Grief and loss are giving way to anger and frustration among flood survivors of the rural towns in the Lockyer Valley as the Queensland Flood Commission hears from senior police, disaster management staff and flood survivors.
For bereaved families in the public gallery waiting for answers to why 22 people died in the catastrophic flash flooding in the Lockyer Valley on January 10, patience is wearing thin.
Residents who were swept away by the flash flood or narrowly escaped by running to the railway line and getting to higher ground with their children and fellow residents are focused on the lack of warning that left them unnecessarily vulnerable.
Three families each lost three members in the rural town of Grantham, where more than 100 houses were suddenly struck by floodwaters coming from three directions almost simultaneously as Sandy Creek and Lockyer Creek broke their banks.
Two of the families suffering multiple deaths were at home in houses built above the previous record flood height set in 1974. The other family in which three members died were fleeing from their home on a rural fire brigade truck after they saw the “inland tsunami” heading across the paddock towards town carrying trees and a house.
As information is slowly being added to the public record, it is becoming more clear that emergency services had no warning of the impending disaster themselves and had to scramble to respond to catastrophic flash floods unfolding simultaneously in Toowoomba, Withcott, Spring Bluff, Murphy’s Creek, Postman’s Ridge, Helidon and Grantham during the afternoon of January 10.
In hearings this morning, the local disaster management group chairman Steve Jones, also the mayor of Lockyer Council, admitted he failed to attend meetings and that the group had no emergency plans or evacuation plans prepared to meet disasters for which the council was the lead agency. Council staff had written a disaster plan dated four days before the disaster.
Jones claimed the plan had worked because it drew together different agencies, but he admitted there were many failures, including the town of Murphy’s Creek that had no help until three days after the disaster.
It’s also becoming clear that local knowledge, if acted upon, could have saved every life that was lost. Live feeds of river height information to the Bureau of Meteorology provided enough warning time for Grantham residents to be alerted by authorities and evacuated from Grantham but the bureau’s computers automatically questioned the dramatic rises in river heights as errors.
As the floodwater travelled eight kilometres down the creek and then burst from its riverbed and diverted across the town residents who were at home because they could not get through flooded roads to go to work were mostly indoors.
A schoolgirl, 14, who was outside looking at the rising floodwaters, saw the inland tsunami and her video footage shows she had only 50 seconds between when she saw the front of the wave rolling across a paddock until it hit houses along the Gatton-Helidon Road. Her video will be presented to the inquiry this week.
Survivors have consistently told reporters that seconds and minutes in which to scramble to safety meant the difference between life and death for hundreds people in the path of the destructive flood water.
Almost all of the small towns and rural districts affected had no police, fire or ambulance staff on duty and once the disasters happened, roads were cut by floodwaters and landslides preventing them from warning residents of the danger or of helping residents to safety. The only emergency services staff on the ground were volunteers in the local rural fire brigades and they had been ordered not to drive in flood water and not to respond to calls for help with flooding in the days leading up to January 10.
Rural fire brigade volunteers are not given training in swift-water rescue. SES volunteers are given training but all except three of the SES volunteers in the Gatton had been dispatched to help with floods in other areas of Queensland. Counsels assisting the inquiry are now focusing on how to improve emergency responses to possible future disasters.
Senior police and emergency services witnesses at the inquiry have told the commission that the existing system in which local councils have the responsibility for warning of flash flooding and responding to all disaster situations are not equipped and do not have the training or resources they need for the task.
Local Rural Fire Brigade first officer Vivienne Jamieson wiped tears from her cheeks as she told the inquiry she had been ordered “from higher up” not to go to the rescue of people during the floods but to refer anyone needing help to an SES phone number. But when people needing emergency help phoned the number, SES had not been able to help or the phone rang out, she said.
Jamieson said she had been given the order not to drive fire brigade vehicles through water after she was videoed taking sandbags to a service station during a flood a few days before January 10. Her daughter’s house in Grantham was flooded on January 10 and when she could not get through to 000 she phoned her mother and asked her to keep trying 000 for her.
A senior QFRS person later told Jamieson not to report on the days leading up to flood because “what happened before the 10th didn’t happen”.