I flew into Brisbane on Sunday 9 January after three weeks in Britain. The pilot on our descent said the weather was ‘not good’. It wasn’t raining as I got out of the terminal but the humidity hit me like a torpid wall. On Monday, I was just glad to be home. Jetlagged and needing to go to work early the next morning, I went to bed early, unaware of the seven billion tonnes of water that had fallen in 72 hours. So it wasn’t until I woke up on Tuesday and listened to the radio that I had any inkling there was a major problem. I usually take the City Cat ferry service to work but as it was cancelled I went by car over the new Go Between Bridge (named after a Brisbane rock band). The water, usually slow moving and silty, was high and rapid.
The University of Queensland stands on a low lying elbow of the river. Everyone else, not jetlagged and having seen the previous night’s television news, was checking the internet for the weather and details of the expected flood. A copy of a flood map was circulated: my street was one of the hundreds predicted to go under. At 10.30 anyone likely to be affected was sent home. It was pouring as I left work, tropically warm with the rain bucketing down so that even with an umbrella I was drenched.
When I got to my apartment block many of my neighbours were already there, packing their bags. The river had broken the bank and was lapping at the gum trees a third of the way up the steeply sloping garden. We turned on the radio. Unlike the Toowoomba and Lockyer Valley disasters, this was a flood happening in slow motion: the warnings were well in advance, there was 24-hour news coverage and regular briefings from the authorities.
It was obvious that anything not moved out of the way of the coming torrent would soon be heading down river. I helped bring the garden furniture and the wheelie bins up a couple of floors. We cleared out our storage room in the basement and carried everything upstairs to our flat. The high tide was due in the small hours of the morning. Considering how high the water had come in 1974, we wondered what would happen to the electricity supply and the plumbing, and if we would be able to leave the building once the water rose. The advice at this point was to get out if you were at all worried. My partner’s sister sent an email: ‘Evacuate! I’ve made up the spare bed and expect you to be in by midnight!’ We packed all the food from the fridge and freezer into insulated bags, turned off the fridge, propped its doors ajar and took enough clothes for a few nights’ stay.
The next morning, Wednesday, we drove back home at low tide. The sun was shining, it was a perfect Brisbane summer day; it was bizzare to see the low-lying approach to our road blocked by rising floodwater. We parked up the hill and walked across a garden to reach the dry part of our street where our apartment block was. The water in the back garden had crept above the bottoms of the trees and the washing line. In the vacant block next door there was a tide-line of rubbish on the grass to show where it had got to overnight. While we watched, the water crept above this mark. On the river there were mats of torn vegetation, tree branches and drums swirling around. A pontoon was wedged in the mangroves; another, with a motor boat perched on top, went speeding down the river.
One of our neighbours with a four wheel drive had brought sandbags for the whole block. The word now was that the flood would be greater than in 1974, when the water had reached the ceiling of the basement car park. Upstairs we hoisted rugs off the floor and books from the bottom shelves, unplugged electrical equipment and stowed it on tables, packed more clothes and wondered if the paintings on the walls would be OK. Surely the water couldn’t get that high? One of our downstairs neighbours asked if we could store some electrical items for him so we added them to the pile on the kitchen bench. The river was now almost covering the washing line and had broken the opposite bank. We quickly packed the rest of our essentials and carried the bags up the hill. With the last load the washing line was underwater and the river was lapping at the wall of the car park. On the way back to the suburbs we stopped at a supermarket only to find that panic buying had stripped the shelves of all fruit and vegetables, eggs, milk, toilet paper, batteries and milk powder.
By late Thursday morning the waters had begun to subside. Relieved to hear that the river had peaked a metre lower than in 1974, we decided to head home. With more than a hundred major roads and three of the central bridges closed we had to take a roundabout route. Our apartment block was on a small island, the approach roads all submerged beneath deep and impassable water. One young man trying to reach his house had already been sucked into a storm drain and drowned. We drove away listening to the radio, now full of public health warnings about tetanus shots, gastroenteritis from sewage and mosquito-borne diseases.
On Friday we could walk to the end of our road. Search and rescue personnel were coming up from the river bank and the police were setting up a roadblock. They are scouring the river system from the Lockyer valley to the bay in the hope of retrieving the bodies of the missing. Our car park was covered with a layer of oozy slick mud, inches thick. It took 15 of us four hours to scrape it out with shovels and brooms, and rescue the crabs we found alive in a dark corner. Hundreds of people were labouring up and down the street, tossing damaged carpets, furniture, and whole plasterboard walls onto the verge. A council van arrived handing out cold bottled water but we headed to an unaffected suburb with electricity for a cold beer.
On Saturday we were back in our flat, even though the electricity wasn’t likely to come on until Monday. More than 12,000 volunteers, bringing their own equipment, were being bussed into affected areas by the council. One of the drop-off points was just up the hill from us. The lorries and bulldozers started at 6.15 a.m., moving the broken chattels and debris off the roads. Soldiers came to collect the sandbags along the main street; the fire brigade pumped out the basements of office blocks and restaurants. The Mount Nebo Rural Fire Service arrived, unbidden, to hose the mud off our back garden. The mammoth task of rebuilding the city had only just begun. The brown river, sliding past at a more languid pace, glinted in the sunshine.