Leading up to Christmas 2010 the Australian eastern seaboard experiences the full effects of a strong La Nina with flooding seemingly everywhere but primarily in Queensland where flooding has forced the evacuation of thousands of people from towns and cities, including the capital Brisbane. In all over seventy towns and over 200,000 people are affected with damage later estimated at around one billion Australian dollars.
Up to three quarters of Queensland is declared a disaster zone with communities along the Fitzroy and Burnett Rivers particularly hard hit, while the Condamine, Balonne and Mary Rivers record substantial flooding. In Toowoomba an unexpected flash flood races through the town’s central business district before ploughing on relentlessly into the Lockyer Valley where it completely annihilates everything in its path. A few days later thousands of houses and businesses in Ipswich and Brisbane are inundated as the Wivenhoe Dam fills to capacity and the Brisbane River rises rapidly.
The floods are a direct result of exceptionally heavy rainfall caused by Tropical Cyclone Tasha that combined with a trough during the peak of the La Nina event. December 2010 is Queensland's wettest on record with highest rainfall totals set in over a hundred separate locations for that month alone. To exacerbate this, Queensland has just endured its wettest spring since 1900.
By early December, isolated flooding has started right across Queensland and northern New South Wales and by the 30th of December huge areas of Southern and Central Queensland are affected by the flood. With the rains continuing, the flooding becomes worse, indeed some places such as Condamine and Chinchilla are inundated by flood waters on multiple occasions. In all, it is estimated that, at the height of the floods, more than half of Queensland is affected.
On the 10th of January 2011 the city of Toowoomba is hit by flash flooding after more than 160 millimetres of rain falls in 36 hours. Although Toowoomba sits on the Great Dividing Range some 700 metres above sea level, a three week period of nonstop rain has left the soil around the city super saturated and when storms hit the city on the 10th of January, the torrential rain rapidly runs off down gullies and streets.
The centre of Toowoomba is in a small valley and is where two small water courses, East Creek and West Creek, join to form Gowrie Creek. Unable to cope with the huge volume of water heading into them, the creeks burst their banks, pushing a destructive wall of water through the city centre causing the deaths of four people
Meanwhile, in the Lockyer Valley the surge passes through Withcott where the sheer power of the water pushes cars into shops and forces the evacuation of hundreds of people. And on the 10th of January Grantham, a small town in the Lockyer Valley is obliterated by a wall of water up to eight metres high and later described as an ‘inland tsunami’. Nine people are confirmed dead and numerous others feared so among the 66 reported missing. The body of one victim from Grantham is recovered 80 kilometres downstream prompting the Queensland Police to warn that some bodies may never be found or recovered.
As we fly into Brisbane the aircraft banks hard to the left over Moreton Bay. Below us is a clear but ragged demarcation line in the water, one side is blue and clean, the other, on the landward side, brown and muddied. This line stretches for as far as the eye can see. As the plane levels out on its approach to the airport we notice large water tanks, assorted fragments of building material and even massive trees floating in the evil coloured water. The lower we get the more we realise what devastation has hit the city as the bay is completely inundated with debris.
At Brisbane Airport we meet up with Plod, Avon, Francis and McCallum who have been working in the flood affected areas of the city stripping houses of internal walls, furniture, carpet and anything else affected by the deluge of water and mud. They are tired but in good spirits and give us tips on what to expect when we get out into the devastated suburbs. However, we later find out that we are not to be working in Brisbane as the destruction of Grantham is weighing more heavily on everyone’s minds.
And it is here that the second ACT State Emergency Service task force to the Queensland floods is sent. In fact, we are the very first SES search team into the area.
Driving into Grantham is something that one cannot adequately describe. It is hot and humid and the police exclusion zone around the destroyed town is still in place. The police on the road block look tired and haggard, their eyes somewhat vacant as if they have stared into some great abyss and seen something that no person should ever see.
We stop at the road block with no real sense of what lies ahead in this once sleepy rural valley. The police ask for our credentials and then allow us through. We wave and drive slowly along the thin strip of grey bitumen that leads into the town.
The countryside is lush and green and pleasant, a cruel lie. To our left majestic mountain crags sit jagged against the sky. To our right a flood plain stretches far into the distance. Surely this idyllic rural retreat cannot be the site of one of the nation’s greatest natural disasters?
And then hints of the destruction. A fence covered in debris. A car battered and crushed sitting unnaturally in a field of dark flat mud. A set of stairs wedged against a tree that is stripped bare of its foliage up to some three or four metres off the ground. And what looks like the roof of a shed lying forlornly in a devastated pumpkin field.
Further on and the destruction becomes more apparent. Houses have been ripped clean off their foundations, black muddy patches now sitting silently as a reminder of what was once there. Other buildings have complete walls missing or sit precariously at strange, unnatural angles. On the scoured brick and timber cladding roughly spray painted letters proclaim the building unsafe.
Everywhere you look is woody debris tangled up with fence wire, corrugated iron sheeting, car pieces, bricks and fabric. The town looks as if a giant invisible hand has indiscriminately swept across the landscape like a spoilt child losing a game of chess and smashing the pieces from the board to the floor. Except these are not chess pieces on a giant scale board, these are people, people’s homes, people’s possessions, people’s lives.
And worst of all, small shreds of blue and white police tape wrapped around letterboxes or fence posts indicating that a dead person has been discovered in the mud splattered interior of what was once someone’s home, someone’s sanctuary from the world, someone’s life.
We park our vehicles at a hastily set up staging area. The place is a hive of frenzied activity. Police and SES vehicles, Army bushmasters and mogs and hired earthmoving equipment add to the confusion. Residents wander aimlessly around the demolished buildings, their faces a mixture of disbelief, resignation and anger. A child stands in a gutter clutching an unidentifiable muddied stuffed toy and you feel a strange, uncomfortable tightening in your throat.
In the air green and brown helicopters thunder past like overfed grasshoppers, while further away, over the creeks and waterways, smaller helicopters hover and dart like dragonflies over a tranquil country stream. Apparently the media have not been allowed into the town yet and the exclusion zone extends to the air. No-one is yet sure of the body count which is why we are here.
The railway bridge that crosses the town is almost unrecognisable under tonnes of tree limbs, twisted metal and car parts. There is a surprising amount of bamboo which has apparently been torn from the river many miles upstream to be deposited here, bent and warped around the pylons as if thatched by the hands of a giant god.
Beneath the bridge, police divers have the gruesome task of searching the muddied and polluted waters for victims of this inland tidal wave. Someone tells me that a number of incredibly brave rescues were undertaken from the top of this bridge. Rescues that included dragging people out of cars that had washed downstream and became trapped with the rest of the debris. Looking at the carnage I wonder how anyone could have survived that murderous wall of water that descended upon the town.
Before long we are in the field, searching for bodies or body parts. The briefing tells us that the mud is over a metre deep in places and, although now starting to dry under the baking sun, it almost sucks our boots off as we trudge with sweat in our eyes across a large paddock that once grew butternut pumpkins. I tread on one of these spoilt vegetables and it splits open, rotten to the core, spilling maggots onto the searing ground.
The briefing also tells us that the force of the water is likely to have ripped bodies completely apart and that we should be aware that we are searching for torsos, arms, legs and even decapitated heads.
The heat is as relentless as it is intense, beating down on this warzone like landscape. We break in the afternoon as a number of the searchers suffer from heat stress and are evacuated back to the staging area where they are treated by paramedics. The sun reflects off the rapidly hardening mud that lies like a suffocating brown carpet over everything causing it to crack like crazy paving.
Tony, who like me, has elected to search for bodies rather than clear mud infested houses, is so affected by the heat and humidity that the paramedics fear they will have to put him on a drip and evacuate him to hospital. But this does not surprise me as this has so far been one of the toughest things I have ever experienced, including 20 kilometre forced marches in battle order with the Army.
On one pass we find a light aircraft nose first in the mud on what used to be someone’s front lawn. Elsewhere we find cars, stacked up like toys as if placed there by a playful giant. And remarkably, houses in the middle of paddocks where no houses used to be. As well, poignant reminders of the tragedy that has befallen this place regularly appear as we find scattered and torn children’s clothes, personal effects and ragged photo albums. The place has a stench of death to it.
The days blend into each other. Our arrival seems as if it was weeks ago. We find ourselves searching river banks, brown stagnant puddles of rancid water squelching under our boots as the stench of decay and death invades our nostrils. I come across a cane toad, looking quite astonished as if it cannot quite comprehend what has happened. Although feral and a pest in Australia, I allow it to live, it is a survivor in a place where it appears that little else has survived.
Now and then we come across dead animals. Now rancid and rotting in the heat, they remind us of our job here and we continue searching. The Army has dug a large pit on the outskirts of town and this is where the dead animals are being dumped. Apparently there is a horse in the pit but no-one is really interested in looking. Death is on everyone’s minds.
Another day finds us in a swamp just to the north of the town. The police have intelligence that suggests that the receding flood waters could have deposited the remains of a number of people in the dank, tepid waters. Apparently it is too dangerous for the tracker dogs so we are tasked to search the area.
In the swamp the dark waters swallow your boots and legs and grasses and bulrushes tower above you blocking out the sky and sealing you in your own little world. Around your feet tiny fish dart away to seek protection in the reeds and slime that floats on the still waters. Frogs croak loudly as you drag your feet agonisingly through this primitive landscape. Now and then a snake whips by, frightened by the commotion and birds rise from the reeds with raucous calls.
We continue searching. The heat of the day bears down upon us but we continue our fruitless task. People trip, fall and swear before dragging themselves back to their feet and continuing. After a few passes in what could be considered the easier part of the swamp, many people pull out. This really is torturously hard work and fitness alone is not enough to get you through it.
In this situation you focus your mind on the task and away from the dangers and hardships of the terrain. And you rely on your mates who are also suffering. As you trip, sink, fall, you call out to each other giving encouragement and confidence. When you think you cannot go on you see the rest of the team dragging themselves painfully to their feet so you do the same.
At one stage we wade through chest deep water, probing the swamps slippery depths with large bamboo poles. Progress is excruciatingly slow as we search under reeds, bulrushes, grass and random pieces of rubbish deposited here by the flood waters a week ago. We crisscross the swamp in a line with the person on the end marking a trail with a can of spray paint. On retracing our progress it is almost impossible to find the trail in the enormous reeds and bulrushes.
On one pass, the head of ESA, Tony Graham, appears on the banks. He is with the Commissioner and is wearing his dress blue uniform. I wryly observe that a more ridiculous comparison between us and him could not be found. We are exhausted and filthy but still manage to hurl a few good natured insults his way before turning and heading back into the mud, slime, reeds and water.
By late afternoon the search crew has dwindled to a handful. Many have struggled against the dark boggy waters to no avail. Exhausted, the remainder of us make a quiet pact that the swamp will be completely searched, no matter what. We owe it to the survivors to do our utmost best. The staging area radios in telling us to quit the search as it is getting late. We tell them no. We are going to finish this.
With this in mind and with aching legs and itching arms and faces, we again enter the swamp. Halfway across we encounter chest deep water and thick impenetrable reeds and grasses. Searching in such conditions is nearly impossible but we continue. Soon the skies become dark and the clouds gather ominously.
We prod and poke the reeds and grasses, slip and fall into the waters and yet we continue, our minds focussed on the job at hand, our bodies starting to cry out in exhaustion. It begins to rain but we just laugh, after all, we are already completely saturated.
And then it is over. We wearily climb out of the water and grasses and stand on the edge of the swamp. There is a quiet moment of reflection and then everyone spontaneously starts shaking each other’s hands and patting each other on the back. Tears well in our eyes as one of the Grantham SES members who has searched with us shakes our hands and tells us how proud he is that we have come to help find his friends. This is an extremely emotional moment and at this instant we are all one, all a part of something much bigger than ourselves. Once we were strangers in a strange land, now we are brothers.
Later that afternoon, while relaxing at the staging area waiting for a debrief we hear rumours that another crew has found something or someone. The words hit hard and a silence descends upon the crew. And yet we have done what we came to do. We can do no more. Will the ghosts of the past haunt this place for evermore or will they somehow find peace when the place is rebuilt and the memories fade like an old sepia photograph? The dead may rest, but the living still need to find solace.
That night Baby, Tony, Lefty, Shaneo from the Tuggeranong Unit and myself drink scotch and cokes and beers until 3.00 in the morning until the manager of the accommodation comes around and tells us to be quiet. Admirably, Lefty tries to explain to him what we have been doing for the past few days and that we should be given a break of sorts. The manager, however, ignores our drunken pleas and doesn’t seem to care. As a result, we pack up and find our beds.
Tomorrow we will fly back to Canberra where we will go home, wake up in our own beds and lead normal lives and all of this will simply be history. And yet we can never forget.