Saturday, January 5, 2008

From Drought to Flooding Rain

Just a couple of weeks ago the whole area was in the midst of a long-term drought. Now there is severe flooding throughout SE Queensland and northern NSW. Today the rain pelted down in thick sheets; visibility was almost non-existent, and although the river level here is slightly higher that it has been recently, the Brisbane River has not experienced the widespread damage and disruption felt in other regions. Fierce storms, wild winds, massive rainfall and chaotic seas have created havoc. Rivers have become lakes, hectares of farmland and scrubland have been inundated, and beaches have been washed away.

In contrast all is quiet along the river. As I walked among the chittering of cicadas and other insects, the splendour of bird call and the sound of Brush Turkey chicks scurrying through the undergrowth, it was hard to imagine that not so far away the SES Emergency Services are hard at work rescuing people and animals caught by the unexpected floods.

While all was calm along the Brisbane River today, it has not always been the case. Early explorers reported heavy rains and flooding of the river on numerous occasions throughout the 1800s. For instance, in 1857 a report in the local Brisbane newspaper reported:

'The flood ... was the result of eight weeks' continuous, but not heavy, rain. There had been a strong fresh in the river for several weeks, and ... all vehicular traffic between North and South Brisbane was suspended as the horse-punt at Russell-street was unable to cross on account of the strong current ... Rowing boats were plying in Margaret, Mary, and Charlotte streets ... and the whole of the low-lying ground from Elizabeth-street to the river was a muddy lake. At South Brisbane one could stand on a hill ... and see an unbroken sheet of water...'

1867: 'The rain continued to fall incessantly until daylight. In consequence of this heavy rain the river rose, and never within the last twenty years have the indications of a flood shown themselves within so short a period ...A strong current was running down the river all Sunday, carrying with it large quantities of drift timber in single logs and rafts as well as other debris ... The temporary bridge linking north and south Brisbane acted as a dam and collapsed ... as a result of the debris piling up against it.'

1893: 'Disastrous floods in the Brisbane River ... Numbers of houses ... washed down the rivers. Seven men drowned...' 'Crowds lined the high grounds near the river bank or wherever a good view was obtainable; and the roar of the water as it rushed along at a speed of from 8 to 10 miles an hour, carrying with it scores of houses, furniture and household articles in endless variety...'

Floods continued to be reported over the next 100 years. January 26, 1974 was recorded as the wettest day since 1887:

'The Brisbane River ... reached the highest level this century ... 14 lives were lost, some 8,000 householders were affected, many totally destroyed, others damaged to the tune of thousands of dollars as a result of inundation and battering from both strong currents and water borne debris.'

The Brisbane River is described as 'flood-prone', with 11 major floods recorded since the 1840s. But since those early days of white settlement, the way that media reports have covered the floods has shifted from evocative and scenic descriptions of the devastation to the human toll, the impact on buisiness, and especially, the estimated costs of the inundation. That's why reading a personal account of the 1996 floods on the river makes for fascinating reading. Local resident Scott Balson reported the river's rise over a number of days as he watched he water creep up the garden towards the house.

Friday, May 3, 1996: 'As I write this the rain pours incessently and hard outside. We had 2" of rain in the last 12 hours and it pours harder now. And all this before the great Wivenhoe dam lets forth a path of destruction which must follow later tonight. Now the dam was built to stop the devastation that the 100 year flood of 1974 caused. Could it cause more damage than if natural flow had been allowed...?'

Saturday May 4: 'I walked down to the rivers edge - now working its way up the garden stairs that used to look down on the river several metres below. The water inched its way higher and higher, noticeably now moving up the slope. The massive gum tree, once high above the water, had now surrendered its base to the rising water which now stood just a few feet under the grassy platform just 12 metres below our home.'

Sunday May 5: 'The water continues its climb up the slope, it has now started to cover our deck 15 metres above the normal level of the river... We have just heard that the Brisbane River is expected to rise at least 8 (YES EIGHT) more metres in the next few days based on current rainfall ... We can now hear the quiet roar of the river at its centre - the noise is indescribable, almost peaceful but obviously powerful and restrained. As the level rises the full fury of the water becomes more apparent. I no longer have to look down from where I sit in the global office, I look across and see the water flooding the bank on the other side of the river.'

Tuesday May 7: 'The sun has once again come out and the skies are now blue, blue as they have ever been.'

A couple of months later Balson reflects on his special relationship with the Brisbane River. It is dawn as he watches the mist spread across the river at the bottom of the garden.

'The mist swirled around my feet as the low tide revealed the protruding rocky ridges of the river floor along which I walked. Nearby, the still waters flowed deep and little eddies drew all that floated above into their grasp. Otherwise all was still. Not even the birds stirred. This was a special time. I squatted transfixed by the beauty of the evolving day as the sun's rays broke the hold of the mists and revealed the true nature of the water's emotions below. Emotions that held the soul of the valley together. ... my river fantasy land was now revealing her life and living as the birds woke and shared in an experience lost to man in the walls that we call home and civilisation.'