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

by Kathryn Vreeland
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People near us fled to higher ground by Jet Ski, kayak, and blow-up raft. It was exciting being in the midst of the flood action, boldly stating that we’d only evacuate if it were via the helicopters that flew overhead. But the humor only masked our knowledge that others had it far worse. Toowoomba, a town that I’d visited on a rural hospital trip, had not had the warning and gradual flooding afforded to Brisbane, but instead had been struck by what news stations called an “inland tsunami.” Television channels played the same images of families trapped on vehicle roofs, captainless boats running into bridges, water swallowing up homes, and loved ones missing.

I measured time not in minutes or hours, but by the steadily disappearing railings and staircases of our building, counting the number of steps the water had to go before it reached us. As a sophomore, I had survived torrential rains on a spring break trip to Florida with the Columbia sailing team. I could handle this. Yet despite my self-confidence and trustworthy friends, it was hard not to cry. The rapidly changing scenery made me feel both awe and uncertainty.

Dave and Tigue paddled up to our balcony in a tin motorboat borrowed from the flooded University of Queensland boathouse. I laughed with relief. The rising waters had seeped into the flat below ours, and it was past time to evacuate. We received a text message from our clinical skills professor: “Situation will worsen. Land Rover at your disposal. Come over now!”

We navigated our boat through garbage, over fences we knew to be just below the murky surface, and emerged onto a vast lake that covered the road and cricket pitch underneath. I stared in shock at the tips of signs marking Nando’s Chicken, the corner store, and the bakery. We followed the treetops that indicated the road heading uphill. When we reached dry land, we docked the boat and joined our neighbors registering with emergency service workers.

We spent the next two days at a friend’s crowded flat in hungry, muggy idleness. Power was out. The 90-plus-degree summer heat intensified the odors of mildew and sewage. Grocery-store shelves were bare from the previous days’ scramble to stock up on bread, milk, and bottled water. Tigue miraculously scrounged up a bag of oranges to supplement our crackers and canned tuna.

School was canceled. We were still responsible for the week’s material but could not take advantage of the free study time without access to the Internet or study materials. Frustration merged with helplessness as we waited for the flood to run its course through Brisbane. After reaching its peak of 14.6 feet on January 13, the water steadily receded, revealing a thick carpet of putrid brown sludge.

Day one of the cleanup effort brought 12,000 registered volunteers to Brisbane, with three times as many flood victims, friends, and strangers walking the streets with buckets. People accepted what had happened and began cleaning. All we had to do was shout into someone’s home, “Do you want a hand?” I watched a little boy pretend to fly his mop down the driveway. He wrung it out and brought it back again to his father.

Tricia, Dave’s girlfriend visiting from the United States, chose to stay in Brisbane to help for the week rather than return home or flee to the beach. Women and children showed up with water, sandwiches, tea, and coffee. Tigue joined two Australian defense squads at the end of our street loading heaps of rubbish into trucks. “Military or civilian,” he later said, “it didn’t matter who you were, what the job was, it got done. With smiles! No one complained.” Strangers cleaning apartments in our complex joked, “How do international students have so much stuff?”

Our swimming pool was a mud pit; the flowers and bushes were gone. Luckily, the water crested 13 steps below our door — our textbooks were spared. Armed with boxes of tea candles, Dave and Tigue chose to live in our powerless flat. I escaped to the spare bedroom of a generous classmate who had not been affected by the flood.

I cranked up her air conditioner and swam in her clear pool, while Dave and Tigue took cold showers and heated the kettle for morning coffee on the propane grill outside. When the electricity was restored two weeks later, I returned to the flat, scrubbed it from floor to ceiling (our shoes had tracked mud everywhere), wrapped up the vacuum cord, and eagerly dove into my freshly made bed.

The following morning I woke to the birds’ songs. I opened my blinds and saw a large University of Queensland research speedboat still nestled in the center of the cricket pitch.

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