As I write this post, over 28,000 homes in South East Queensland have been severely damaged or destroyed in the worst flooding to take place in Queensland in over 30 years. In fact, over 75% of Queensland has been declared a disaster zone. To put this in perspective for my northern hemisphere mates, that is the size of Texas in the United States or the combined size of Germany and France. That’s a whole lotta area, under water.
That’s all I will write about the actual problem. Queensland flooded and flooded in a bloody major way. It’s like someone forgot to turn off the world’s biggest shower and 3 months later realised it but by that time, the bath was full and the water was flowing over the sides and flooding the entire bathroom.
Yep, stupid analogy but you get the gist. It rained a lot and it kept on raining.
You’ve all seen the footage and seen the news and read the papers and online about what happened in the South East corner of Queensland which has so far claimed 20 lives, not including those who died in December in the central parts of Queensland.
No, what I want to write about in this post is my own personal experience. Of what I have felt and seen and witnessed since 10th January. My story is an easy one. I am nowhere near the Brisbane River or the Bremer River in Ipswich. I am a couple of hours away from the Lockyer Valley region decimated by the Toowoomba inland tsunami. I know only one person who came close to having their house flooded and he avoided that by living on the second floor of an apartment building in West End. I have suffered no loss and no one I know has suffered or loss either.
So why do I even care?
Well I hope that question will be answered in the following words. Join me, won’t you?
Along with millions of other Aussies, I watched the devastation of the floods in central Queensland. Towns I have visited such as Emerald, Rockhampton, Bundaberg, were all being inundated by a brown, liquid monster. We looked on as our country brothers and sisters dealt with the disaster the way we know Queenslanders do. With humour and good grace. Images of people, always blokes actually, walking waist deep in water with the pub slowly receding behind them and a carton of beer on their shoulder and a smile on their face was common. A pub with a hastily built dirt levee built around it and renamed the Flotel instead of Hotel. Kids on esky lids swimming in crocodile and snake infested waters without a care in the world. Humour is a big part of our society and we would need to call on it many times to get through the days and weeks ahead.
Queenslanders love their beer and so of course you save the pub before saving the schools! It doesn’t matter if the school goes under anyway. It’s the school holidays and there’ll be plenty of time to dry it out and get it up and running again before school resumes. But we must not run out of beer! This is a crisis and the only good way of handling a crisis is by looking at it head on – through the bottom of a brown stubbie that is! That’s Queensland and we wouldn’t change it for anything.
Yes it is fair to say that Queenslanders handle things with a relaxed attitude but don’t let that fool you. The job still gets done.
Not understating it but there were thousands of people displaced and evacuated. Hundreds of homes and businesses were flooded and after weeks of vision on the news and websites and newspapers, Channel 9 decided to hold a telethon to raise money for the regional centres of Queensland. It was hastily arranged and broadcast live from Brisbane’s Southbank Piazza on Sunday, January 9. The piazza is open air to a certain degree and the millions of viewers across Australia could see the monsoonal rain that was continually pelting down over Brisbane as entertainers such as David Campbell and Tina Area sang their hearts out. I am sure the sight of this never ending curtain of rain contributed to the telethon raising over $10 million that night alone but no one knew that night, that the following afternoon would see a terrifying flash flood hit the towns of Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley towns of Murphy’s Creek and Grantham which would claim at least 18 lives.
This wall of water which destroyed whatever was in its path was still speeding down the range and Ipswich and Brisbane were in its way. With the Wivenhoe Dam, built to prevent Brisbane from flooding as badly as it did in 1974, releasing two Sydney Harbours worth of water daily to avoid it collapsing and joining together with the water from the flash flooding in Toowoomba, Brisbane and Ipswich and all suburbs in between were about to get wet. Very wet.
Then the call went out for volunteers to help the council and SES fill sand bags. A lot of them! On the Tuesday night, it was still pissing down in Brisbane. It hadn’t let up and by this stage the governments had advised that low lying areas of Brisbane were going to flood and we were warned that the devastating floods of 1974 were nothing compared to what we were going to see in the coming days.
I love Twitter. People knock it for whatever reason and they can but a call went out across Twitter (as well as other mainstream media) on that Tuesday night and boy didn’t the people respond. People who I follow on Twitter, who I have never met but legends still the same started to head out into the rain and the dark of the night to fill up sandbags. People were heading out at 10pm to lend a hand. Let me make a comment too that these people were in no danger of their houses being flooded, so they weren’t making sandbags for themselves but for total strangers! My wife was not home that night so I couldn’t head out but I was on the Twitter #qldfloods feed trying to send out as much information as possible. What else could I do? I felt a strong desire to help. Earlier that day I was out and about and had my journey north to Morayfield interrupted by rising flood waters in Burpengary.
So while watching the news and my Twitter time line I saw the volunteer army that was about to take over SEQ takes its first steps. I was about to say, first, tentative steps, but it wasn’t tentative. It was absolute. It was brilliant and I felt a sense of pride in my fellow Queenslanders that was only going to multiply over the coming days.
I updated my blog to try and centralise the mammoth amount of information that was out there. Information on how and where to donate, road closure links, emergency services links, how to volunteer etc as well as links to videos and some photos as well to show the people of the world what Queensland was up against. It was only a small thing but if one person got the relevant info from it and if someone else donated because of it, then good, it did its job!
Wednesday came around and residents in the low lying areas were still packing up their houses as quickly as they could and get their possessions to higher ground. Sandbag volunteers were still in full force throughout the day and the media kept us up to date with what was happening in Ipswich as the Bremer River neared its peak of 20 metres.
The Brisbane River peak was coming Thursday morning at 4am. So predawn, the morning news shows fired up their cameras and lights and went to air with the on air guys such as Channel 9’s Karl Stefanovic, himself a Queenslander, crossing to reporters at places where the water was already overflowing the banks of the river. The river didn’t hit the predicted peak but still thousands of homes and businesses had been destroyed.
Then we saw an image of a 300 metre, 1,000 tonne section of the famous Brisbane Riverwalk which had broken free, floating down the river towards the 12 lane Gateway Bridge. Well the Sir Leo Hielsher Bridge to be accurate but the newly renamed bridge was back to its former moniker for the duration of this crisis. The Riverwalk was travelling at a very fast speed and who knows if it would have caused any real damage to the bridge but one man and his tugboat didn’t want to take that risk. While listening to his radio and hearing of the runaway piece of Riverwalk, Tugboat skipper, Doug Hislop and the smallest tugboat I have ever seen called Mavis, headed out into the fast moving Brisbane River just in time to manoeuvre the Riverwalk into a parallel position and guide it through the massive pylons of the Gateway Bridge and to safety at the mouth of the river. Doug and Mavis gained instant fame and hopefully fortune and a new hero was unearthed. In his interviews afterwards he was very humble and said that he just did what anyone would do. I thought that Doug must have been on standby with orders from the government to intercept anything that could be considered dangerous. He wasn’t. He just stepped up when he was needed and joined the long list of volunteers that Queensland has seen over the few weeks.
The waters started to recede. Brisbane had been spared the consequences of a peak equal to or higher than the disastrous 1974 floods. While thousands were affected, many more thousands were spared.
But still people needed help. A lot of help.
With the receding water levels, the images started to emerge from the murky brown water. We at home, and when I say we, I mean all viewers, were shown images of houses completely devastated. Water had gone over the roofs of many homes and to the ceilings and beyond in most others. Whatever the water touched, it destroyed. These poor, poor people. Most are uninsured because most insurance companies will not cover for flood damage, were re-entering their homes to find nothing left.
The clean up was going to take a huge effort. The army was called in by the federal government but a bigger army formed. The volunteers! 50,000 of them registered online to assist. Many more just hit the gridlocked streets to lend a hand. That Friday afternoon I asked my twelve year old daughter, Michaela, or Mick as I like to call her, if she wanted to help out on Saturday. Before the words were out of my mouth she said yes.
Saturday morning we prepared for a hard day’s work. We went to Bunnings to get some supplies. Top of the list was gum boots. Driving into the carpark I saw an awesome sight. People! Everywhere! Bunnings is normally always busy but this was nuts. People were walking out of there with gumboots in hand. Brooms, shovels, gurneys, scrub brushes. There was the usual sausage sizzle and it was doing a roaring trade. The sign on the BBQ said that all proceeds were going to the flood appeal. We quickly found what we needed and headed to the checkout spending about $100 on what we needed knowing that I would have spent double that if I had to.
A mate of mine, Mark was organising a BBQ in Graceville and asked me to assist with getting some bread rolls. Working for Bakers Delight I was able to quickly get a stack of bread rolls donated. Thanks to Bakers Delight at Windsor and Aspley for the kind donation. We picked up the Aspley ones and headed to the western suburbs of Brisbane. This area of Brisbane is my old stomping grounds. I grew up in Toowong and I know the back streets. We’re taking the back streets because the radio is advising us that the roads are packed. They’re packed not only because of the volunteers and general commuters but also because of the bloody rubber neckers or flood tourists as I called, them heading into the flood zone to take some pictures to put on Facebook and to tell their grandkids that they were there for the great flood of 2011. Idiots.
Mark rang me and said he was almost out of sausages and could I get some more. We made our way to Woolies at Toowong and bought all of the snags we could – about 88 – and a slab of bottled water and some ice and proceeded on the journey. Taking more back streets after seeing the gridlock we eventually couldn’t avoid the congestion as the tiny bridge that links Chelmer to Indooroopilly, the Walter Taylor Bridge, was struggling to cope with the volume of cars.
We couldn’t go the way I wanted into Graceville thanks to a couple of police roadblocks but eventually I found a way in and after explaining to another police officer that I was in fact there to help and not a rubber necker he waved us through.
That’s when we saw the destruction for the first time with our own eyes. By this stage we had been on the road for about 3 hours and it was near 1pm. A lot of work had happened. The kerb was full of rubbish. Well rubbish now. Prized possessions a few days earlier. It was stacked so high and as a wide as each house. It was endless. Then I saw a sight which filled me with so much pride. The street, a normal suburban street was a hive of activity. There were people everywhere. Covered in mud and yuk.
We drove up the street and found Mark. We dropped off the supplies. Our original plan was to drop and run and head to Goodna, one of the worst affected areas but the struggle it took to get into this flood zone was enough for us, so we parked and donned our gum boots and gloves and with buckets and spades and brooms and sponges we set foot down the road to help where we could. We went house to house and asked if they needed a hand. Each house said no thanks, we have all the help we need. I shit you not, each house had heaps of people in them. They weren’t kidding, they did have all the help they needed. One man told us to go and find an elderly gentleman who kept on walking past with a wheel barrow full of rubbish. He wasn’t sure where he lived but it appeared that he was doing plenty of hard yakka on his own. We searched for him but couldn’t find him so we eventually returned back to the BBQ area and it was there that a dump truck turned up and we just started loading it with the debris on the side of the roads. There must have been twenty people loading those trucks each time. A truck would pull up and get filled and leave. No one was in charge. No one needed to be. Everybody knew what they had to do. We got filthy dirty and we tried to be careful not to scratch ourselves. We avoided the nails hammered into now unrecognisable pieces of furniture. We picked up big pieces and small pieces. Everything went into the truck. There was no discrimination there in the streets of Graceville. Everything was destroyed.
This one bloke, Joe, was up in the back of the truck pulling the rubbish into it as the people below lifted it to his position. The truck filled quickly and Joe, with his long straggly hair caked in mud and sweat just kept on lifting heavy objects into place. At one stage he slipped and his side went thundering into the side of the dump truck. You could tell that it hurt him. He grimaced in pain. I was sure he had cracked a rib such was the force of the fall. He gave it a rub, took a deep breath and got back to it. Later on while waiting for another truck, Joe came over and got an ice cold can of coke from Mark and I asked him if he was ok. He said he was but I doubted it. I asked him which house was his. He said none of them. I asked him if he knew anyone in the street. He said he didn’t. He said he just couldn’t watch anymore of it from home and that he had to do something. His wife was watching the kids and he came here to help out. Like so many others. He was willing to crack a rib for total strangers. He wouldn’t have cared if he did. None of us would have if we were hurt. A cracked rib is nothing compared to those who lost their lives in this flood or the loss of treasured possessions.
Mick and I went for a walk around the corner and we found ourselves next to the river. We were that close. We saw many people working in their homes. Using hoses and gurneys and brooms to get rid of the muck. This one guy was sitting out the front of his house gently cleaning old number plates which a few days earlier, probably adorned his garage wall. It seemed strange to me at the time that his efforts were being utilised on a mundane item but then I realised that while it was a mundane item to me, it meant the world to him and that is all that matters.
People everywhere were doing the best they could to clean up. There is no instruction manual or pamphlet to tell you what to do and what order to do it in after a flood. There also didn’t need to be. Judging by what we were seeing, people were getting the job done. It didn’t matter if they started with the smaller stuff first. If that is what it took them to get the job done, then so be it.
We came across an army roadblock. There was a group of soldiers clearing a shitload of mud off the road to try and reopen it. There were about four cars waiting to get through. They wouldn’t for a while. I heard one of the soldiers tell one of the other soldiers that a couple of girls a couple of houses up and made them an offer. If the soldiers washed their cars for them they could also wash their boobs! It made me laugh. There was that Queensland spirit. Even in times of crisis, the chicks just love the Aussie soldiers and they were cracking jokes about it. I was about to ask which house and was getting myself into car cleaning mode when I remembered that Michaela was with me still. Bugger! I’m kidding!
I asked the soldier how long the road block was going to be in place. He said he didn’t know. So I told him I would tell the now considerable long line of cars that it was closed off. So we started walking back to our position and I told each car to do a Ubolt. There were no complaints other than one dickhead who argued with another army jeep that pulled up alongside him. I said to the guy that it wasn’t their fault and we continued to walk back and tell each car. There were probably 20 cars that went back in the direction in which they had just come. No probs.
During this walk we also came across many different volunteers who approached us and asked us if we would like a sandwich or a cold drink or a biscuit. It was incredible the amount of people who were offering food. We declined each time as we had brought our own food and drinks and the stuff they had was better suited to all of the other volunteers. It’s strange, even though we had worked hard as well, I didn’t feel like I was a volunteer. I wasn’t a victim. I was just me and that people who really needed that stuff were inside their homes doing it tough.
Mark who had a smile on his face all day while feeding hungry volunteers had set up the BBQ with his beautiful girlfriend, Annette. Their spirits were high, even being out in the hot, humid sun and as another volunteer or helper walked past, they offered them a sanga on bread or an ice cold drink. They had coke and lemonade and water and juice and poppers. They catered for everyone. They also had sunscreen and hand disinfectant so that people could wash their hands and kill off the germs before eating. They thought of everything.
Next to their car I noticed a whole heap of supplies including toilet paper, tissues, long life milk and assorted tinned foods. It turned out that the council had dropped off these essential supplies so that residents could take some if they were needed. I thought how good was that! The different governments involved in this crisis, being the federal, state and local had performed brilliantly throughout this whole crisis. The information was unbelievable and the fact that council had organised for these emergency supplies to be made available was unreal. As it turned out no one really wanted the supplies as most people were not staying in their homes. Most of the homes were unliveable and therefore these items would just be sitting in empty homes. Annette had a great idea to make up some care packages and hand them out. So we did and with the last few we loaded them into my car for when we were leaving and found some people who would take them down the street. Michaela handed them out with so much empathy. I am so proud of Michaela as well. She didn’t hesitate to volunteer when I asked her and during the cleanup she turned to me and said, “Dad I am so happy I came. I feel like I am helping”. She was helping and doing a bloody good job too! She’s only 12 but she showed that kids of today care about their world and their neighbours. She asked if we could come back and volunteer as well. What a special kid she is. I thought she would get a valuable life lesson from this and that is why I asked her. She’ll never forget and I am sure it will make her an even better person, if that is at all possible!
There are so many sad stories in that street alone. One resident was telling me that he had no insurance and that he lost everything. Luckily he was only renting but as his lease was almost up he would not be returning. He was upbeat and positive and would just get on with starting again. Similar stories were being told up and down that area. There were no tears or arguments. In fact it was just the opposite. There was plenty of laughter. People were upbeat. There was an air of confidence in the street. Yes they were down but they weren’t out. They would start again. They would rebuild.
I mentioned earlier that the governments have been terrific in this crisis. During the height of it, Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh conducted bi-hourly press conferences to keep the public informed. Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman was front and centre with shirt rolled up to his elbows, not a tie in sight, and informed the people of exactly what was coming. Our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard nodded and agreed with what was being said and promised to provide money where needed but she really didn’t have much to offer as the lower levels of government did that job superbly. Only a few short weeks ago Anna Bligh was on a hiding to nothing and would likely lose the next state government election. Now she is Superwoman and infallible in the eyes of the Queensland public and while I am no fan of hers, she has been bloody brilliant. At one stage in a press conference she stood before the cameras and the journalists to give another update and to inform us of another confirmed death. She said while holding back tears:
“As we weep for what we have lost, and as we grieve for family and friends and we confront the challenge that is before us, I want us to remember who we are. We are Queenslanders. We’re the people that they breed tough, north of the border. We’re the ones that they knock down, and we get up again.”
I had a lump in my throat and held back the tears. She was 100% right. We are Queenslanders and we are tough. What a speech to say to her people who have relied on our leader to LEAD and she has done that in spades. Congrats to Mrs Bligh. Unlike your namesake, you will not be the subject of a mutiny and I hope that when the finger pointing undoubtedly starts, that people will realise that this was an act of nature and that the government isn’t to blame. I know there are people who will argue that Wivenhoe should have been released earlier and I am sure the inquiry will determine whether that is what should have happened or not but if it was, the fault is in procedure but not in a person or people.
I am so proud to be a Queenslander! I wasn’t born here but moved here from Adelaide when I was seven in 1979. I’ve been here long enough to call myself a Queenslander and I am damn proud to do so. I have welled up plenty of times over this last week or so. When I saw people like Erin, volunteer to go out into the rain and fill sandbags was one time. Another was seeing the long lines of volunteers at the Brisbane City Council registration points, ready to go into battle to fight for Queenslanders. I’ve welled up seeing images of people sandbagging and helping each other out. I cried when I saw a sign some young girls were holding at the T20 cricket match at the MCG last week saying “We are with you QLD” even as flood waters began to encroach into Victoria. I welled up when I saw a couple in Brisbane CBD, the day after the peak had damaged inner city businesses, they were walking down the street, covered in mud but walking hand in hand. Despite the damage to their business, they still had each other. It was a beautiful moment but one I wished had never had to happen.
Yes, there is a spirit in Queensland. I can’t quite tell you what it is. It is something you need to experience yourself. As our mighty State of Origin team has shown over the past 30 years, you can never write off a Queenslander. And when Billy Moore proudly called out that iconic call of ‘Queenslander’ during a State of Origin match in 1995, a new rally cry was born and when Queenslanders are down and fighting, just hearing that yelled out will add strength to any given situation. I am proud to say I have heard that call a few times this last couple of weeks and every time I do, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I know that everything will be ok.
We still need plenty of help. There is still work to do. Please continue to talk about it and donate and volunteer where possible. I still have the information on my blog and you can access that here.
I want to thank Australia for giving a damn about Queensland. Seeing my great country pull together has been awe inspiring. We certainly do live in the lucky country! I also want to point out the great work that the QLD Police Service has done providing timely information to the citizens of this great state. Their Facebook page is great and the inclusion of their Flood Mythbusters has been invaluable to quash rumours and not cause a panic. Of course a special thanks to the SES and emergency services who risk their lives to save ours. Well done. And of course to the many volunteers either directly in the flood zones or in the many evacuation centres or those who are baking or cooking or behind the keyboard sending out vital information via social networks like Twitter and Facebook. A special mention to @meshel_laurie who has been an awesome provider of information. She wasn’t the only with so many of the Twitterati pitching in. I won’t mention you individually because I don’t want to offend anyone by leaving them out. You know who you are and a job well done.
Normally the media need to sensationalise to make a story more interesting than it actually is. This story was so big that for once they didn’t need to invent stories. I think the media reported this story brilliantly. Most of the networks had rolling coverage throughout the day and night. They did a great job. Well done to the media for once, telling it as it had to be told. Truthfully!
As I finalise this post, the time is 9.40pm, Thursday, 20 January 2011 and it is absolutely bucketing down outside. With a king tide due tomorrow there is more risk of flash flooding. Mother Nature can be a total bitch sometimes as she has demonstrated in Queensland over the past couple of months. She can destroy homes and property and roads and buildings and cars and trucks. She can come screaming towards you with nothing but destruction in her eye but there is one thing she cannot take and that is the resilience and the strength and the attitude of Queenslanders and Aussies alike.
p.s. The fundraising continues. With a damage bill likely to top over $30 billion we need all we can get. There are plenty of celebrity auctions on and every street corner has a fundraiser going. The Barnes family have released an album on iTunes call Floodlight for only $4.99 and you can also buy “Love You Queensland” for $1.69 at iTunes. It’s a great song, re-recorded just for this occassion. Check it out. Those goosebumps are back!
UPDATE: 12 months later, I wrote again about the floods and the now famous, Queensland spirit. I hope you enjoy it. Click here to read it.