Sometimes it doesn’t take too long for things to turn around.
At New Year, barely six weeks ago, we were struggling to muster any enthusiasm to welcome in a new year. Instead we were watching our country burn. Coupled with a crippling drought, we were looking to the skies, wondering when it would rain again and how much rain would it take to douse bush fires raging out of control.
And then the heavens opened. Since mid January we have recorded just over 275mm (approx 11 inches) of rain. Our heaviest fall was about 5 inches within 3 hours. The rainwater tanks are full and overflowing. The barren soil has turned into thick, sticky mud. Even the short walk out to the rain gauge every morning is enough to add an extra layer to our footwear. So I needed to get a pair of these….
The rain has been most welcome and it is quite amazing to see how quickly a carpet of lush green has appeared. I would say grass, except that it is probably mostly weeds. At least it is green!
But now we are facing another disaster at the opposite end of the spectrum – flood. In New South Wales it has been reported that Sydney has had its heaviest rains in 30 years. In January people were being evacuated for fire; now they are being evacuated for flood. Just weeks ago we were watching images of raging flames, billowing smoke and blackened earth. Now we are watching flash flooding, cars crushed by falling trees and people rescued from flooded waterways.
But there is a silver lining. The announcement that two big bushfires have now been extinguished is cause for jubilation and a huge sigh of relief. These bushfires were so big, they were called mega-blazes. They were so big, they were thought to be too big to even put out. But after 74 days, 500,000 hectares and 312 homes, the Currowan bushfire has been declared finally out. The problem though is that bush fire ravaged areas are more prone to flood and the torrential rain is washing ash and debris into water supplies.
Closer to home, there have been emergency alerts issued for towns west of Toowoomba at risk of flooding. Despite the possibility of flood damage, some people feel this is a cost they are willing to bear, if it brings an end to the drought. Dams are being refilled, dry ground is being saturated and lush green grass is appearing. But as the Board of Meteorology (BOM) notes, the rainfall has been patchy and there are still areas that are missing out. Towns like Stanthorpe are still having to truck water in. There is a while to go before we can be sure that the drought has been broken, if at all.
From bushfires in SA to floods in QLD
Growing up in Adelaide bushfires were a frequent event in the Adelaide Hills during our hot dry summers. We could stand on our front porch and see the red glow in the hills. But flood was only something I experienced via the television screen. That changed in December 2010 when we were living in a small town west of Toowoomba.
2010 had been a wet year. The months from September to November had been the wettest Spring since the year 1900. December 2010 was the wettest on record. Overall it had been Australia’s 3rd wettest year since records had been kept. The ground was already super saturated. As the water made its way down the rivers and creeks, water backed up, banks burst and towns were flooded.
Our small town was flooded twice. It was a slow flood, in that we knew it was coming. We knew the water was making its way down the creeks and rivers. There were all sorts of predictions about how high the water may get and whether it would beat previous records. We watched the water levels rise on the BOM site and we prepared as best as we could.
Fortunately our house was on higher ground, so while the water flooded into our front yard and under our house, it never reached our floorboards. Others were not so fortunate. Some businesses and homes were swamped with water and some people did lose everything.
Crowds gathered in the the town centre to look upon flooded roads. Some took to canoes, paddling down streets we were driving down just a few days earlier. There was a sense of camaraderie as our town was cut off in every direction. There was nowhere for us to go and nobody else could get in, at least not by road. In the local supermarket you could stand at one end and look through all the empty shelves to the other side. The fruit and veggie section was reduced to potatoes and lemons, and milk was rationed. You don’t realise how much you value basics like milk and bread, until there is none to be had. Our local baker had to have supplies flown in by helicopter so that he could get baking again.
A friend took Paul up for a flight over the town and surrounding areas. Water everywhere. Once familiar landmarks and roads are completely covered with water, it is hard to tell where you are and what you are looking at.
The Queensland floods of 2010-2011 led to 75% of council areas across the state being declared disaster zones. 90 towns were affected. Thousands of people were evacuated, 33 people lost their lives and the damage bill totalled over $2 billion.
But nothing could have prepared us for the 10th of January 2011, when a wall of water swept through the city centre of Toowoomba. Cars were swept away and 4 people lost their lives. We watched the footage on our television screen, stunned. We had actually planned to be in Toowoomba on that day but changed our plans when rain was forecast. By the time the water reached the small town of Grantham, it was estimated to be 7-8 metres. The water that hit Grantham that day has been described as an inland tsunami. 9 people died. A year later, 3 people were still missing, presumed to be dead. It was a devastating event that still lives in our memories today.
Flood waters eventually subside and that’s when the clean up and recovery begins. It’s amazing the way a community pulls together in a crisis. People just rock up, willing and able to give a hand. By the thousands. In January 2011 over 50,000 volunteers registered to help with the clean up, and that’s not counting the thousands who just turned up anyway. Our Prime Minister at the time, Julia Gillard, said:
“…right across Queensland today people have got up, they’ve marched out their homes and they’ve gone to find people to help. It’s a tremendous spirit of volunteering right across Queensland.”
We saw this same Aussie spirit during the recent bushfires and I expect we will see it again during this flood crisis and every crisis that we will face together in the future. Drought, flood, fire, cyclone – we experience them all in our country, but it is the courage of our emergency workers and the generosity of strangers, that instil in us a sense of hope of what we can be when we stand together, whatever comes our way.