Flood disaster digs deep in Aussie psyche

Beyond a police cordon that still seals off Grantham from the rest of Australia lies a landscape that looks as if it has been rearranged by a giant toddler in a tantrum.

In the middle of a field is a house where once there was nothing. Crumpled cars are overturned in paddocks. A Volvo is filled with pebbles. Swaths of riverbank gum trees have been ripped from their sockets. A child’s blue bicycle stands on the twisted railway. Strewn across dirt and silt is a truck exhaust pipe, a bath tub, golf clubs, a road sign, a fridge and a keyboard.

Celebrated by the poet Dorothea Mackellar as “a land of drought and flooding rains”, Australia’s worst floods struck Queensland in December and January and at one stage swamped an area the size of France and Germany combined. But Grantham, 100km west of Brisbane, bore the brunt: the flood-waters here rose more violently than anywhere else.

Three weeks after a freak storm in the hills caused what locals call “an inland tsunami” to descend on Lockyer Valley, the scene around Grantham is still viscerally shocking.

Compared with other recent natural catastrophes around the world, Australia escaped relatively unscathed: its buoyant economy will meet the estimated A$20-billion cost and the death toll in Queensland stands at 35. But by any measure, Grantham’s population of 370 was hit by an extreme tragedy on January 10 when it was virtually wiped off the map. Most of the 22 people confirmed dead from that day, with seven still missing, come from the Lockyer Valley.


Although cyclones are now threatening the northeast coast, most of Australia is back to normal — basking in a heatwave. Except Grantham. For three weeks the town has been closed to everyone apart from residents, volunteers, the emergency services and the army, as they search for bodies and clear away the devastation.

A broad valley surrounded by forested hills, Lockyer Valley is known as “the salad bowl” of Australia, its dark, fertile soil perfect for pumpkins, lettuce, broccoli and cabbages. Australia may be increasingly affluent, as luxurious suburbs rise on the back of its mining boom, but Grantham is a tough little place of low wages and hard-working small farmers. It has endured floods before, notably in 1974, but nothing of the ferocity of January 10, when more than a tenth of the area’s average annual rainfall fell on the plateau above the town.

Tearing up
Floodwaters swiftly engulfed Grantham, converging into an 8m-high wall of water in places, trapping people in cars and tearing children from their parents’ arms. Tractors, caravans, shipping containers and cattle were swept away. The raging brown waters rose around houses as quickly as “filling up a bucket from the tap”, according to resident Linda Weston.

People punched through their roofs to climb out. Even then they were not safe as some of their historic “Queenslander” homes — wisely built on stilts for ventilation and to rise above the flood plain — were washed away. “You know it’s time to get out of your house when another floats past,” said a survivor dryly. “And the noise — it was like aircraft jets.”

Weston was lucky. As the waters rose, she and her partner, Paul Armstrong, ran into their house, built on unusually high 2m posts. “It was dead-set like an inland tsunami. Everything was just rolling: cars, power-lines,” she said. The waters halted just below their house. As night fell, and with all power and communications down, Weston lit a candle at her window and yelled across the field to her neighbour, Marty Warburton, to make sure he stayed awake, perched on his service station roof.

The following morning the town awoke to a scene of such destruction that it has traumatised many who escaped any loss of life or home. A fireman, Danny McGuire, saved his seven-year-old, Zachary, but lost his son Garry (12) and daughter Joscelyn, five, and wife Llync-Chiann. A husband and wife lost both their mothers and their baby daughter, who was snatched out of her mother’s arms by the torrent.

One man trapped in his house heard people screaming “Save me, save me”; minutes later, he saw their bodies float past. Another reached out to grab those he saw swimming in the tumult, only to realise they were already dead. Soldiers waded thigh-deep through sludge searching for bodies, at times unable to tell if a globe they felt under their feet was a ruined pumpkin or a human head.

In the days that followed the police sealed off Grantham to residents while they searched for bodies. Gradually, and then in a deluge, donations arrived. The tragedy has triggered a great outpouring of generosity from Australians.

On higher ground in Grantham, where a few houses stand unscathed, the fire station has been converted into a store offering free donated food, run by Linda Vanzelst, who used to work in the destroyed village shop. Above well-stocked shelves is a chalk sign: “100% off all items”. In the corner is a stack of shoe boxes bound with ribbons – homemade gift boxes donated from around the country. Down the road is a marquee where volunteers make packed lunches for those working to clean up the mess.

Relief centres
While government aid grinds into gear, local people have set up relief centres. Grantham’s derelict butter factory has become a treasure trove of donated items as random as the ruined possessions dumped on fields by the flood: TVs, toasters, children’s buggies, bedlinen, microwaves, a dog kennel, a trampoline and half-a-dozen secondhand cars. In nearby Gatton the country showground is piled high with gifts from cucumbers and rollerskates to flip-flops and ties.

People have donated caravans so residents can get back on their land while their houses are rebuilt; with no water and power in Grantham, one man delivered three huge water tanks with pumps. A typical letter arrived with two A$10 notes and a department store gift card. “I know the valley will rise again,” the ­anonymous author wrote.

Then there are the volunteers. Some have driven 1 900km from South Australia and Victoria. “It has shown the real Aussie spirit of pulling together,” said Derek Pingel, a local businessman who with his wife, Chris, is coordinating donations and has 600 volunteers to call upon.

Jenny Bruce, a garrulous, energetic woman who dispenses hugs to everyone and drives a battered 4×4 with an “Aussie pride” seat cover, is searching for a pair of size 15 shoes. A farmer whose house was destroyed came into Gatton’s relief centre to look for some shoes he could wear and clothes for his 10-year-old son. “He couldn’t find them and he just broke down,” said Bruce. “He’s a mess. He’s not had any counselling. I sat and had a beer with him yesterday afternoon. He just shakes. He’s trying so hard to keep everything in.”

One of the biggest challenges is getting survivors to accept charity. “Some of them come in and start bawling their eyes out because they can’t believe they’ve got to get help,” said Don Robey, another Gatton volunteer. “It’s a pride thing,” said Pingel, who has set up a system so survivors who find it hard to ask for help can fill in a form online or over the phone. Pingel tells of one man, John Gallagher, who refused to ask for aid. Pingel knew his house was in ruins so he phoned him. “I said: ‘John, you haven’t come in. If you don’t come in, I’ll never speak to you again’, and he came in.”

Moments later Gallagher turns up again to collect donated items. Gallagher and his wife, Noreen, fled the rising waters by taking refuge in their daughter’s house. They realised their home was destroyed only when their son texted them a photograph from the TV news showing an aerial view of it.

Still alive
Gallagher is typical of Grantham residents in refusing to feel self-pity. “I can’t cry. What would I cry for? Worse things have happened to other people. We are all alive. There’s a funeral for a two-year-old girl in a couple of days. Nothing’s happened to me, nothing.”

Gallagher drives me to examine his ruined bungalow. Looking at the objects marooned in silted-up fields, it is striking how the floods have ripped away people’s privacy. No fences, no walls, no homes, but also their precious things — from sports trophies to war medals — churned into the muddy fields. (Someone told me, in a typical moment of black humour, about pornographic DVDs that floated out on the storm.) Gallagher was upset to lose his family photographs. “But you still have the memories,” he said, shrugging.

He feared his four dogs and Cocky the cockatoo would perish but when he returned home, Cocky screamed “John! John!” and all four dogs were found alive. Other animals had similar miraculous escapes: two cows washed more than a mile downstream survived and three horses trapped in stables trod water for 32 hours until they were rescued.

Faced with the daunting task of shifting tons of mud, Gallagher experienced the kindness of strangers: 100 people stripped his house of its ruined insides in four days. One volunteer spent two days hosing the silt from floors and walls. Others boxed up crockery and jewellery and disappeared. Now, each day, their salvaged possessions are returned, sorted and washed and dried.

But a number of residents have vowed never to return, not wanting to wake up every day in the scene of their nightmare. While Australia’s comfortable ocean-front suburbs grow, its rural population inland has steadily shrunk over the years, with droughts, rains and industrial agriculture. Will the flood finally kill Grantham? “A lot of people are saying they are not coming back,” said Weston. “But well over half of us are going to stay. There are a lot of resilient people around.”

As the funerals begin, “insurance” is the only word guaranteed to raise voices in Grantham. Gallagher has been told he will get only 20% of his cover. “I believe the government should step up and nail them to the cross,” he said of the insurance companies. Weston hopes the government will force insurers to do the right thing. Insurance companies “are being hard only because people aren’t covered for floods,” she said. “But this wasn’t a flood, it was an inland tsunami. You can’t predict it.”

In the coming months the people of Grantham will receive financial assistance from the government, which is hoping to push through a controversial “flood levy” on higher earners to help pay for the A$5,6-billion cost of aid and rebuilding infrastructure. But debates about this tax, and the ostrich-like efforts of Australia’s mainstream media and businesses to deny any connection between climate change and extreme weather events, seem irrelevant to those in Grantham. They are used to extreme weather and will rebuild their lives.

Grantham may be a minuscule part of this vast land, but it has become a vital symbol of the country’s traditional values as Australians negotiate the tension between their increasingly individualistic lives and their treasured ideal of mateship. In this curious way, Australia may need Grantham rather more than Grantham needs Australia. — Guardian News & Media 2011

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Patrick Barkham
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