Thursday, March 04, 2010

Roma's record flood - March 2010

The warning signs were there from Monday. A bloody great big monsoonal low was descending from the Northern Territory and was predicted to dump a great wad of rain on south and central Queensland. It started raining in Roma around 8pm and began to come down hard. The rain stayed hard and loud all night making sleep difficult and fitful. I had to be up to report on a 6.45am sports breakfast meeting at the council buildings about five minutes drive from where I lived. I thought it would have been cancelled at the last minute but I had to check it out. It didn’t take long for me to realise the waters had risen substantially overnight.

I carefully threaded my way through the river-like roads and found Roma’s CBD awash with water. Not from the creeks but simply because the drainage system couldn’t cope. 133 mils had fallen overnight and it was still coming down. I got out of the car to take a few photos of slow-moving traffic struggling through the waves. The water was up to the step of our office and still rising. In about two minutes of taking photos I was soaked to the skin. I retreated back to the car and went onto the council building.

To my surprise, the sports breakfast went ahead. Many people were stuck on their properties and others were running late but an amazingly large amount of sports administrators turned up to hear how council was going to change its management of local sport. I sat there saturated and took notes all the while realising the real story was elsewhere. By the time the meeting finished, it had stopped raining. The waters had retreated from the office step leaving a muddy mess on the pavement. The word was the Bungil Creek was still rising and we were heading for a big flood. Having recalled what the floods were like last month, I rushed home to get a pair of shorts and thongs (footwear) and was ready for combat duties.

It was soon obvious this flood was going to be much larger than the last one. In February there was one bridge to the northern part of town that didn’t flood over, but it was now inundated by the time I got there. I saw a boat about to ferry a lady with her groceries across and hitched a lift with them into the flood zone. I thought initially the two boaties were SES officers but no, they were just two Santos workers who were heading to find their friend who was stranded in a ditch somewhere. The other passenger told me her name was Inge Strybos and she lived further up the street. Neither her name nor her accent was local and it turns out she was Belgian but had a Roma boyfriend. But Inge had never seen rain or floods like this in Brussels.

The boys dropped Inge and myself off in shallow waters on the other side of the creek and set off to find their mate. I started walking further north asking whoever would talk to me about how the flood was treating them. None of the houses I saw were inundated though the gardens were looking soggy. I was taking a photo of a woman walking her three dogs to safety when she shouted out “hello Derek”. At closer inspection, it was local MP Howard Hobbs’ media person Ann Leahy and she was taking her dogs to the safety of her office on the other side of town before returning to her flooded home. I left Ann to find her way to town and walked further down her street.

The waters were waist high and cursing the fact I had no t-shirt pocket I had to carry my mobile phone in my hand. Towards the end of the street the waters were getting almost chest high and the current was getting stronger. Here several low-lying houses were inundated and their occupants long gone. Concerned about losing my mobile and camera in deeper water, I retreated back the way I came.
Back on the corner, Ann was still there and finding it difficult to get a lift back to town with the dogs. Then came Darren Christiansen to the rescue.

Darren had a big truck and was taking sandbags around to houses in need. He got Ann and the dogs to hop on. Then he spotted me.
“Are you from the press?” he said.
“I’m from the Western Star,” I replied.
“Do you want to hop in? I’m delivering the last few sandbags before heading back into town,” he said.
I didn’t need a second invitation. I hopped in the front cab which was already crowded. Darren introduced me to Kate who was pregnant as well as her toddler Zoe and their small dog. Darren was taking his human and canine crew to higher ground.
Darren was a bit of a character. He told me he was a young and single grazier.
“I don’t know if you saw me – I was on A Farmer Needs A Wife but I was eliminated in the first round”.
I hadn’t seen the program. Darren said he’d never seen floods like this (neither had I) even though he was well used to rain on his property about 70km west of Roma.
“It’s been raining solid there for four weeks,” he said.
“The only way around is by quad bike or horse.
“I was in town today and thought people could use a hand.
“The truck has got a high input so it’s safe enough to get round in.”

We continued to tour around the flood areas from the safety of his high cab and I helped Darren deliver the last few sandbags at his mother’s house. Finally he started to head back to town and dropped Ann, Kate, Zoe and the dogs off. He told me he was going to the council depot to get more sandbags and I said I would go along.

The depot was full of exhausted council workers many of whom had been on the job since 3am laying sandbags. They were enjoyed a smoko: a rest and a feed. They were also swapping war stories of the morning’s events. Everyone agreed it was the biggest flood that had ever hit Roma.

Darren borrowed a forklift and loaded his truck up with more sandbags. He picked up his mate Mark who had yet to see the flood and the three of us drove back past the flooded bridge. The Bungil peaked at 8.1m around lunchtime but waters were still rising around town. Most houses in the flood zone were beyond sandbagging but we kept driving around the streets seeing if anyone needed help.

One man named Aaron Murphy showed us inside his saturated house. “I was out in the garage madly trying to lift everything off the ground.”
“While I was out there, the waters came in through the door.
“It happened so quick there was no time to react.”
The waters contaminated every room, destroying the carpets, sofas and fridge and everything near ground level. With nothing left to do, Aaron joined us on the truck as we continued our tour of the saturated suburbs.

Occasionally someone would call out for sandbags for their property on higher ground but most had already left leaving their home's fate to Mother Nature. The rain stayed away all day so the waters stopped rising further - though there was menacing talk of waters up north that was yet to come down this way. With all the rivers in southern Queensland flooded there was nowhere for that water to go except up.

After touring around for a couple of hours it was time to head back to town. Darren picked up a few more stragglers and we all milled around the back of the truck in totally illegal fashion. Police turned a blind eye on the creek crossing but further down the road they took a dim view of Darren's unsecured load and we all had to hastily get off. It was a short walk from there to the office where I caught up with all the news from elsewhere. I heard the RSL hall was transformed to an emergency response centre and trudged up to take a look.

I had gotten friendly with the RSL crew and knew most of them there. They were great people who tirelessly devoted themselves to the community. One couple, Roy and Jillie, had their own home flooded out but still spent all day helping others, feeding the evacuees and plying them with tea and coffee. The RSL processed over 30 evacuees during the day while they tried to find beds for the night for them. Many people from the community volunteered to house the evacuees. All that was left when I arrived were three fellas from an old folk’s home near the creek that was flooded out. I talked to Henry Steers, who was 77 and rescued with his 16-year-old dog Boss.
Henry said he and his mates were glad to be rescued by the SES though some of the others had to be cajoled by police into leaving their homes.
“I live next to the Creek and the waters just came swimming through my door,” Henry said.
His friend Bobby McKenzie was envious at the way Henry was rescued.
“He got piggybacked out while we had to walk!” he said.
But Henry had a good excuse.
“I’ve only got one leg, see,” he said, tapping at his wooden leg.
“When the boat took us to the other side, this lovely lady picked us up and dropped us off at the church where someone gave us dry clothes,” he said.
“Then we were taken over here where they looked after us too.
“It’s beautiful here, I got a hot meal of potato and sausages."
Then Henry looked wistfully at Boss as he remembered what he had left behind.
“I bought a big Y-bone and a fillet today for us, that’s all gone,” he said.
“And I don’t know how much clothes I’ve lost.”
Henry has lived in Roma all his life but never saw anything like he saw today.
“I’ve never seen it this high,” he said.
“It frightens you really.”
The RSL found beds for the night for most of the old men thanks to the generous offers from the community. It was proving harder to place Henry because of Boss but his daughter who was stuck in the floods finally arrived to take them both away to a warm bed.

Just as it seemed the RSL’s work was done for the night, another couple arrived around 8.30pm dripping wet from head to toe. Tanya and Andrew McGilvray live on a hill behind the saleyards and thought they were safe up high. But as the waters steadily rose all day, their worries increased. The neighbours below started to move out, the waters were lapping below the floorboards and baby snakes started appearing around the house. As darkness approached, the McGilvrays became convinced it was time to leave.
“What probably convinced me to go was when I looked out the window and saw a 44 gallon drum float past” said Andrew.
But first he had to walk his two horses to higher ground.
“The water came up to here,” Andrew said, pointing to his nose.
Andrew made it through safely with the horses but back at the house there was another problem.
“We rang the SES but they said we would have to swim out to the road to get to the boat,” he said.
“My wife is pregnant so we didn’t fancy that idea.
“Just when it looked as if we would have to do it, the neighbour rolls by in a tractor and got us down to the boat.”
The SES crew winched the two last families to safety with the bridge over the highway completely submerged in the gathering gloom.
They stayed overnight at the RSL and Roy and Jillie decided to stay with them. Just before I left to go home around 9pm, the Mayor arrived and invited me to the 6am disaster response meeting the following morning. I said yes and drove home exhausted. It was raining heavily again. Nevertheless I slept the sleep of the dead, knowing that another big day lay ahead with the possible promise of more floods to come.

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