Friday, September 30, 2005

A memoir of the Brisbane floods

I was living in Sydney at the time so have no first-hand knowledge of what happened

Back in the 70's, my wife, baby daughter, and I lived in Goodna, Queensland, a suburb of Brisbane. We were young and inexperienced and like most couples our age lived pretty much hand to mouth. It was a struggle to make ends meet. Any savings we had went as a down payment on the home we were buying. Once a week my wife went shopping and bought the food and supplies we would need the following week.

Like the Southeastern United States, the area we lived in was subtropical and prone to cyclones (same as hurricanes). One day a cyclone approached our area. It wasn't a big one as cyclones go, so we weren't too concerned. We figured 6-12 hours of high winds and all would be back to normal. Except things didn't go exactly according to plans. The cyclone moved in over top of us and hit up against another pressure front and stopped dead. And there it sat for two days. Not too much wind but oh did it rain. An inch an hour for 48 hours. That's right - we got nearly four feet of rain.

Now Brisbane is built on the Brisbane River, not an impressive river as rivers go - only a few feet deep and a hundred feet wide in the western suburbs where we lived. At least during normal times. Four feet of water over several hundred square miles is one hell of a lot of water. Trust me on that one - I've seen it. And all of that water all had to get to the sea via the Brisbane River. During the night, our little Brisbane River rose and rose. The police were magnificent. They woke people up and evacuated thousands of homes during that long night. Only two people drowned in our area - residents of a mobile home park whose trailer was swept away. The police commandeered trucks and backed them up to the local grocery store and loaded all the food and necessities, drove them to high ground and parked them.

By mid morning the river was 60 feet deep and three miles wide. We lived on a hill so we weren't submerged. When you walked over the crest of the hill and looked down into the valley where there was once a highway, railroad line, shopping centers, and thousands of homes you were stunned into silence. All you could see was water everywhere. No electric poles, no roof tops, nothing. Everything was under water.

We took stock of our situation - it wasn't good. The flood came on our weekly shopping day so the house contained very little food. We had some candles and a flashlight. Nothing else. There was no electricity or water. Fortunately it was warm weather.

We were in stunned disbelief. So were our neighbors. However, we decided we had better quickly organize ourselves. We knew we were going to be isolated and without water or power for some time. We started collecting all the rain water we could. Without it we were screwed. We dismantled and reassembled a non-mortared barbecue under our carport. We started collecting all the firewood we could find. We assessed the food situation. Some people had full freezers. We separated what we could eat over the next several days and dug pits and buried the rest. Everyone shared what they had without a single word of what came from whom.

Needless to say we survived - and in good shape. The R.A.A.F flew some food supplies in (especially fresh bread that the local prison was baking and fresh, unpasteurized milk from local farmers.) by helicopter. In fact I look back on those days with some fondness. Our carport became the hub of the neighborhood. At night we would just sit around the fire and talk.

The thousands of people who were displaced didn't go to refugee camps. They went into the homes of those not flooded - sometimes friends or relatives, often strangers. Nobody forced you to take in another family, everyone just did it.

Hundreds of millions of dollars was raised throughout Australia. The relief agencies didn't screw around with the money either. As soon as the water receded in a weeks time, they set up centers in every hamlet. Anyone who was submerged was given an initial $4,000 in CASH to tide them through. More came later. Was there some abuse? A few instances but not many and the there was follow-up to deal with that.. Was there any looting? Virtually none.