After two-and-a-half fun-filled years in Beijing, my family and I decided to return to Australia at the end of 2010. Despite my best intentions, things have not gone smoothly. Plans for the perfect repatriation were shelved within days of our arrival as a natural disaster unfolded around us. We are from Brisbane, Australia’s third largest city and the capital of Queensland – a picturesque subtropical metropolis built along the snaking Brisbane River.
When we left Brisbane in 2008, the city was enduring its sixth consecutive year of drought. The city’s combined dam levels were less than 20 percent. Four-minute showers, dirty cars and dusty backyards filled with dead grass were the norm. And then … the worst drought in living memory was broken by the worst flood Australia has ever seen. Three-quarters of Queensland has been declared a disaster zone. To give you an idea of the scale of the devastation, the state of Queensland is two-and-a-half times the size of Texas and nearly seven times larger than the United Kingdom.
It started with intense rainfall in the center of the state causing entire regional towns to evacuate. The crisis then shifted southwards to areas already sodden after months of steady rainfall.
The real horror for Brisbane began on January 11 with heavy rain in Toowoomba, a city high on the Great Dividing Range about 130km west of the capital. The downpour caused horrific flash-flooding that swept people off their feet, cars down city streets and houses off their foundations. Usually rainfall from Toowoomba flows to the west, yet on this fateful day, the sheer volume of water spilled over the range to the east and thundered down the valley towards Brisbane.
The tiny town of Grantham, 114km west of Brisbane, bore the brunt when it was devastated by a seven-meter-high wall of water that tore through the community, killing 20 people. In the midst of the destruction, there were miraculous tales of survival, as people who sought refuge high on the roofs of cars and houses were rescued in dramatic fashion by helicopter.
Within the next few days, Brisbane was inundated with floodwaters. Yet still more rain was forecast. The city’s largest dam was already dangerously close to capacity.
At this time, we had been back in Brisbane just one week, staying in transit accommodation close to the Brisbane River that dissected the capital. As the flood risk loomed, we deliberated over whether to stay in our fifth-floor apartment that contained the few possessions we had brought with us from Beijing, or make for higher ground. The decision was taken out of our hands early next morning with a fire alarm and mandatory evacuation. A storm surge had flooded the basement where the electrical substation was located. Without power, the building was deemed uninhabitable. So with little more than a change of clothes, we moved to a friend’s house, all the while transfixed by graphic round-the-clock TV coverage of rising water levels. Entire suburbs were awash and some of the city’s most iconic sites enveloped in chocolate-brown sludge.
Preparing our home as soon as possible became our priority. With our main shipment of household items from China still a month away, we retrieved old furniture from storage, bought a new fridge and washing machine, and stocked up on plastic cutlery.
As the waters receded, low-lying suburbs ravaged by floodwaters began the heartbreaking clean-up. The worst-affected areas faced trampolines stuck in trees, two-story houses caked with mud to their roof lines and caravans tossed on top of each other like discarded cartons. Residents were left with little choice but to gut their houses, stripping them back to the hardwood timber frames and hosing away layer by toxic layer of sticky, stinking mud. The Army was called in to control the streets as more than 55,000 volunteers registered to help the clean-up and thousands more wandered the muddy streets with gumboots and mops.
Former Beijing expat and fellow Brisbane resident Libby Rose was one of the walking wounded. The Roses had rented a storage shed several kilometers away as a short-term solution to housing some of their most precious possessions. The shed that was supposed to safeguard a life’s worth of treasures was completely submerged by the floodwaters. When the Roses finally began the painstaking task of recovering a few salvageable belongings, their most vivid memory was the smell, a cloying stench that lingered in the neighbourhood for weeks afterwards.
Across the state, 35 people died in the floods and a further nine people are listed as missing. In Brisbane, an estimated 36,000 properties were inundated and 2,100 streets affected across 35 suburbs.
I’d like to say it ended there but in the weeks that followed, Australia endured more flooding in other eastern states, as well as cyclones in the north and raging bushfires on the west coast. More homes lost, more grief and even more communities called to action.
Despite our repatriation coinciding with these natural disasters, I was glad to be home during this period, to gain a real appreciation for the hardship suffered by others and to help the flood recovery effort where I could. Tragedy brings out the best in communities and the voluntary efforts of so many individuals makes me proud to be Australian. While we miss our friends in Beijing dearly, it’s good to be home.