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