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Qld

Jan 10, 2012

One year on and flood victims pick up the pieces

Many families in the Lockyer Valley can’t afford to move to the land swap estate being developed above the flood line at Grantham and are stuck in flood-prone homes, writes Amanda Gearing, a freelance journalist in Grantham.

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For many Australians, January 10 last year is just a media memory — a vision of cars surfing down inner-city creeks in Toowoomba CBD and houses floating across farm paddocks in the Lockyer Valley. But for the people of the Lockyer Valley who were clinging to life, the terrifying visions of that day remain every time they close their eyes.

Postmans Ridge resident Rod Alford is still haunted by the vision of his elderly neighbour Sylvia Baillie and her brick house being swept away, leaving only a bare concrete slab, which lies even now in the middle of her vacant block. The small rural district suffered the greatest violence of the “inland tsunami” but the area, just north of the main highway between Brisbane and Toowoomba, largely escaped the media limelight.

Media coverage at the time might have seemed intrusive in their grief but the absence of coverage meant they have largely been forgotten as they left to settle in other places or returned to face the clean-up and rebuilding.

“I find it hard looking at the bare slab of concrete next door,” Alford told Crikey. “It’s a constant reminder. I mow the yard for Sylvia and keep the garden neat — just the way she kept it, in memory of her.”

The destructive torrent that coursed down the floodway of Rocky Creek was measured by hydrologists at 9.8 metres high.

Rod and Wendy Alford consider themselves to be among the lucky ones — they survived and their house was damaged but not destroyed.

“I can’t comprehend how people who have lost everything are coping,” he said. “We are coping well. Others are coping badly.”

Many families in the Lockyer Valley can’t afford to move to the land swap estate being developed above the flood line at Grantham and are stuck in flood-prone homes. Wade and Shauna Foster and their three school-aged children have lived in dongas with a make-shift outdoor dining area at their Murphys Creek property for most of the year. Their house insurance had lapsed because they could not afford the premium in addition to Shauna’s cancer treatment costs.

But they are thankful for small mercies — they were in Brisbane for medical treatment when their house was swept down the creek.

Two weeks before Christmas they moved into their new nine metre square shed and now they look forward to building a house this year with donations from the Premier’s Appeal and the Queensland Reconstruction Authority.

Leaving Murphys Creek is not an option because the mortgage on their property means they can’t afford to move from their flooded property to the land swap estate at Grantham. Today, the family will pause to remember the flood and to be thankful for the many strangers who have helped them.

“The flood brought out the best in people. It brought people closer together. I hope that if a flood like this happens somewhere else in future that I will be able to do the same for someone else,” Wade Foster said.

For others, going back is not an option. Grantham resident Lisa Spierling will never forget the look in her son’s eyes as she ran with her children to safety as the tsunami wave bore down on them.

They will never live in Grantham again. There are too many bad memories of that day.

“We lost just about everything in our home that day, our farm was all but flattened and our loyal staff was left without jobs,” Spierling said. “But during the early hours of the eleventh of January when we started becoming aware of the huge loss of life in our small town I made a decision: I would never cry for the lost possessions, the loss of our farm and livelihood, or even our much-loved family dogs.

“They all mean nothing compared to what six families in Grantham lost that day. I and our children survived and we will be able to rebuild our home and business.”

All across the Lockyer Valley, there are families where traumatised workers have been invalided onto disability pensions, or are straining under the financial burden of paying off a house mortgage for which there is no house and also paying rent or a second mortgage to put a roof over their heads.

Rod Alford battles the memories of the flood but financially he is managing because his insurance claim was paid out and he is able to earn a wage again. He was off work for three months but is now working again and rebuilding as best he can, replacing 600 tonnes of soil carved from his backyard along with the rainforest and gardens growing in it.

The once-dry gully was gouged three metres down to the bedrock and has flowed continuously since the flood.

“If I saw someone else moving back here I’d think they were crazy but I’m doing it. It’s a very beautiful area,” he admitted.

But the fear that it will happen again means Alford is not willing to leave home, even for a holiday, yet. “I fear that it will happen again when I’m not here to save what I’ve put back,” he said.

Despite his 20 years’ experience as a paramedic and counter disaster planner, he was not prepared for the scale of this disaster.

“I’ve been to many disasters. I’ve trained and practised but nothing compares to what has happened here,” he said. “To be a victim is a thousand times worse than being a responder.”

With time, counselling and anti-depressant medication, he has gradually improved enough to return to work, not as an accident investigator as he had been before the flood, but as a Workplace Health and Safety trainer. After work and on weekends, he is doggedly building his retaining walls and gardens.

When he is physically exhausted from each day’s labour, he sits on his back verandah watching the creek and still asks himself how it happened.

Looking dispassionately at the landscape now, he can see that monumental floods have happened before — before European settlement — to form the landscape. He knows his decision to stay beside the creek is like playing roulette — gambling there won’t be another flood like January 10 in his lifetime. But he is applying the risk management strategies he has used in counter-disaster planning, just in case.

“My focus is on controlling the risk,” he said. “I watch the Bureau of Meteorology radar every day and go home if storms are coming. I have chains beside my classic cars and I bought a tractor, so I can tow the vehicles to safety if there is another flood.  And I bought a kayak.”

Twelve months on from the disaster, the Alfords are now beginning to look forwards. The next milestone in their recovery will be when they are able to leave home for a holiday.

For other flood survivors, life itself will never again be taken for granted.

Lisa Spierling will speak for Grantham residents at a ceremony this afternoon to unveil the town’s new memorial. She has learnt two hard-won lessons, she will tell them: treasure your family and never complain about housework because it’s not until you don’t have your own home that you realise how important it is to be able to say simple things like, “I’m on my way home”.

*Amanda Gearing has written a book — The Torrent: Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley, 10 January 2011 — which is available in shops and online

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13 comments

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13 thoughts on “One year on and flood victims pick up the pieces

  1. Suzanne Blake

    The State Government was asleep at the wheel releasing water from the dam, so to the Bureau of Meterology for their failed warnings

  2. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Suzanne, Suzanne. When you come with evidence I might listen. I don’t mean evidence that you heard about or thought you read about or maybe hoped for, but actual line and letter references from some journal of record or just any reference at all. It was an absolute blessing that “the state government”, ie. the politicians, were not able and not allowed to pull any of the water release levers. The actual managers did a pretty good job and I notice that even The Australian’s Hedley Thomas has now pulled his head in. You should too.

  3. smith keith

    Way to go Suzanne. Take an article about tragedy and use it to rant partisan talking points. Your family must be so proud.

  4. shepherdmarilyn

    I watched Paul Lockyer’s “After the deluge” again and it is still horrific a year later.

    Suzanne, you need to get a life beyond partisan hackery – your sort revolt me.

  5. sparky

    Let’s be innovative here, could not the Foster family receive some kind of title deed swap so they could move and continue paying the mortgage. Or am I being naive ?

  6. Lord Barry Bonkton

    How low can you go Suzanne ? It was a flash flood , from a storm cell , on already wet soil and I think it was just funneled down the creek straight into town. Went out about 4 -6 months ago out that way and I could see the flood level mark , high above the creek bed and 9.8 mts sounds about right. Where I went, he lost his sheds under water and went up the back brick wall and walk way , but didn’t get inside the house. Lucky he moved his harly to the house , his other bikes had water up to the top of the dash.(4ft ). 1 in a thousand year event ? Who knows , but I won’t be buying a sea change or a river property when i move next .

  7. Lord Barry Bonkton

    Whooops Harley.

  8. Bobalot

    Don’t you guys know? Suzanne Blake is an expert in hydraulic engineering.

    Most people would think repeatedly making claims about things she has little knowledge about is intellectually dishonest…. but they don’t realise that Suzanne Blake is an expert on everything.

  9. Suzanne Blake

    @ Lord Bonkton

    The State Government made it worse by not releasing water from the dam, when they knew the rains were approaching. There was no disaster management plan, the Weather Bureau were asleep.

    “but I won’t be buying a sea change or a river property when i move next”

    Interesting that ly ing Gillard Cash For Comments Climate Scientist Flannery lives on the Hawkesbury River at Coba Point (no issues for him) and Labor MP Deborah O’Neill in the ultra marginal seat of Robertson, who has 5 houses with her husband, just moved to one of the water at Bensville.

    Amazing that this was after grossely incompetent Tanya Plibaseck told elderley residents in the area that inundation from sea water would take place unless we had a carbon tax. She had to retract it few weeks later.

  10. Bobalot

    Let me put it in simple words for you (because you seem to be incredible stupid):

    DO YOU HAVE ANY EVIDENCE FOR THIS? THESE ARE VERY SERIOUS ALLEGATIONS YOU ARE MAKING.

  11. Lord Barry Bonkton

    CRIKEY, i think we need a “Fact checker” with the local clown S.B. Maybe a bull shit meter?

  12. podrick

    “The State Government was asleep at the wheel releasing water from the dam, so to the Bureau of Meterology for their failed warnings”

    SB, the article is about the flood at Grantham and the Lockyer Valley which had nothing to do with levels or releases at Wivenhoe dam as the are in different river and creak systems. The Lockyer and Bremmer systems are actually below Wivenhoe dam. You really should look at a map of the area as I know that asking you to think before you post is not possible, but maybe pictures will help.

  13. Suzanne Blake

    The dam non releases are in the Report done and widely reported.

    The Bureau is in the report as well, and was mentione again on 60 Minutes or 730 this wek, cant recall which show. Think 60 minutes

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