Flooding plains, bursting rivers, human suffering

IN A SKYSCRAPER on Ann Street, Brisbane, behind the sandstone City Hall clock tower, and a stone's throw from a nub of granite at North Quay commemorating the founding of the capital by Surveyor-General John Oxley (who came 'in search of water'), are the offices of the Bureau of Meteorology, Queensland division. The division has under its umbrella the Brisbane Regional Forecast Centre, the Queensland Flood Warning Centre and the Queensland Tropical Cyclone Warning Centre. In all, it keeps busy about 150 staff.

Spreading out from that meteorological epicentre in Ann Street is a vast interconnected web of radars, automatic weather stations, river height stations, field observers, storm spotters and satellites that keep a constant eye on weather movements across the state. Paramount on that massive grid – on alert for changes in sea temperatures, wind movements, precipitation, flash floods – are fourteen Weather Watch radars. And chief among those is the Doppler radar at Mount Stapylton, about 40 kilometres south of the city, near Beenleigh. The mountain was named after the surveyor Granville Stapylton, murdered by local Aborigines in 1840. The Doppler now perches atop it, not unlike a giant white teed golf ball surrounded by bush.

The Doppler radar can detect low-level wind and precipitation to a radius of about 150 kilometres: it takes in Brisbane city and even Toowoomba, 127 kilometres west of Brisbane, up on the Great Dividing Range. Another radar in Gympie, north of the capital, also has Doppler capabilities. A third is located in Marburg, sixty kilometres west of the city. All three gaze vigilantly over the greater Brisbane area, and the information gathered feeds into the Regional Forecast Centre and Flood Warning Centre databases.

In June 2010 the bureau's multitudinous feelers began sensing the advent of an unusually volatile La Niña effect. La Niña and its partner, El Niño, are major seesaw shifts in weather patterns across the Pacific Ocean in one – to three-year cycles. With a La Niña over northern Australia you could historically expect low pressures, warm oceans, increased cloudiness, and a high likelihood of rains and tropical cyclones. Combined with northern Australia's annual monsoon season – and depending on the longevity of that season – a La Niña requires a very close eye, especially with summer approaching. And after years of drought in Queensland, local meteorologists were keenly observing anything that suggested significant rain.

The bureau issued a warning that a La Niña was likely by the end of the year. Then, almost to order, it began raining across Queensland. And it kept raining. By October everyone in that bureau on Ann Street, and officers out in the field, and all the weather watchers and storm chasers and amateur meteorologists and farmers attuned to working with weather, knew that something wicked was on its way.


IT'S A TEN-MINUTE walk from the Bureau of Meteorology offices, down George Street heading south, past the law courts and legal cafés and city library and Treasury Casino and the park presided over by a stern Queen Victoria, to the Executive Building that houses the Queensland Premier's Department and numerous other government offices. On 18 October 2010 a small, historic moment took place behind its closed doors. James Davidson, regional director, Bureau of Meteorology, Queensland, briefed the state cabinet. Nobody could recall someone from the bureau ever being called to address cabinet.

Two weeks earlier, on 4 October, the bureau had issued an alert across the state of an impending active summer – weather talk for storms, cyclones and possibly flooding. It held briefings with disaster management authorities. Five days later, on 9 October, dam levels hit, then surpassed, 100 per cent for the first time in years.

As a result, the first flood of the wet season was officially declared. Up to 1600 cubic metres per second of water was released from Wivenhoe Dam, up in the Brisbane Valley, and by the day of Davidson's rendezvous with cabinet the dam was brought back to full, or 100 per cent, capacity. The scientific data collated since the detection of the La Niña months earlier, and the release actions being performed at Wivenhoe, were strong enough indicators to warrant this unprecedented briefing to the Premier and cabinet.

At the meeting James Davidson warned that Queensland could certainly expect a La Niña event, and he briefed those present on projected rainfall for December 2010 and January 2011. The bureau predicted that January would exceed median rainfall, but no specifics could be given on where cyclones might cross the coast or which rivers might flood.

Present that day was Stephen Robertson, the Minister for Natural Resources. Robertson – bespectacled, flinty and the bearer of an often monotone, measured public servant's voice – had entered the ministry in his late thirties, in 1999, and was given the traditional career make-or-break portfolio of health in 2005. Accused of bungles and mismanagement, he was presented with Natural Resources after the election in 2009 as the government – still haunted by the seemingly unending Millennium Drought, as people called it – raced to install a South-East Queensland water grid: a network of two-way pipes and treatment plants that enabled drinking water to be moved, when needed, around the region. Two years earlier the government had begun the wholesale reform of South-East Queensland's urban water supply industry, and the grid was the centrepiece, along with the establishment of the Queensland Water Commission.

By October 2010, when Davidson addressed cabinet, Robertson had already suffered public criticism for the government's spending and waste over the water grid. A month after Robertson took control of his new portfolio, the controversial $1 billion Tugun desalination plant on the Gold Coast had officially opened. Within weeks it was temporarily shut down with technical difficulties. Further faults closed it for three months in 2010. The public dubbed it a white elephant. (On 5 December 2010 Robertson put the plant on 'stand-by', to be reactivated only when the region's water supply dropped to 60 per cent or lower.) Now he was being told that enough water might be on its way to render the drought-proof grid irrelevant.

Shortly after James Davidson's briefing, Stephen Robertson met with his director-general, John Bradley, to discuss what measures had been put in place for the forthcoming wet season. Because of the rains since June, the city's primary dams – Wivenhoe, North Pine and Somerset – were full. Robertson contacted various water grid managers about lowering the giant Wivenhoe to 95 per cent. There was advice that dropping levels to 95 per cent was possible, but nothing was formally signed off.

Releasing water from Wivenhoe so soon after the so-called Millennium Drought was a perverse idea. Years and billions of dollars had been spent to secure water. Now the same bureaucrats might have to let precious water go, to mitigate potential flooding. The government's mindset was to protect water, to store it, hold on to it. How could anyone contemplate throwing it away?

On 25 October Robertson queried water grid officials: 'I seek your urgent advice whether this water security provides an opportunity to release the volumes stored in dams as a means of reducing severity, frequency and duration of flooding in downstream areas.' As Robertson issued his memo, the Bureau of Meteorology detected strong bursts of the Madden-Julian Oscillation. This reflects patterns of atmospheric circulation and convection. As it rises it manifests in thunderstorm activity. The MJO was enhancing the monsoons in North Queensland, and was stronger than anyone had seen since the 1980s.

September had already been the wettest on record. Catchments were soaked. And the bureau was predicting more heavy rainfall through to the end of the year, and beyond. The worst-case scenario for the bureau and the government was an aggressive La Niña, a lively MJO, and record rainfalls and soaked catchments unable to absorb any more water all combining at the height of summer. By October a few Queenslanders may have begun to see the ghosts of 1974 – the last great inundation to hit Brisbane. And statisticians, after record rainfall, were also peering gingerly back to data from the great floods of 1893, which swept people and houses and bridges and boats and innumerable tonnes of debris out into Moreton Bay.

Through October and most of November Minister Robertson was satisfied that Wivenhoe was being managed in accordance with the Manual of Operational Procedures for Flood Mitigation – the bible for managing dams in a crisis. In late November, however, the worst aspects of La Niña and the monsoonal rains began to intersect, and Queensland started to go under water.


THROUGH MOST OF December 2010 Queenslanders watched on the evening news the flooding of far-flung parts of the state – out west, up north; a highway cut here, a bridge submerged there – the reports sandwiched between other topical stories and Christmas advertisements. The majority of viewers couldn't understand what they were looking at. These weren't isolated events. This was a brutal, systemic pattern of weather that would ultimately devastate four-fifths of Queensland, an area the size of France and Germany. What they saw on the news were pieces in a jigsaw: the disaster had no logical narrative structure. Who could have foreseen that intense rain in June in North Queensland – the same distance from Brisbane as is Melbourne – would lead to a dramatic finale in the capital city, six months later?

On 28 November rain began to fall heavily between Mackay and Emerald in Central Queensland. The Capricorn Highway was cut between Mackay and Rockhampton on 3 December. Between 4 and 10 December that water, hitting a saturated landscape, inundated the Balonne River at St George and Theodore's Dawson River. Both rivers had major flood peaks. The Balonne exceeded its major flood peak for a second time on 16 December.

Between 13 and 20 December the Fitzroy River at Rockhampton remained above its minor flood level. Five days before Christmas flood warnings were current for the Balonne, Moonie, Barcoo, Don, Bremer, Condamine, Paroo and Warrego rivers. The same applied to the Burnett catchment, the Fitzroy River Basin, the Mary River, Cooper Creek, Laidley and Warrill creeks, and the Brisbane River above Wivenhoe Dam. Residents were choosing to evacuate the towns of St George and Theodore.

Stephen Robertson was under pressure to make a decision about lowering levels in Wivenhoe, should the inundation across the state continue, and make its way down to the state's south-eastern conurbation and its 2.2 million residents. On 13 December he was given a tour of the state's emergency management facilities. Experts offered some preliminary advice on lowering water levels in Wivenhoe Dam. It was possible, they said, but it was at the minister's discretion. Because of the unceasing rainfall Robertson 'parked' or put aside the matter. What would be the point of reducing levels by just five per cent in the middle of a record-shattering inundation?

At 5.30 am on Christmas Day the category 1 tropical cyclone Tasha crossed the coast between Babinda and Gordonvale in North Queensland. On 27 December twenty people were evacuated from Chinchilla. Between Christmas and the New Year others were forced out of Warwick, Dalby, Rockhampton, Jericho, Alpha and Mundubbera.

By now the pieces of the puzzle were starting to connect. Hundreds of regional centres, towns and hamlets had been affected. Thousands of people and stock animals were on the move. The threads of the state's northern and western road network had been pulled apart. It was as if the state had been tipped up at Cape York, and all that rainwater from the previous six months was rushing down to the New South Wales border.


AT ABOUT 1.50 PM on Monday, 10 January 2011 Barbara Gosley, an occupational officer in her mid-sixties, was at work in the Toowoomba Hospital, on Pechey Street, when she glanced out the window to check if there was any sign of flooding in the Garden City, perched 680 metres above sea level on the lip of the Great Dividing Range. It had been raining heavily earlier in the day. She saw water gathering at the intersection of James Street and Pechey, but cars were still pushing through it. Two large ponds in a park adjoining the hospital had filled and were overflowing.

After five minutes her attention moved south towards Long Street, where she watched a red wall of muddy, debris-filled water flood a small park within minutes, tearing down fences and trees on its way. Alarmed, she went up to the level-six corridor at the top of the hospital, and couldn't believe her eyes. Everything was flooded. The wall of water was heading straight for the main shopping centre.

Between 9 and 9.30 that morning the Mount Stapylton Doppler radar had picked up two intense thunderstorms crossing the Queensland coast: one near Redcliffe, twenty-eight kilometres north-northeast of Brisbane, and the other at Maroochydore, a hundred kilometres north of Brisbane on the Sunshine Coast. (Five days earlier the Bureau of Meteorology had warned the State Disaster Management Group, Premier Anna Bligh and cabinet that a serious weather event was evolving over South-East Queensland.)

For the next two hours the Redcliffe storm headed west and the Maroochydore storm travelled south-west. Around 11 they collided, forming a single, intense storm cell. The cell continued south-west at 30 kilometres an hour, dumping intense rainfall over the Upper Brisbane River Valley. It was heading straight for the Toowoomba Range. As it passed over rising terrain, high-humidity air was forced upward, further intensifying the rainfall. The water hit both sides of the range and entered the already soaked upper tributaries of Lockyer Creek, and the catchments of Gowrie and Oakey creeks. Because of the saturation and the steep terrain, huge volumes of water were on the move within minutes of hitting earth and heading down into the Lockyer basin below the range, towards the little towns and hamlets of Grantham, Postmans Ridge, Murphys Creek and Withcott.

But first there was Toowoomba. Since late November the city had absorbed more than 550 millimetres of rain, but with the super-cell storm its old drainage systems – Gowrie Creek and its tributaries East Creek, West Creek and Black Gully – succumbed to flash flooding. The water that ripped through Toowoomba on 10 January was later described by Queensland Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson as an 'inland instant tsunami'.


LOCAL MEATWORKER BOB Spark was driving into town that morning with his friend John Wheeler. They arrived at the Grand Central Shopping Centre at around 11. It was raining only lightly. The two had lunch, then left by the centre's Margaret Street exit around 12.15 pm. Spark noted that the rain was heavier. He and Wheeler started walking the few hundred metres across the railway line to another shopping centre. The water was knee-deep and running swiftly.

At about 12.45 the pair went outside again and took shelter with friends at the bus stop opposite Grand Central. The water had risen to waist height and Spark watched incredulously as cars and debris were washed down nearby Dent Street. Thinking they had seen someone trapped in a car, the two men waded towards the vehicle and were trapped in the rapidly flowing water.

Spark latched onto a tree. The water was now at chest height. Wheeler swam back to the shelter but Spark held tight for more than forty-five minutes. As rescuers made their way towards him, spectators screamed at him to watch out. A van was floating straight for him. Spark thought he was going to be killed, but the van glanced off the tree and continued rushing north towards Margaret Street.

At around 1.45 Acting Inspector Douglas McDonald, aware of the uncharacteristically heavy rain outside, went out the front of the Southern Regional police office in nearby Neil Street and saw torrents of water rushing down towards Margaret Street. He returned to his office, dialled Toowoomba Police Communications, and heard a lot of radio chatter. He gathered two officers and they headed out in an unmarked four-wheel drive to see where they could help.

Soon after, Police Communications issued an urgent request for police to go to the intersection of James and Kitchener streets, where people were believed to be trapped in floodwaters. They arrived five minutes later, parked their vehicle on a traffic island and proceeded on foot. It was about 2.15.

They saw two males clinging to a traffic sign fifteen metres away. Further down the intersection a group of males was holding on to a set of traffic lights. Not far away a woman was trapped on the roof of her flooded car. She was holding a rope tied to a nearby semi-trailer. On the eastern side of Kitchener Street and thirty metres down from the intersection, police observed a man (who they later learned was Christopher Skehan) gripping a light pole. The water was washing over his back.

Meanwhile, Constable Jarrad Bruce, on the scene with McDonald, was told by eyewitnesses that an adult and child may have been swept from the intersection into East Creek. Several vehicles were stationary in the flood-water. The water was running so quickly it was impossible to effect any rescues. McDonald ordered Bruce to get some police downstream of the intersection to try to locate any people who'd been carried away. A female witness then said she had seen two people briefly clinging to the low branches of a tree before the water took them.

Christopher Skehan clung on to the light pole, even though the water was continuing to rise. As police investigated ways to secure his safety, the water began to lose intensity and recede. The males trapped at the traffic lights were rescued. One was Blake Rice, aged eleven. Soon after, Queensland Fire and Rescue Service officers brought Skehan to safety. He and Rice confirmed that two people had been swept away: a middle-aged woman, Donna Rice, Blake's mother; and his brother Jordan, thirteen.

Just prior to the chaotic scene McDonald and Bruce witnessed, Senior Constable Jason Wheeler was on duty in the radio room of the Toowoomba Police Communications Centre. Despite serving in the force for nineteen years, he had never received official training as a call taker in the radio room. He'd been assigned to radio communications for the previous three weeks, and had clocked on for the day at around 1.10 pm. The centre was barraged with calls.

At 1.50 Wheeler took an emergency call.

'Police emergency, what's your location?' he asked.

'Ah, corner of James and Kitchener Street,' the caller, a woman, replied.

'Yeah, water over the road?'

'Yeah,' the woman said, 'I'm stuck and the water's just about ready to come up the door.'

'Yep, you stuck are ya?'

'Yeah, very.'

'Yeah, why'd you drive through flooded waters?'

'Because it wasn't flooded when we were coming across.'

'So you're saying in the space of one second all the water come up?'

'Oh well. It wasn't this bad then.'

'Yeah, well what's your name?'

'Donna Rice.'


'Rice. R. I. C. E.'

'R. I. C. H. E.'

'R. I. C. E.'

'All right, what's your first name?'


'What's your phone number there?'

'Um, oh, wouldn't have a clue. Just on a mobile.'

'Righto, could be a while before we get police there, okay?'

'Ah, if you could just ring a tow truck for me.'

'Well, you can ring a tow truck, we've got [a] million phone calls coming through at the moment.'

'Well, I haven't even got credit to get 'em.'

'Well...what sort of car you in?'

'Um, Mercedes Benz.'

'Well, you shouldn't have driven through in the first place. All right.'

'Yeah, I know. There's about ten of us...'

'Yeah, no, it doesn't matter, it's a flooded road. Bye.'


Senior Constable Wheeler did not detect any panic in Donna Rice's voice. He designated the job a level 3, or relatively low in priority. Seven minutes later Queensland Fire and Rescue took an emergency call from Rice's son Jordan.

'...What's the location of your emergency?'

'Fire Brigade! Fire Brigade!'

'This is the Fire Brigade. Where are you?'

'Oi, where are we?' Jordan asked someone else.

'Can you calm down and tell me where you are?'

'No! We're strand...we're stranded! Hurry up!'

'Where are you? If you can't tell me I can't help you!'

'Kitchener and James.'

'And what's the problem there?'


'Are you in a vehicle?' There was loud shouting in the background. 'Tell the woman beside you to stop yelling.'

'No! We're stranded! Kitchener and James.'

'Are you in a vehicle or what are you in? What are you in? A vehicle?'

'Mercedes,' Jordan said. 'We're nearly drowning. Hurry up please!'

In the background Donna Rice said, 'Oh fuck, it's coming...'

'All right. I'll send a crew up straight away to you.'

'Will you hurry up!'

Jordan shouted to the others with him to get on the roof of the car.


CHRISTOPHER SKEHAN, THE owner of a local audio-visual installation company in Ruthven Street, was at his office and at 2 pm was about to go on a job to St Joseph's school on James Street. He noted that the rain was sheeting down, and he checked the Bureau of Meteorology's online radar images. On the chart he saw a large patch of red and yellow over Toowoomba. He told a staff member to close the roller door so no rain would get in, then headed out in his ute.

As he hit Kitchener Street the rain had all but submerged the left lane. A huge volume of water was heading towards him and rising. Three cars in front had stalled; their hazard lights flashed in the rain. Skehan stopped his car, took off his boots and approached the stalled vehicles. One was a four-wheel drive. In another he saw an elderly lady, frozen and starting to panic. Water was starting to enter her vehicle. He tried to push the car out but realised, despite the din of the rushing storm water, that her engine was still running. She managed to reverse the vehicle out.

Skehan looked back towards the intersection and noticed another car – a Mercedes sedan – with water at bonnet level. He could not see any occupants but he saw another man, with a rope tied around him and attached to traffic lights, trying to get to the car. As the man approached he was knocked from his feet by the water, but the rope held fast.

Skehan waded to the scene and pulled the man in by the rope. He looked over to the Mercedes again, and saw a woman and a child inside. (They would later be identified as Donna and Jordan Rice.) The woman appeared to be yelling on her mobile phone. Although the driver's window was down he couldn't hear what she was saying over the roar of the water.

The man Skehan had rescued identified himself as Warren. 'Give me the rope,' Skehan said to him. 'I'll have a go.' He tied the rope around his waist and entered the water. The current was so strong it struck hard at his legs. It was rising above his knees. As he got closer to the Mercedes the rear driver's side door opened and Skehan grabbed it. He removed the rope and tied it around the hinge of the door, then shouted back at Warren and others at the traffic lights to tie their end of the rope to a post, which they did.

By now, Donna Rice had opened the driver's door and was standing on the ledge. Skehan noticed the boy in the back do the same on the rear door ledge. In the howling rain he heard Rice say, 'Take Blake first!'

A younger boy that Skehan hadn't noticed came to the driver's door, and Skehan put the child on his back and started moving along the rope, back to the traffic lights. The current seemed even stronger and deeper than moments before. He managed to deliver Blake Rice safely to Warren and the traffic island.

Skehan was starting to tire. Still, he headed back towards the Mercedes and was twice knocked from his feet, just managing to hold on to the rope. By the time he got to the car Jordan Rice had clambered onto the roof. He almost jumped on Skehan, shouting 'Take me!' Skehan told the teenager he couldn't carry him – he had only just made it to the car on his own.

Skehan wasn't sure what to do. Donna Rice said she'd like to try and shimmy along the rope to safety but Skehan said the conditions were far too dangerous. Suddenly, the Mercedes started to move with the current. It stopped, then lurched forward again. Skehan felt the rope tighten and snap. All three clung to the car as it drifted towards a signpost. Skehan yelled for them to grab the post. Jordan and Skehan lunged for it but the car knocked the sign down.

The car rocked, then Jordan slid off the roof. Donna went in too. Mother and son were thrashing about in the treacherous water behind the vehicle. Donna managed to grab hold of Jordan. Skehan was still with the Mercedes as it careened towards East Creek. Miraculously, he tested the water outside the car and could feel grass below. He left the vehicle and staggered towards the light pole from which, later, he would be rescued.

He looked down the stream, and saw Jordan and Donna also find their feet and head for the next light pole down. They made it, and put their arms around the pole. Straight away, Donna lost her grip and was swept downstream. Skehan could see her head approach the low-hanging branches of a tree, then she went under and disappeared. Immediately after, Jordan lost his grip and was taken in the direction of his mother. He too vanished.

Skehan clung to the pole for almost forty minutes before he was rescued. He was checked by an ambulance officer, got back into his ute and went back to his office. Only later, through the media, did he realise the mother and child he had tried to save were Donna and Jordan Rice.


DOWN THE RANGE in the Lockyer basin, Armageddon was about to arrive.

In August 1825 Major Edmund Lockyer, soldier and explorer, was commissioned to examine the upper reaches of the Brisbane River. He arrived at the Moreton Bay colony from Sydney the next month, and headed upriver in a small boat. By coincidence, while he was studying the valley that would later bear his name, and become known as Australia's 'Salad Bowl' for its variety and quality of produce, there was a major inundation.

As JJ Knight recorded in The Queenslander: 'For a day or two previous heavy rain had fallen, but on the day in question it had cleared up. In the early morning Lockyer had noticed that the water level had risen 1 ft. within an hour, and its discoloured appearances indicated that a flood was coming down.' Lockyer himself wrote: 'the rapidity of the current increased every hour, and the river had risen upwards of 8 ft. by 11 o'clock...on our way we had many proofs of a small flood; a large one must be terrific.'

On the afternoon of 10 January 2011 nobody was thinking about history. That morning Peter Souter, the owner of a fifty-acre recreational ground – Murphys Creek Escape, on the banks of Murphys Creek – stayed indoors with his wife, Lisa, and daughter Holly. It was too wet outside to do anything. Besides, they didn't have a single guest on the grounds. At 1 pm Souter noticed that the rainfall had become exceptionally heavy, and the creek was beginning to cover the lower campground. Almost fifty minutes later he glanced out the window of the office and saw what appeared to be a wave of water break in the distance. He went outside to investigate.

The creek was a torrent, ripping out trees and rising before his eyes. He and Lisa decided to evacuate. As she gathered some clothes for the family Souter continued to watch the water, and estimated the creek rose about ten metres in ten minutes. He saw fridges, washing machines and water tanks carried along in floodwaters. (A local police officer would later clock a shipping container being hurled along at 78 kilometres an hour. The waters would be powerful enough to move a 22-tonne boulder near the Lockyer Siding Bridge.)

Over at the Murphys Creek Tavern, manager Susan Haughey was so astonished by the morning's downpour that she was photographing the building's downpipes and water tanks. She noticed the creek water creeping towards the hotel, and saw a rainwater tank float past.

The only emergency service in the village was the Rural Fire Brigade. Its shed and equipment were hit by the rising floodwaters, the vehicles and equipment rendered useless. At about 4 pm a Queensland Fire and Rescue Squad pulled up at the pub with local Catherine Schefe. She'd been rescued from Murphys Creek but other members of her family were missing. Staff wrapped her in blankets. By 5.30 pm the tavern had become a makeshift evacuation centre, as about thirty more local residents arrived to take shelter. That figure doubled in the next hour and a half. People were missing. And night was falling.


EARLIER THAT MORNING Sarah Norman was at home in her cottage, on the southern side of a small spring-fed creek nearest to Murphys Creek, with her two children, Israel and Vera. Her husband, Jethro, was at work in Toowoomba. The cottage was on her parents' ten-acre property. Steven and Sandra Matthews' home was over on the northern side of the little creek, which was never more than a metre wide and knee-deep. Kirsop Bridge crossed it. Because of the relentless rain, and some minor prior property damage, Steven had the week before erected a sleeper wall – two sleepers and some metal pickets – about twenty metres long, to divert any future water away from the house and back into the creek. He dug trenches as a precautionary measure.

In the morning Sarah got a call from her brother Sam, who lived over in the house with their parents. (Her sister, Victoria, also lived in the big house.) Sam checked she was okay. He said water had come up to the back veranda, and Sarah heard her mother say, in the background, that water was coming into the house.

Sarah tried to call her husband in Toowoomba, but couldn't make contact. She then rang a family friend, Johnny Fowkes, and asked if he could get down to the house and help her mother. After she got off the phone she heard loud noises outside, and went to investigate. Her parents' sheds were being pushed over by a wall of water. Gum trees were torn down and swept away. She had never seen anything like it. To her horror, she saw her parents' house was submerged to less than a metre below the roof gutter. The house had been inundated in less than twenty minutes.

She called the police, then rushed outside and scrambled up to Murphys Creek Road. By chance she noticed two men; she waved for help and they came over. The party returned to where they could see the Matthews dwelling and observed Sam desperately holding on to a post at the front of the house. He was gesturing to Sarah, trying to send her a message. He wrote 'Mum' and 'Dad' in the air with his hand. He made a sweeping gesture towards the water. Her parents had been lost in the torrent. Sam then made a V gesture and pointed to the roof. Victoria was safe in the rafters.

Sarah ran back to the cottage and again called the police. She checked on her children. Just an hour later the floodwaters subsided enough for Sam and Victoria to leave the house. Jethro arrived soon after with Fowkes, and they began a search for Steven and Sandra. Later that afternoon, Jethro returned to the cottage and told her that her parents' bodies had been found downstream.


ACROSS THE VALLEY at Grantham, Marty Warburton headed into town to check on the service station he owned, Marnell Fuels (a combination of his first name and that of his wife, Janelle), after it had suffered minor flood damage the night before. It was about 8 am, and looking at the incessant rain he said to himself: what's the point in cleaning up if the rain isn't going to stop? We'll see what the afternoon brings.

At about 10 am Marty decided to go for a walk around Grantham and check the creeks. They weren't 'over', but they were close. Come noon he went to the Grantham pub for lunch, then wandered down to the town's main bridge. Debris had backed up against the culverts. Shortly after, he got a call from his mate Tim Pickering.

Water was lapping the bridge at the park on the Warrego Highway near Helidon, Tim reported. It had nearly reached the Helidon pub. That's physically impossible, Marty thought. Helidon is so high up on the riverbank. Tim said a wall of water was on its way to Grantham, and the town was going to go under 'big time'.

Marty ran back to the service station to save stock. The water was waist-deep. He saw shipping containers floating down Anzac Avenue. Pumpkins. Hay bales. He waded into his office to grab personal belongings and the next minute everything went black, 'as if the sun had just disappeared'. As Tim had predicted, a wall of water had struck Grantham. Marty tried to get out of the shop but the water was too strong. He dived underwater and swam but the current smashed him against the door. He grabbed on to a roof beam and found an air pocket between the water and the roof of the shop. Ultimately, he got onto the roof.

Marty couldn't believe the sea of water around him. It was filled with debris. Cars and fridges rushed by, and he saw two bodies. One had grey hair and was being thrown about by the water. He tried to grab the body but it passed too quickly.

Another came past. The face was disfigured. Marty couldn't retrieve that one either. He knew then that anyone else who passed would probably be dead, so he climbed to the highest part of the shop roof. A white car sailed by with a young man and woman clinging to the roof. 'Help us! Help us!' they shouted at him. He watched the car, and its passengers, disappear into the water.

Minutes later another vehicle rushed past Marnell Fuels. A clean-shaven man in his late thirties, dressed in nice slacks and a dress shirt, was kneeling on his hands and knees on the roof of the car. He looked to Marty Warburton with large brown eyes. 'Help! Help! Help!' he yelled.

Marty was in shock. He saw the fear in the man's eyes, and heard it in his voice. The car, and the man, disappeared in the same spot as the previous car. Sitting on his perch Marty saw an entire wooden house float across the road. It travelled into a neighbouring paddock, then snagged on something and stopped. He could hear people inside screaming. News helicopters appeared in the sky and he frantically waved his jacket. The choppers disappeared.

It was getting dark. Marty lay down on the roof. He flicked his lighter now and again, so people might see him. He may have fallen asleep. He'd lost all sense of time. Then it started raining again, and there was lightning, and he had to get down. He grabbed a gutter. It gave way, and he plunged into the water. The next minute he was being dragged into a house a few doors down by its occupants. Drenched and exhausted, he lit a cigarette. Soon after, the State Emergency Service's Swift Water Rescue Team arrived and Marty ended up at the Grantham School with dozens of other survivors.


KATHLEEN MAHON, WHO had lived in Grantham her entire life, got up early on the morning of 10 January with her son Brad to check the floodwaters. She remembered her father, Wendell, telling her when she was young that if water ever broke from the western side of the then family farmhouse, near the dairy shed, she should head for the railway line – the highest point in town. He would recall the great flood of 1893, and how when Grantham went under the only points visible were School Hill and Cargills Hill.

In the weeks leading up to January she had seen six birds dying on the ground 'at the same time' in the backyard of her almost two-acre property. The wet weather, she suspected, had affected the birds' nest, and the chicks had tumbled out. She had never seen that before in all her years on the land.

Everything seemed okay that Monday, so Kathleen did the washing. At 12.30 pm her daughters Jess and Andrea, and Andrea's two sons, arrived for lunch. They had heard about the storm in Toowoomba. With the water rising in Grantham, Kathleen and her husband, John, went to check on her elderly mother, Betty. They got a call from another daughter, Rachelle. 'Mum, I've just seen a warning on TV about a wall of water in Toowoomba.' Rachelle said she thought the water was heading for Grantham.

Kathleen didn't pay much attention. 'Mum!' Rachelle shouted. 'Can you please listen to me? Get as high as you can.'

Then Kathleen's nephew Michael rang. 'Aunty,' he said, 'I'm at the bridge at Helidon. It's higher than anyone's ever seen. Can you get grandma and get to higher ground?'

Betty refused to leave. She wanted to stay put with her dogs. Kathleen went home with her family. The phone rang. Friends were warning them – a wall of water was coming. They got some blow-up swimming rings and an inflatable boat from the pool area for the children. Soon after, they saw water rushing across the farm towards them in one direction, and from the west near the highway in another. Within seconds the water was up to their knees.

Then they were deluged. They put the children up on the kitchen bench. The water rushed down the hallway. Doors broke in half. Glass smashed. The lounge chairs in two rooms lifted and went spinning in circles, as if the water was boiling. A heavy dining table did the same.

Kathleen and the other adults stood on chairs. The water was up to their chests. Rachelle rang. Kathleen told her to tell the rest of the family that they loved them, and that they would try and get on the roof. The group said the Lord's Prayer. They thought they were going to die, and they said goodbye to each other.

They put the little boys into the inflatable boat. Large glass doors leading to the pool exploded open and the contents of the house started floating out. They had to get on the patio roof. Jess clambered up; then they passed the boys to her. Then Andrea climbed up. Kathleen followed, but John struggled on the guttering.

A chopper appeared overhead. The crew plucked one boy, then the other off the roof, and Andrea soon after. Then Jess and Kathleen were winched to safety. 'What about Dad?' Jess yelled. 'Dad's left back down on the gutter!'

One of the rescuers motioned to John that they would return. Kathleen, her daughters and grandchildren were taken to high ground on a nearby property. Another rescue chopper followed. It released more survivors. Kathleen recognised Matthew and Stacey Keep. Stacey was six months pregnant. Matthew approached her. He said they had lost their little girl Jessica.

An hour later John was brought in, safe and sound. Many of the survivors took shelter at the Grantham State School. School Hill: one of the highest points in town in the event of flood, as Kathleen's father had warned all those years ago.

When the waters went down, and the rain stopped, Grantham had been scrubbed off the map.


AFTER THE EPIC flood of 1974 the state government decided to build the mighty Wivenhoe Dam. It would supplement the Somerset Dam, officially opened in 1959, and the North Pine Dam as Brisbane's major water supply. It would also help protect the city from future floods. All three are owned by the Queensland Bulk Water Supply Authority, which trades as Seqwater.

Wivenhoe – an earth and rock-fill dam with a gated concrete spillway – was completed in 1984. As imposing as it was, if the dam was to ever fill to the point where water spilled over the top, the walls could collapse. Both Somerset and Wivenhoe are made up of two parts. The lower part – from the bed of the lake up to an imaginary line that denotes the full supply level – is for drinking water. The upper is the space between the imaginary line and the top of the dam wall. This is available to hold floodwaters if and when they come.

When the drinking level is full, the dam is said to be at 100 per cent capacity, or at full supply level. It can also be expressed in height in metres using the Australian Height Datum, roughly the same as metres above sea level. In January, Wivenhoe was sixty-seven metres AHD. That's a drinking water volume of 1,165,238 megalitres, or 580,000 Olympic swimming pools. The Wivenhoe flood mitigation space has a volume of 1,420,000 megalitres, or 710,000 Olympic swimming pools.

During 2010, and the Millennium Drought, a review of the full supply level at Wivenhoe was begun, to examine whether to raise the full supply level above sixty-seven metres, to increase the dam's drinking water capacity. If water levels ever rose to eighty metres, it was expected the dam would collapse.

A major upgrade of Wivenhoe was completed in 2005 to protect it from floodwaters. A second spillway was built. It houses three fuse plugs for the emergency release of water. The fuse plugs erode when the water gets to a certain level: the height when the dam is at risk. The erosion leaves a hole through which the water can pass. They are designed to trigger without any human intervention. The first fuse plug at Wivenhoe triggers at 75.5 metres AHD.

The dams are operated in accordance with legislation, regulations, water plans and rules set by the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management. Outside of a flood, the dam level should be set for as long as possible at 100 per cent capacity, and never over 100 per cent. Between 2000 and 2010 the water level was well below 100 per cent for each dam.

During periods such as this, water can only be released to provide water to treatment plants for drinking purposes, and for environmental reasons, such as maintenance of flow to protect flora and fauna. When rain falls in the catchments and the water levels rise, the rules change.

When the lake level breaches 100 per cent a flood event is declared. Seqwater is required to open the gates and bring the water back to 100 per cent. During the rainy season of 2010-11 Seqwater was forced frequently to open and close the gates.

During flood events, when the level surpasses 100 per cent or full supply, the operation of the dams is handed over from Seqwater to the Flood Operations Centre. It is manned by four engineers. The FOC must operate the dams in accordance with the Manual of Operational Procedures for Flood Mitigation.

With Wivenhoe, there are four strategies for operation – W1 through W4 – and engineers move through these strategies as the water level rises. W1 is concerned with minimising disruption to downstream rural life. W2 and W3 look at the protection of urban areas from inundation. And W4 is focused on the structural safety of the dam. The manual guides engineers in relation to how far to open the gates, but they have the room to adopt strategies depending on the conditions at hand. A level of seventy-four metres triggers the W4 strategy. When a decision is made the FOC directs the dam operators by email or fax. During a flood the FOC is staffed twenty-four hours a day, with at least one experienced engineer leading the team for the course of the event.

At 5.32 pm on 10 January, as the wall of water passed through Grantham, the Bureau of Meteorology emailed Brisbane flood engineers about a flash flood in the Lockyer catchment. It was estimated that the rain in Lockyer was around six hundred megalitres. Modelling was done, and there was concern that the fuse plugs could be blown – an outcome that would be catastrophic. Water had to be systematically released from Wivenhoe to stabilise the fluctuating levels.

By 8 am on Tuesday, 11 January engineers released 2753 cubic metres per second (CUMECS) of water. At 6 pm the dam level stood at 74.92 metres and was predicted to hit 75.5 metres even with the huge releases underway. By 7 pm the release figure was increased to 7464 CUMECS. It remained at about 7000 CUMECS until 11 pm. An unheard of release of 10,000 CUMECS was discussed.

Had the emergency releases contributed to the flooding of areas of Brisbane? Should Wivenhoe's levels have been drawn down earlier to absorb the coming floodwaters?

Brisbane city's flood gauge exceeded its major flood level on Wednesday, 12 January. At three o'clock that morning it read 4.46 metres – its highest reading since 1974. Electricity was shut off across the CBD.

That Wednesday was sunny, clear and humid. Spectators gathered on the banks of the river and took photographs. With the CBD shut down, the only sound was the eerie hissing of the river. Everything reeked of wet soil. The city's ferry terminals disappeared. Trees, furniture, velvet cushions, unmanned boats and even a mannequin sailed past the Gallery of Modern Art and the State Library of Queensland, under the Story Bridge and out into Moreton Bay.

During the flood peak 14,100 Brisbane properties were affected. More than twelve hundred were inundated. More than 1870 businesses were affected and 557 inundated. Had Wivenhoe, the great saviour put in place after the 1974 floods, helped or hindered?

In its interim report the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry recommended that if the Bureau of Meteorology made a seasonal forecast similar to that for 2010-11, the Queensland Government should temporarily reduce the full supply of Wivenhoe Dam to 75 per cent, with a concomitant adjustment to the trigger levels for the strategies in the Wivenhoe manual.

It also recommended that Seqwater review the Wivenhoe manual, have the draft manual assessed by independent expert peer reviewers, consider the expert peer reviews, and submit the draft manual to the Department of Environment and Resource Management for approval. It similarly recommended a complete long-term review of the Wivenhoe manual, and a review of hydrology modelling for Wivenhoe and flood events.

After the floods, engineer case studies predicted that without the Wivenhoe, the 2011 level at the city gauge would have reached seven metres. The 1974 flood came in at 5.54 metres. It was 8.36 metres in 1893.


THIRTY-FIVE PEOPLE lost their lives in the Queensland floods of 2010-11. Three people are still missing. The disaster affected two and a half million people. The Queensland Reconstruction Authority estimates the flooding events will cost in excess of $5 billion.

Across the state the scars are still visible. Some inundated homes across Queensland remain abandoned. In Brisbane children's playgrounds are still caged off, awaiting rebuilding.

The Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry, headed by Commissioner Justice Cate Holmes, held its first full day of hearings in Brisbane on 11 April 2011. After fifty-eight days of hearings, five thousand pages of transcripts, more than seven hundred submission and three hundred witnesses, the inquiry shut down on Remembrance Day, 11 November, at 12.54 pm. 'I think that's all,' Commissioner Holmes concluded. 'Would you close the hearing, please.'

The commission's final report will be delivered on 24 February 2012.

24 November 2011

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