Brisbane’s turn to face the Queensland flood crisis

Three-quarters of Queensland has been declared a disaster zone – an area about 1.3 million sq km, roughly the size of Peru. The devastation is heading to Queensland’s largest population centre, with a major flood predicted to peak on Thursday. Brisbane has had it coming.

(picture of flooding in Ipswich today courtesy of the Toowoomba Chronicle)

It was different in January 2010 when a parched Brisbane had 40.2mm of rain for the entire month. It was the back end of a 10-year El Nino Southern Oscillation weather pattern that was about to break spectacularly. February (272mm) and March (162) had high falls. The back end was worse still – October had 306mm and December 479mm. Twelve months on and La Nina now in her element, things have changed drastically. In total, 1658mm fell in 2010 (the highest since 1974) and we are in for a repeat this summer. After dry days in the new year, 41.8mm fell on Thursday. There was another 35.6mm on Friday and 23mm over the weekend. Yesterday, the monsoon dumped 110.8mm in 24 hours – three times what fell in January 2010.
Brisbane’s rainfall pattern was repeated through southern and central parts of the state. After a drenching from October to Christmas, the soaking catchments were unable to deal with the deluge on Boxing Day after Tropical Cyclone Tasha. On 27 December (the day I tried unsuccessfully to return after Christmas to Roma from Maryborough), flooding broke out across the state. Dalby and Chinchilla, towns I needed to get through, went under. So did Warwick. All three are in the Murray-Darling basin and they sent walls of floodwaters downstream to Condamine, Surat and St George. In flat country it could take many more weeks for it to inundate parts of NSW further south.

North of the Great Dividing Range, there was havoc on two other river systems, the Burnett and the Fitzroy. Burnett towns like Eidsvold, Mundubbera and Gayndah all flooded and the water made its way to Bundaberg where streets around the iconic distillery went under. Further north, tributaries of the Fitzroy started filling up. The Dawson River rose so high, all 450 people of Theodore had to be airlifted to safety. The Nogoa River reached record levels with Fairbairn Dam over 100 percent capacity. The dam could not save the nearby town of Emerald from intense flooding.

The Nogoa, Dawson, Comet and McKenzie come together to form the Fitzroy in the largest river catchment to flow into eastern Australia. Sitting near its mouth, Rockhampton was the next place to bear the burden with the town closed off and the Fitzroy peaking around 9.4m last Wednesday.

Still the rain kept coming. It was the Mary River’s turn on the weekend, a fourth river basin flooding causing major flooding in Kilkivan, Gympie and downstream at Maryborough. Then the focus turned back south with the news of Toowoomba’s horrific flash flooding yesterday so graphically captured in this incredible amateur video.

Torrents of water gushed through town sweeping cars and vegetation aside. Much of the water rushed down the ranges into the vulnerable Lockyer Valley. Withcott, Murphy’s Creek and especially Grantham had no chance as an 8-meter high “inland tsumani” rushed by, tearing houses apart and stacking cars on top of each other, killing many people.

Back on the ridge, towns like Warwick, Dalby and Chinchilla were getting ready to face the floodwaters again – this time possibly even higher than before. I saw the Balonne River at Surat 6kms wide on Saturday, after the first flooding. It is receding now but can expect to get even bigger with the next lot of floods predicted to arrive on January 18.

(Surat from the air last week. PHOTO: Maranoa Regional Council)

Brisbane, with a quarter of Queensland’s population, has been watching the growing flood crisis as it got steadily closer. Wivenhoe Dam, built after the devastating 1974 floods, was straining to keep its waters sitting at a seemingly impossible 175 percent full. It is pumping record amounts of water through its five gates but is still increasing. Released water is heading towards Ipswich and Brisbane. Allied to heavy local rain and king tides, it is preparing a muddy cocktail for the capital. Worse still if the waters ever overtop the dam, it would make Grantham seem like a picnic.

But even sober predictions make grim reading for Brisbanites. Premier Anna Bligh has conceded it will be the city’s worst flood since 1893, with up to 40,000 properties at risk when the Brisbane River peaks on Thursday. Evacuation centres have been set up and the CBD has shut down adding to the economic impact of the crisis. The Aussie dollar fell 2 cents today against the greenback.

Here in Roma we are far from the world’s stock markets and surprisingly free from flooding this time round. At the top of the Murray-Darling basin there is little upstream water to worry about and the rains have mostly missed us out. Surat is a different story but there is a common thread as both towns become isolated due to the flood crisis to the east. Supermarket shelves are empty and there is no chance of re-supplies for weeks to come. This is the “invisible flood” where businesses suffer despite having no waters through their premises. It makes for less emotive television but the impact is almost as severe. The Maranoa local government region is not yet a flood-declared council so it misses out on flood relief. Many other western regions will face similar issues. Dealing with these issues will cause authorities many headaches in the months to come.


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