As of Saturday night 16 people were confirmed dead and 15 more are missing, washed away by nature’s heavy artillery. Among the dead were Donna Rice, 43 and her 13-year-old son Jordan who were swept off the roof of the car in Toowoomba. Jordan Rice has become an on-line hero for insisting his younger brother be rescued ahead of him. Meanwhile three members of one family died when Fire Truck 51 of the Rural Fire Brigade became inundated on the Gatton-Helidon Rd. Two others on the truck escaped.The others who died were in Grantham, Murphy’s Creek, Marburg, Dalby and Durack. The Lockyer Valley took the brunt of the savage attack. All that water ended up in the Bremer River causing havoc in Ipswich before heading on to Brisbane where it flooded riverside suburbs and nearby creeks on Wednesday and Thursday. The city shut down and emergency workers took over. No-one batted an eye-lid as Ipswich Mayor Paul Pisasale threatened vigilante justice of turning looters into “flood markers”. A more profound reaction was shown today with reports of over 7,000 volunteers showing up to help clean-up.
One of the saddest sights in the Brisbane floods was the footage of the floating pontoon floating down the river. It felt and looked like a funeral. A barge was there to act as cortege as it moved slowly and sombrely down towards the sea. The pontoon is a structure I will remember with fondness. I used to often cycle along its path, when it linked New Farm with the Howard Smith Wharves under the northern side of the Story Bridge (a site where a planned hotel might no longer be so attractive an option).
The pontoon at the bottom of Merthyr Road was the best part. It was exhilarating to be on a bikepath near Brisbane River’s thalweg. You were part of the water traffic and if you were foolish enough, you could attempt to race against the Citycats as they glided past elegantly at 20 knots an hour.
On Thursday morning the pontoon dashed past at 25 knots as it broke clear of its moorings in the height of the flood. The Brisbane River was peaking around 4am at 4.46 metres. The combination of water coming down from the ranges, the necessary spill-offs to save Wivenhoe Dam, and a king tide pushing water in from the coast put too much strain on the design and off it went towards Moreton Bay. The flood was high enough to do great damage but was a metre below the 1974 record peak experts thought at one stage it was going to break.
As someone with a ground floor unit in a street that got some flooding in 1974, that news was a personal relief. Elsewhere the destruction was intense. Mayor Campbell Newman said the Brisbane River transport infrastructure had been “substantially destroyed” and 20,000 homes flooded in the city’s sixth biggest flood in its 170 year history. Those who lived through the last big one in 1974 like John Bermingham have it branded in their memories as a “warning from the west”.
Wivenhoe Dam was one answer to the 1974 flood. In 2011 engineers had to open sluice gates that contributed to the inundation but who knows what might have happened this week if it had not existed. Its role has re-opened the debate over dams with an alliance of far left and centre-right libertarians against environmentalists believing it may be time to consider more dams.
Another question out of the floods is the role of politicians and media. Premier Anna Bligh was praised for her disaster response but her role of Premier became that of communicator-in-chief and the bearer of bad news. Flanked by silent politicians and police chiefs and a communicator for the deaf, she did what she does best which her mastery of the detail.
The commercial TV stations tried to shamelessly turn themselves into the story but it was old-fashioned ABC Local Radio that was consistently the best outlet for news. Unlike the 24-hour television stations it didn’t need pictures to sell the stories and it was able to use its wide network of reporters to link in well with the goodwill from listeners. Newer media showed their value too. The Queensland Police Service Facebook page became a vital and well-updated cog in the delivery of important information and just as important, the quashing of rumours. Many rumours emerged on Twitter which was its usual chaotic self but the #qldfloods hashtag was also a goldmine of some astonishing images from the flood regions.
Also on Twitter was the self-serving “prayforaustralia” hashtag which trended across the world during the “war”. Far better for those people would have been to contribute to a flood appeal. Not necessarily a Queensland one (or Australian – the warzone spread to NSW and Victoria) but also to the more needy who have suffered in less reported but even more devastating floods in Brazil or Sri Lanka. As in any war, the poorest always suffer the worst.