The Brisbane Floods


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Our Australian friends have sent us their diary of their experiences during the recent flooding in their country. We also highlight in this issue (Larry S. Buss, “Increasing Flood Risk: Is This Our Floodplain Management Policy?”) our continuing drumbeat of support for sane governmental policies (in all countries) that would protect all undeveloped flood plains and remove those unwittingly placed at risk by a series of misguided governmental actions.

A view from the authors’ apartment, looking across the Brisbane River toward the suburb of Toowong in Brisbane, Queensland, near the southeast coast of Australia. The first photo (left) was taken on Jan. 12 during the flooding. The second photo (right) was taken on Jan. 20, after the flood waters had subsided. (Paul Gottlieb)

By Paul Gottlieb and Kay Pearse

After more than a decade of drought, Queenslanders in Australia were revelling in a return to a more regular summer season in 2011. The gardens were greening up, the cicadas and frogs were chirping again and we could shower for longer than the three minutes required during the extended water restrictions.

The source of Brisbane’s water, Wivenhoe Dam, had dropped to just 16 percent during the drought, and now it was full to overflowing. At the peak of the flood, it reached 190 percent capacity—which includes 100 percent of its water supply and 90 percent of its flood mitigation capacity.

Here is what unfolded around us in the dreadful days of the 2011 flood beginning on Monday, Jan. 10. We were the lucky ones with minimal losses—our thoughts are with the families of those who died and the thousands of people who lost their homes completely or suffered serious damage.

Day 1: Monday, Jan. 10 — It is a normal summer day in Brisbane, apart from the heavy rain. It is only January, and we should be having afternoon thunderstorms, not this continuous heavy rain.

I come home from work to the news of the flash flooding in Toowoomba. Kay went to school in Toowoomba, and the sight of cars being tossed around in the main street was unbelievable. Toowoomba is on the top of a mountain, for goodness’ sake.

Day 2: Tuesday, Jan. 11 — It is still raining heavily, and I go to work early for a teleconference. Kay is at home and watches Premier Anna Bligh give a press conference. The premier is obviously shaken and warns Brisbane that a major flood is coming. Kay sends me links to the 1974 flood maps of Brisbane. Most of my colleagues are from overseas and know nothing of the 1974 floods, and these maps convince them that the situation is serious. After driving another colleague home, I come home at lunchtime.

Before purchasing our apartment in West End a year ago, Kay had checked the 1974 flood maps. It showed that the complex was on high ground, although surrounded by water. While we were confident that our second-floor apartment would be OK, we thought the basement storage area and car park would flood.

We get to work moving as much as we can from the storage area—winter bedding, boxes of memorabilia, photos of our parents and grandparents, artwork, electrical tools, historical papers from my father who came to Australia as a refugee during World War II, tennis racquets and so on.

We move the cars to “higher” ground. The police come to tell us to evacuate, but we are at the supermarket trying to buy nonperishable food, batteries and milk. There are no vegetables, no batteries and not one box of long-life milk on the shelves. The supermarket closes early.

After dinner I decide to go back to the office to retrieve my computer. I just make it by a very roundabout route as the flood waters are already blocking some roads. The radio says that the flood peak will be at high tide tomorrow afternoon, with another higher peak on Thursday morning.

Day 3: Wednesday, Jan. 12 — We wake early to an eerie silence—and hot! No overhead fan in the bedroom. The power has gone off—no TV, no Internet, no phone, but we find an old battery-operated “trannie.” We hear that the river is rising quickly and that Ipswich flooded during the night. They keep telling us about various websites, but that’s not much use when you have no power!

We go down the stairwell in the dark and go outside to check what is happening. At least it’s stopped raining.

Looking toward Riverside Drive in front of the authors’ apartment toward the suburb of West End in Brisbane. (Paul Gottlieb)The water is almost waist high at the entrance to the basement car park—too late for those people who left it until today to move their belongings from storage. There are three cars still in the car park and a couple of bikes including a Harley Davidson—the owners are away. The river is still several meters below the bank, but the streets are flooding on all three sides around us. I knew that the storm water drains would back up, but I didn’t think it would happen so quickly.

The “higher ground” where the cars were parked turns out to be not so high after all. I drive them through the rising floodwater and move them farther up the hill. I check the basement from a back entrance and find that our storage area is still dry. However a door has burst and the water is flooding in from another street at the back. We manage to rescue the bikes and a chest of drawers but then have to retreat as the water is rapidly rising and it is scary down there in the dark.

There isn’t much more we can do, so we invite the few remaining neighbors to watch the raging torrent from our apartment.

We count the pontoons floating past, some with boats still attached, more boats, the debris. We watch the City Cat Ferry terminal slowly collapse and water rise around the historic Regatta Hotel. We don’t know what is happening elsewhere, but our sons in Sydney and Canberra send us text messages as various parts of the city go under.

People ring to see if we are OK, but we can’t talk for long. We need to save the batteries in our mobiles. There may be no power but there is water, gas and food—and ample supplies of beer and wine.

The alcohol intake increases as the stress levels increase. High tide comes and goes and the river is still rising, but it hasn’t reached the road in front of us. The Brisbane River is tidal and the high tide acts as a “dam.” The water builds up behind this barrier and suburbs farther upstream flood, as well as suburbs close to streams and storm water outlets. We are surrounded by water as our suburb is one of the worst affected but only in parts. Other low-lying suburbs are completely underwater.

We have BBQ fillet steak by candlelight for dinner. As we go to bed the trannie tells us that the river will not reach the forecasted peak of 5.5 meters.

Day 4: Thursday, Jan. 13 — I wake up in the middle of the night. The river does not look much higher than it was last night so the revised forecast seems to be accurate. I go back to bed and try to sleep some more.

When it’s light, we go outside to look at the damage. We are on an island, but the water is already receding. At the bend the river is crashing over the park, water is up to the roof of the Sailing Club Boat House, the rowing shed can’t be seen. The City Cat ferry terminal has gone in the night.

We check the basement. The water is more than 2 meters high at our end, probably about 3 meters down near the driveway.

By late morning we can walk out to our cars and drive to a nearby relative to charge mobiles, computers and watch TV. We see the devastation that has occurred. The flood levels in the city apparently reached 4.6 meters compared to the 1974 flood of 5.4 meters. The rain stopped just in time, allowing the releases from Wivenhoe Dam to be reduced on Tuesday night. That meter made all the difference. I find it very funny that Dan Spiller is the name of the man in charge of controlling releases from the Wivenhoe Dam.

Some people are already starting the cleanup. The police and army are everywhere. We have a communal dinner with everyone contributing food and sharing the takeaway curry provided by the local Member of Parliament, ex-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd MP.

Day 5: Friday, Jan. 14 — The water is being pumped out of the basement. All the electrical and phone systems were in the basement and will need to be replaced. It looks like we will be without power for some time. Our neighbor downstairs is off to try to find a generator. Where will he find a generator in this city?

I try to get to the office to see if it’s OK and it is, but roads are closed everywhere and the traffic is chaos. The cleanup has started in earnest. Damaged furniture, carpets, whitegoods are being dragged into the street. The office is unaffected but no power of course. Kay gets a bit teary as the reality begins to sink in.

A friend has offered us a gas fridge (heaven). Pity we gave all that camping equipment away when we moved. The question is, can we find a replacement gas bottle? As it turns out it is easy because ours is so big. People looking for smaller ones will not be quite so lucky.

We visit some relatives who have been unaffected by the floods. It’s like a parallel universe where life is normal. Weird!

Our neighbour found a generator so we have light, TV and some sense of normality tonight. The coat-hanger antennae works like magic!

Day 6: Saturday, Jan. 15 — A cold shower today as the hot water has finally run out—but bacon and eggs on the gas stove means we are not really doing it very tough—others have lost their entire possessions.

The cleanup of the basement begins. I give everything that we had to leave down there a hose and then bring it up for Kay to do properly. The floor is covered in mud and very slippery. The humidity must be around 99 percent and working by torchlight is difficult. My neighbor and I try to wash a path through the worst of the mud. Others are hosing and sweeping even after having volunteered earlier in the day to help friends and family in other parts of the city.

The rubbish on the streets piles up. There are hundreds of volunteers and volunteers feeding volunteers. Fire trucks are washing down streets, other trucks are carrying out rubbish and mud. The organization of the cleanup effort is impressive. You certainly don’t feel alone.

Day 7: Sunday, Jan. 16 — More cleaning. The workers in the basement are back hosing and sweeping. We have a grader to help today to scrape out the mud.

Then we visited the real world again—for a birthday lunch with friends since I am 65 tomorrow!

In the afternoon we finished the cleaning and stored most of the “stuff” in my truck, the stairwell and the next-door apartment, which fortunately is empty. As we are loading the last of the stuff in the truck, some young men drive past and offer us takeaway food again. It’s a wonderful curry and rice from a Muslim Peace organization, and we are so grateful.

Back to work tomorrow. A final hose down for the basement and the electricians should be in on Tuesday, but it looks like no power for a couple more weeks. It’s just like camping except you get to sleep in your own bed!

By Monday the river was back to its usual height and most of the city returned to normal. It took us two weeks to get the power back on. Many people are still homeless, some buildings in the city are still not habitable and the cleanup continues. The reconstruction has started but will take years. As the premier said, “It might break our hearts, but it will not break our will.”


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