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There is no comprehending the sound and fury of the flooding that pulverised Brisbane

Flooding in St Lucia, Brisbane, Australia. taken on Monday 28 February 2022.
‘Turning down one last hill, I saw the river where it shouldn’t be. Slowly sinking beneath it was my apartment block,’ writes Andrew Stafford of flooding in St Lucia, Brisbane. Photograph: Andrew Stafford

The things that will stay with me about the weather event and subsequent flooding that engulfed Brisbane and south-east Queensland over the weekend was how rapidly it unfolded, its capricious unpredictability and extreme violence.

This was not a repeat of the 2011 disaster, which I also lived through, and the captains of hindsight suggesting this – in a simplistic and premature attempt to assign blame – are making a false equivalence.

I live on the second floor of a low-lying, poorly drained apartment block in the university suburb of St Lucia, 150 metres as the crow flies from the Brisbane River. In 2011, there was time for the city to prepare. The floods then felt like a train wreck in slow motion.

This event began slowly, and for a couple of days in Brisbane early last week the predicted heavy rain did not eventuate. Instead, a trough sat just south of Fraser Island, dumping huge amounts of rain on Gympie and the Sunshine Coast hinterland.

But as the week progressed, the developing low-pressure system – to coin a phrase from Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs – gathered momentum like a piano falling out of a window. There was no comprehending the sound and fury that was about to pulverise us.

On Thursday evening, the pall settled over Brisbane, with 64mm falling on the city overnight to 9am. From there, it was as though the atmosphere was trying to outbid the Bureau of Meteorology’s wildest predictions, as a further 225mm hammered down on the Friday.

And yet, even as a whopping 228mm more fell through Saturday, only minor flooding was predicted for the Lower Brisbane River. My suburb was not listed as a concern. Talking and listening to others, a theme emerges: no one was prepared for Sunday morning.

I wasn’t home that Saturday night as the rain continued to pour. Returning the next day via an increasingly circuitous route – dodging roads that were only just being cut, as the river expanded across the old floodplain of the Jagera people – I had a familiar feeling.

Turning down one last hill, I saw the river where it shouldn’t be. Slowly sinking beneath it was my apartment block. Even knowing my unit was above the waterline couldn’t stop the flashbacks to January 2011 as it dawned that I wouldn’t be going home for a while.

At that stage, the water was thigh deep and rising with the tide. Emergency services were yet to arrive. With the help of a neighbour and against sound advice, I waded some 100 metres through the dirty water to retrieve my cat and a change of clothes.

As I retreated, carrying my beloved feline, I knew what it was too late to save: archives in storage downstairs, representing nearly 30 years of work, life and love: everything from juvenilia to draft manuscripts and, most distressing, a box full of my mother’s personal effects.

But in a crisis, there is nothing to do but try to control the things that remain within our grasp; such existential trifles pale next to loss of lives and livelihoods. I was lucky to get out early; on Tuesday, the State Emergency Service was still evacuating stranded students and families from their apartments.

Still, the rain fell. It was supposed to ease marginally on Sunday. Instead, conditions worsened. The BoM kept revising their forecasts upwards: from 50-100mm, to 150mm, then 200, then up to 300. In the end, 222mm fell: 739mm in four days; nearly 75% of the annual average.

And therein lies the nub of this catastrophe: how is anyone supposed to plan for that much rainfall in such a short time? Mount Glorious, to Brisbane’s north-west, had 1,637mm in the same period, which surely should have washed it into Moreton Bay.

Some have expressed concerns about controlled releases from the Wivenhoe Dam. When releases began on 11 January 2011, the dam was at 191% capacity and further flows could have risked its structural integrity. Last Thursday, it was at just 58%. Releases began on Friday night in response to heavy inflows. But without releases, the dam couldn’t keep pace with the deluge: by Monday, it was at 185%. It should also be borne in mind that much of the rain fell well south of the dam catchment, directly into the Bremer and Lower Brisbane Rivers and their tributaries.

Perhaps the truest parallel to be made between the 2011 and 2022 events is this: both came in La Niña years following periods of prolonged drought. By the Black Summer of 2019–2020, many towns in south-east Queensland had run out of water entirely.

On the news, journalists and bewildered interviewees alike spoke of one-in-100-year events. But our subtropical river city went through this just a decade ago. Meteorological records are being smashed so often and by such wide margins they seem to lose all meaning.

This is simply what living in a climate emergency looks like. If anyone wants to cast blame, they should direct it at the politicians, their donors and media enablers who sought to distract, deflect and delay action. The overdue bills are piling up.

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