From the Sunshine Coast 150km north of Brisbane, the state capital of Queensland, an extraordinary week of drenching rains refuses to let up. Thunder and lightning buffet me as I write at 4:30pm on Tuesday January 11. It has been like this all day. The unthinkable is happening.
Unprecedented and fatal flash floods at Toowoomba on the top of the mountain range west of Brisbane is like the first domino for what is unfolding. Then came Grantham and the death toll this morning was officially 9 drowned and 66 missing. But “the missing” is hard statistic to deal with since the weather and the water levels prohibited attempts at discovery all day. The town of Esk went completely under, but people evacuated in time. Next in line is the metropolis of Ipswich, population 155,000. More than one third of that city is going to be submerged, more than 3,000 homes affected.
That will peak on Wednesday likely at the highest level of recorded history, 20.6 metres (65 feet) and then it’s Brisbane’s turn.
In 1974 the city of Brisbane suffered a rise in the Brisbane River of 5.4 metres, about 17 feet. It was on a par with the worst ever flood of 1893. By Thursday and with the push back of a king tide the river is expected to exceed that level this time.
The Premier of Queensland Anna Bligh held a press conference a short while ago and gave the following warning:
"Ipswich and Brisbane are now facing their greatest test and toughest threat in 35 years… We will only pass this test if we are calm, if we are patient with each other … and if we listen carefully to the instructions we are being given.”
According to the Brisbane City Council 6,500 homes and businesses in 80 suburbs will be flooded during the next few days. About 16,000 properties will feel some affect from the floodwaters. These estimates have been rising all day as new information about the pace of the flooding upstream has come in to emergency services.
Over the past weekend we were feeling sorry for residents of Rockhampton, Gympie and Maryborough and Dalby and St. George, cities just to the north and well to the west. There, rivers rose gradually during a week of frenetic emergency services activity to evacuate people from their homes and businesses.
Yesterday, the horrific video images of flash flooding through the tableland city of Toowoomba, at the entrance to the Darling Downs, 140 kms west of Brisbane. As these waters bolted down the mountain into the Lockyer Valley, images of people desperate for rescue on roof tops at sunset while brown water raged around their homes beneath, threatening to lift them and carry them away like the trees and cars, furniture and home fixtures made instantly into flood borne debris. Their rescue was in doubt as we watched, since the wind, approaching darkness, the rain and fog made helicopter rescue extremely unlikely. There were about forty homes almost submerged in the torrent, with people on the roofs. Many were left there during the night, their fates now unknown.
The scale of it is shocking even to someone who has witnessed human disaster before. I’m experiencing feelings like when in Denver during the Columbine shootings, when in New York City witnessing the attack on the twin towers. When in an ER room waiting for news of whether I would survive blood clots to my lungs.
In each case there was nothing I could do except pray and wait for a disaster to unfold without being able to predict the toll of human life, even my own.
So the tragedy in Queensland is building. An area bigger than Texas has been serially inundated since early December from the far north and west, to the central coast and west, and now the south coast and west of Queensland. The weather bureau says the monsoonal pattern since then will be repeated at least two more times in the next two months, maybe three times.
To be on vacation in the midst of the unfolding tragedy in a relatively safe zone between major flooded regions is as surreal as being in Midtown New York City on September 11, 2001. Here the rain is relentless and I know what it must do in the natural drainage zones of the hinterland valleys, and in the region between Toowomba and Brisbane. I’ve been rescued from a car almost washed off that road in a flood in the mid 1970’s.
This time the flood will peak in the Brisbane River where it courses through the city on Thursday with a major high tide. It peaks in Ipswich city mid-Wednesday. As I update this report now five hours from its posting, the number of Brisbane homes and businesses to be inundated is around 9000, and those affected in some way to as many as 30,000. The official death toll is 10 – in this latest event – but even the Premier of Queensland is signaling that in reality it will prove to be dozens more than that.
All that is left is to watch and pray that emergency services and necessary communications function in the worst moments, and that people in the affected areas heed the warnings.