant would be torn downstream, crashing into the William Jolly Bridge.
With the truck dispatched to higher ground, we circled back to Ryan Street and introduced ourselves to a crew of good Samaritans who were helping out an elderly couple who were now fearing the worst and hurrying to save as much as they could from the lower level of their house. Weaving through a crowd of gawkers, we carried trays of old lead type setting and antique book-binding presses; a library of medical, anatomical and alternative therapy books; a collection of anatomical models of the human body and animal specimens in formaldehyde, storing it all among several other neighbours’ possessions under the house of a local family who lived on the highest corner. Around us, families were saying goodbye to their houses as they evacuated to higher parts of the city.
That night, as helicopters and police boats roared across the quiet streets and churning river, it was impossible not to marvel at the fearsome beauty of the flood waters. The swollen river transformed the topography and geography of the city, reminding us where the subtle dips and hollows fell across the greenways and bitumen, in between houses and shops. Manmade and natural debris coursed through the waters, carried downstream, towards the port and bay, and one might imagine Siddhartha standing by a smaller stream, reflecting on the inevitability of suffering and the release from our identity with it.
THE KING TIDE brought a peak around 4am on Thursday, officially reaching 4.6 metres in the city. The mood was more subdued, as friends near and far texted, called or emailed to check on one another and clean-up began on a small scale, in individual houses and businesses where access was permitted.
Now, at the end of the week with the waters steadily receding back to normal boundaries, the extent of the damage and recovery are becoming clear. A thick carpet of mud – in some places ankle-deep – remains along the roads, foot paths, back yards and in the homes that went under. Empty rubbish bins are left behind where the water receded, along with bloated sofas, water-logged chairs and tables, and odd bits of rubbish – garden tools, toys, dishes and other items lodged like archaeological finds in the slick mud.
The Queensland summer sun is releasing an unpleasant bouquet of odours, in which we can distinguish petrol, fertilizer, sewage, and the general stench of decaying plants and animals. We will need to be well protected against the pollutants and microbes in the mud, not to mention sunburn and biting midges, which have already had a population explosion during the record rains. Those who lived through the ‘74 floods warn that the smell will remain for weeks, and it will be months before we can enjoy the playgrounds, walkways and ovals in our riverside parks.
MY HUSBAND AND I are taking bets on whether our citizenship ceremony will take place as scheduled on Australia Day, in the Brisbane City Convention Centre. He’s sceptical, but I’m banking that it will – I certainly hope so, I’ve been looking forward to this moment since the second of the five years we’ve lived here. I imagine the convention centre cleanup will be a priority for the city, and I imagine the Lord Mayor’s speechwriter is already sketching out a few choice lines about the ‘74 Australia Day floods and our new responsibilities and benefits as Australian citizens.
In many ways, Australia has been our lucky country. A recent trip to visit family in the US confirmed how good it is here – economically, culturally and historically. However the flood has left in its wake a measure of uncertainty. With the cleanup estimated at least $10 billion – not to mention income lost from mining and tourism – the cost of the recovery will mean cuts at the city, state and federal levels. We’re not yet sure what this will mean for university funding, improvements to healthcare, cultural investments or even basic infrastructure maintenance. The uncertainty is further complicated by scientific models which predict worsening droughts, floods and fires for Australia.
But our building is for sale, and it has remained on dry ground through two of the worst of the city’s floods. The ‘for sale’ sign outside seems to tempt fate, yet I believe we are here to stay.
Click HERE for Ryan Taft's images from the water's edge.