I’ve lived in Toowoomba, my wife’s home town, for two years. But my job is still based in Brisbane, so twice a week I take the 140-kilometre commute into the capital.
Last Sunday night my wife urged me not to make the trip. The rain was hammering down, yet again. This wasn’t an acute weather episode, it seems like its been coming down now for weeks. Used to parching interior summers, since the season began we’ve been measuring sunlight by the number of minutes we see, a week. My neighbour, too, was ill at ease. A born and bred local, “something’s got to give,” he noted Sunday eve.
Not all old timers were so haunted. My mother-in-law confidently declared the Warrego Highway never goes under and Toowoomba’s streets are always fine. As events would prove, it did, and they weren’t, but despite having a somewhat anxious disposition — I’m the kind to see asbestos in every dust mite — I bought her optimism, woke early Monday, and decided to go.
My route from home to the Brisbane CBD pretty much mapped the path of the meteorological bomb that would go off within hours of my departure. Through the city end of Russell Street, Toowoomba, across rail lines later to be ripped up, past signposts waiting to be flattened. Down the Toowoomba Range, through the Lockyer Valley settlements of Withcott and Postman’s Ridge, with Murphy’s Creek and Grantham off to the left and right respectively.
The sky was black, rain constant, the road, even then, a risk to life and limb, wet, ragged and thoroughly pot-holed. The coach lurched and bumped as it tried to dodge the hazards, not always successfully. Along the roadside, a host of smaller vehicles lay disabled, axles smashed and tires burst. And beyond the gravel shoulder, sheets of rising water.
We crossed various creeks and streams, each of them feeding the Bremer, which in turn feeds the Brisbane. Plump, but not yet unruly. Closer in, we went over the Bremer itself. Its size and swell was enough for one of my fellow passengers to say “I don’t think we’ll be getting home tonight.” I shrugged my shoulders and told him he sounded like my wife.
“Reckon you should have listened to her.”
By mid-afternoon Monday they’d both been proven right. At 1.35pm my wife messaged me. Our home town hill city was, as she put it, being “reamed” by a deluge. I called her to speak directly. She couldn’t talk. She was shepherding our four-year-old across a flooding street. The torrent streaming through the gutter swept her ankles and nearly took her down. Before she cut the call, I checked the Department of Main Roads website, and my heart sank — confirmation that the Warrego Highway was cut, and I couldn’t get home. “Told you so” was the least of what she said, before killing the line to concentrate on staying upright.
I spent the night in a flea pit hotel around the corner from my Brisbane office, entertaining some wild hope there might be a chance of an early bus run back up the range. Switched on the news, and was sent into a state of shock. Toowoomba was a disaster. East Creek, ordinarily a glorified drain, had gone postal. Russell Street, the one I’d pedalled down at the beginning of the day, had been torn apart. There was Rowes, the furniture store where we’d recently bought our lounge suite, with stock floating out the door. Vehicles I recognised being pounded and tossed in a surging maelstrom of aquatic violence. A heritage shop/flat complex I quite like, side wall torn away, cross-sectioned like an ant farm. Sleep was elusive that night.
Tuesday morning, with nowhere to go, I headed back to the office. Colleagues started filtering in, asking me if my family were OK. I wasn’t sure: the phones were down. A workmate told of us of her sister, who works for the Lockyer Valley Regional Council. She’d been up till 1am compiling lists of the dead and missing.
By morning tea time it was starting to dawn that Brisbane itself was very much under the pump. We could see the threat with our own eyes, even before the news services made it real. Water was rising over Southbank and the bikeways under the Riverside Expressway. The rain was hammering down.
By lunchtime an exodus was under way. From my office 17 floors up, it looked like an ant trail of umbrellas, headed for all paths out. Rumours began to swirl like the floodwaters in the river below. The CBD would be inundated in less than an hour, the Wivenhoe dam wall was failing. All transport out of the city would be down by 2pm. I confess to panicking, and bolted for Central Station, hoping to get to my brother’s in the relative safety of Wooloowin, a suburb in the inner north. An acquaintance bumped into me on the mall. “Don’t bother with the trains, they’re hopeless. I’m going to try a bus. If that doesn’t work, I’ll sleep in the office.”
I ignored him and headed to Central anyway. There was no problem. CityRail was doing a sterling job, fares had been waived and trains were running smoothly. Eventually I got to my brother’s, where I cracked a beer and tried to get a plan together.
Despite rumours, the airport was still open, and I snared one of the last seats on the regional service west with a touchdown in Toowoomba. My wife called, by now angry at me for having ignored her pleas, and anxious in the face of yet another severe weather warning, our house having shuddered the previous night under torrential rain.
Up early Wednesday to make the train to the airport. My clothing was sodden and unwearable. I borrowed a novelty pub crawl T-shirt (“Eating’s Cheating”) and garish boardshorts from my brother’s wardrobe, a man who is several sizes larger than me and thinks the only thing worth dressing well is salad. I clumped off for the station in my business shoes, looking, in his words, like “walking spew”. The rain had stopped. The river city was sparkling, dressed in summer’s best for the arrival of disaster.
The plane was delayed leaving Brisbane, waiting for fog to clear in Toowoomba. Already jumpy nerves jazzed further. As we flew, all necks craned for the windows, gawping at the floodwaters spread out beneath us. From up there the river systems looked like a picture drawn by a kid who’d lost patience with the brown pencil, and stopped colouring between the lines.
We touched down at Toowoomba Airport — think garden shed with a windsock — 20 minutes later. There were tears as we passengers alighted, friends and family embracing one another with sighs of grief and relief. My wife, too, had tears streaming down her face, though hers here were fuelled more by mirth at my appearance. “The flood has its first victim,” she howled, “fashion”. Behind us, search and recovery teams climbed into massive military helicopters, heading for the death zones of Grantham and Murphy’s Creek.
I headed the couple of blocks downtown to collect my bike, chained up at the bus station since Monday. Police tape flapped in the wind. Lumps of street surface lay about like fragments at the bottom of a biscuit box. Muddied workers with glazed eyes sluiced out shops. The National Hotel looked like it had served Mother Nature one too many, and copped a glassing for its efforts. Michael Usher and his Channel Nine crew, gathering footage of the recovery efforts, stood aside politely as I shuffled past. A woman stood staring, body shuddering with tears. Blackhawks thundered by overhead, as the sun beat down, steam and stink rising. Dystopia in the summertime.
I came home and slept. Later we watched the creeping nightmare in Brisbane, our former home town, worsen. Eventually we surrendered the television, letting our little one keep her daily date with Jimmy Giggle and his owl, Hoot.
We’re waiting now, for roads to reopen, friends to get home, floodwaters to fall and in all probability, death tolls to rise. I’m uncertain as to when I can return again to Brisbane, but stoked at least that I’m with my family, safe and dry.
I’m grateful, too, to several people and agencies: Queensland Rail for the free travel out of Brisbane City Tuesday, my brother for putting me up, Skytrans Airlines for getting me home the only way possible, the Queensland Police Service and its Facebook page for busting rumours and keeping a steady flow of accurate information. And thanks especially to my wife, for keeping her head steady and our little family safe during the emergency here last Monday.