Letter from Brisbane: Recalling Australia's worst-ever natural disaster

by Kathryn Vreeland
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Illustration by Janet HamlinA white refrigerator bobbed below my open window and caught in the tree’s branches. I rubbed sleep from my eyes and gazed at the brown river 15 feet below. The river, which hadn’t been there the night before, flowed between my apartment complex and the townhouse across the causeway. The clock read 5:30 — time for the birds’ chorus and the outbreak of brilliant, hot sunshine that made me wish I was a morning person. But the magpie and kookaburra had not woken me today. An endless siren pierced their songs.

The smell of cooked kangaroo and tomatoes hit my nostrils when I opened my bedroom door. Tigue was making his famously pungent chili in the kitchen. He saw my quizzical look and said, “Electricity is being shut off at eight. Thought we should empty the fridge, have a good meal.” I wondered if our neighbors had done the same before theirs was swept away.

I wandered out to the balcony, where our third roommate, Dave, was grilling sausages. I saw that our swimming pool, swollen at bedtime the night before, had engulfed the entire courtyard. “Who knows how to swim?” said Tigue. He had survived the 2004 tsunami in his native Sri Lanka, so our current flood in Brisbane, the worst natural disaster Australia had ever seen, barely made him sweat. I raised my hand, recalling the morning of my college graduation five years earlier, when I reluctantly dove into the crisp Columbia University pool to fulfill my undergrad requirement. There is a running joke that Columbia College students are required to take a swim test so that, should catastrophe strike Manhattan, they could swim to New Jersey.

“There is no way I am swimming in this water,” I announced to the six classmates holed up in our second-story flat. I could handle the toxins of the Hudson, but the muddy lake pooling around us posed a legitimate threat from bull sharks and the most poisonous snakes in the world. We live in a modern city of three million people but keep a Field Guide to Australian Reptiles on our coffee table.

Tigue likes snakes. After breakfast, he and Dave, both well over six feet tall, went on a mission to survey the neighborhood, help where they could, and salvage supplies, wading up to their necks through the courtyard. “Come back with a boat!” I shouted.

Twenty-four hours earlier, on Tuesday, January 11, I had returned from visiting my family in snowy Manhattan to begin my second year of medical school as part of an international exchange program between Ochsner Clinical School in New Orleans and the University of Queensland School of Medicine in Brisbane, Australia. When I landed, the pilot announced, “Welcome to Queensland, the Sunshine State!” It was raining. News of flooding far north of Brisbane had reached me during the break, but I had noticed over the previous year that the country was in constant flux between rain and drought, flood and fire. I figured it was business as usual.

It wasn’t. The rains had begun in December and traveled over three-quarters of the vast state of Queensland, inundating one town after the next. Canals overflowed south into the bloated Wivenhoe Dam, and subsequent runoff into the Brisbane River broke its banks late on the day I arrived. David Wilkinson ’65PS, who is dean of the University of Queensland School of Medicine, later wrote to me, “Initially [the flood] was something that affected other people in other places, far away. Then friends started to be affected, and then teaching sites began to be cut off. As Rockhampton [the site of one of our teaching hospitals] became isolated, it all became far too real.”

Now I stood on the balcony and snapped a photo with my iPhone of the floating lawn chairs that had joined the refrigerator. I uploaded it to Facebook, and within minutes I received messages from former Columbia classmates living in Thailand, California, and Sydney, offering refuge. Theo Borgovan ’08GSAS, my classmate in the Ochsner program, called to say that he and his wife were on high ground about two miles away and could provide electricity, food, and a couch.

An emergency service rescuer paddling a tinny stopped by to check on us. He applauded our stockpile of Brisbane’s local beer, XXXX (pronounced “four-x”). I didn’t mention that we only had one rose-scented candle and three medical “say ah” flashlights for the impending powerless night. He declined to join in a toast, but informed us that the brewery had flooded. Cans and kegs were floating down the main drag. He advised us to stow our belongings as high as possible and to take any valuables with us. “But it’s just stuff,” I heard countless times in the following days, from people who had much more to lose than I did.

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