IN the summer of 2010-2011, Queensland experienced devastating flooding in about 70 towns, forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents. Three quarters of the state was declared a disaster zone, many lives were lost and damage was estimated at about $1 billion.
Coal mining operations in the state’s Bowen Basin region were brought to a virtual standstill and the majority of coal railway lines closed; a number of coalplayers declared force majeure, causing coal production to fall six months behind schedule.
The state is now once again experiencing rising waters and records show that this is not a new phenomenon: since 1824, the Australian Government’s Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) has documented close to 200 flood events in the Brisbane and Bremer River Basin, which includes the cities of Brisbane and Ipswich. The earliest citation by the BOM is from explorer John Oxley, who noted evidence of an inundation discovered in an area north of the junction of the Bremer and the Brisbane Rivers: “the starboard bank an elevated fl at of rich land, declining to a point where had evidently by its sandy shore and pebbly surface, been at some time washed by an inundation; a flood would be too weak an expression to use for a collection of water rising to the full height (full fi fty feet) which the appearance of the shore here renders possible.” *
Between February 3 and February 21, 1893, Brisbane experienced a number of collective events referred to as the Great Flood of 1893 or the Black February Flood. During the period, three cyclones and heavy rain caused the Brisbane River to burst its banks three times. According to the Queensland State Library’s John Oxley blog, the total rainfall in an eight-day period was about 500mm, with the Brisbane River rising 7m above its ordinary level. Towns surrounding Brisbane, including Maryborough, Gympie, Ipswich, Bundaberg and Rockhampton, were also inundated with water.
The BOM reported that within days, houses were being washed down the river, telegraphic and railway communications in the north and west were disrupted, the Indooroopilly Railway Bridge was washed away and the north end of the Victoria Bridge had been destroyed. The February 9 edition of The Argus newspaper reported that the scene of desolation at North Brisbane was “simply indescribable”, with an estimated 500 houses passing down the river.
“One man counted a hundred houses come down and strike against the bridge within an hour,” the paper reported. “Six houses in a row came down the stream together, and were smashed against the structure with a loud report. They were thrown high into the air, and as the shattered timbers fell they were engulphed [sic] below the bridge and passed through on the other side.” The 1893 floods also caused the collapse of the John Wright and Co Eclipse No. 1 Colliery in Ipswich on February 4, which resulted in multiple fatalities. Among the seven dead were Thomas and George Wright, sons of the owner.
According to The Argus, the men went into an old pit that was being prepared for abandonment to remove some rails and were then overcome by the floodwaters. The paper reported that one of the roof supports “immediately over which on the surface was a gully of backwater” gave way, allowing water to rush in “with terrific force”.
The newspaper reported that three men who were in the second tunnel just managed to escape, but that the men in the collapsed pit were “so completely entombed that it is questionable whether they will ever be recovered.” A Brisbane Courier correspondent reported at the time that the “extent and appearance of the floodwater would never be conceived by anyone unless he actually witnessed them”.
“The evil effects are enormous and a simply incalculable,” the report said about the town of Gympie. “If the town is not now absolutely ruined it is at least utterly prostrated, and it will take years for the place to recover.” According to the BOM records, the floodwaters finally subsided on February 21.
Since 1893, floods of various sizes have hit Brisbane and its surrounding towns and country areas. None had the ferocity of the Black February Flood until the summer of 1974, when Cyclone Wanda brought record floods to many areas of Queensland.
According to the BOM, the flooding caused Ipswich’s Bremer River to reach its highest level since 1893. About 2000 homes and properties were affected, and two people died. The Brisbane River also reached its highest level since 1893, with 8000 householders affected and 14 lives lost.
As a result of this devastation, a number of flood mitigation measures were implemented, including the building of the Wivenhoe Dam 80km from Brisbane. Although primarily built for water supply, the dam was also designed to control water levels of the Brisbane River in the hopes of preventing future devastation. Flooding has been a constant theme in the history of Queensland, causing extensive damage, loss of life and economic and social dislocation. Recent flood events indicate it is likely that rising waters, floods and inundations of rain will remain a consistent part of the state’s future development.
By Rachel Seeley