Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Rafqa Touma

Tinnies and choppers: amid Queensland’s flood catastrophe, the community steps in

A helicopter delivers fuel to residents at Wangetti Beach
A helicopter delivers fuel to residents at Wangetti Beach as floods leave a swathe of far north Queensland stranded. Photograph: Nuno Avendano/AAP

When Gavin Dear paddled down the flooded streets of Rossville, Queensland in a canoe on Sunday, a “real chill” went down his spine. Rapid brown waters were lapping at the trunks of rainforest trees and rumour had it that a group of people were stranded on the roof of the town’s Lion’s Den Hotel.

All roads to Rossville, a small town south of Cooktown, were inaccessible and power was largely out as the rising Annan River added to the threat of pummelling rains.

Dear, along with his partner and son, retrieved a tinny and headed in the direction of the Den, but on the way they were halted by the sound of nearby shouting: “Help! Help!”

“These guys were hanging up in the trees,” he says.

Two men had climbed up into trees after being washed out of a truck at about 4am, narrowly escaping a shipping container that floated past, and were still gripping to the branches when Dear and his companions came across them mid-morning.

“They both told us that we had saved their lives, that they were about to give up,” he says.

Dear continued towards the Den, when “all of a sudden, a helicopter started”.

Flying overhead was the local but elusive pilot Magoo, who had been called to check if rumours of people stranded on the Den’s roof were true.

“He took a detour off his flight path … saw them and just went straight down there,” Dear says.

The roof was packed with 18 people. “I know that there was some panic, but there were some amazing people on that roof too that kept the other people calm,” he says.

Magoo returned to the roof 16 times to escort each person to safety.

“That is why so many people aren’t dead,” Dear says.

‘Incredible acts of bravery’

As the barrage of rain and flood waters continue across northern Queensland after a week of destruction, accounts of extraordinary rescue efforts by residents like Dear and Magoo are coming from the ground. Among them are stories of strangers rescuing strangers from disintegrating houses at Halloways Beach and neighbours coordinating with emergency services to pull stranded residents from the roofs of their homes.

The Queensland premier, Steven Miles, praised the “incredible acts of bravery”.

“We have seen … families saved from rooftops and locals lending a hand to look after their neighbours,” he said. “We have had reports of people using mustering choppers and fishing boats to rescue strangers.”

In Julatten, three hours south of Rossville, 81-year-old Bette Brandon was stuck on the top floor of her two-storey home for three days. Her house started flooding as the rain set in last Wednesday and by Friday she was seeking refuge in her second storey.

Bette Brandon
Bette Brandon was stuck on the top floor of her home in Julatten for three days. Photograph: Bette Brandon

“We were thinking, as everybody did, that the rain would stop and the water would go down,” her son Paul Brandon says. “But the rain kept coming even harder and the water came up quickly.

“The whole first floor of the house was completely inundated. She couldn’t get out.”

Concerned at the forecast of more rain for Sunday night, he had tried calling triple zero from Melbourne.

“The water was still rising. It looked like she was actually in real danger,” he says. “We were trying to get something happening before it got dark.”

But local residents were going to be the only people able to save his mother in time, Paul says.

He reached out on Facebook to Jamal, a neighbour in his 30s who grew up knowing Bette.

Earlier in the day, Jamal tried to reach Bette at her house by foot, but was “swept away by the water”, Paul says. “He nearly got washed away.”

“But Jamal has known my mum since he was a little boy. I knew he wasn’t going to give up.

“Jamal went knocking, looking for somebody that had a tinny. He managed to connect with a couple of young lads that had a tinny.”

Jack and Harry, in their 20s, travelled in their boat to the little veranda at the front of Bette’s home and managed to move her and her dog into the boat just as water was entering the second storey.

“It was touch and go there for a while, because she is not very mobile,” Paul says.

“She literally got out with the clothes on her back. She has lost everything – the car went under water, the house.”

Gavin Dear pictured prior to the floods
Despite the ‘catastrophic’ damage caused by flooding, Gavin Dear (right) says it has been heartwarming seeing the community pulling together. Photograph: Gavin Dear

But he said “they are just things”. “The main thing is she is OK.”

Coordinating a rescue effort from a different state was highly stressful, Paul says.

“I didn’t know any of what was going on. I just got the message once she had been saved.”

Flood waters were also blocking the roads into Holloways Beach, where Andrew Brown’s mother and dog live in their family home.

When Brown received a call from his mum on Sunday saying water was flooding the house, he started panicking.

“I just wanted to get there and try and do as much as I could to help them out,” he says.

On Sunday night, Brown planned with a group of friends to drive tinnies into Holloways Beach and Machans Beach to bring supplies and ferry people to and from safety.

“We were there. We might as well do our part and help out as much as we can,” he says.

“Heaps of locals were doing the job too. They were doing runs all through Sunday, all through the night and through Monday.”

Facebook was a “godsend” for following calls for help.

“People were putting through messages and alerts for things like even their animals trapped in houses,” Brown says. “Everyone wanted to do what they could to help.

“People were going round and helping those animals out, taking them to shelter. It was unreal to see.”

‘Bits of our house floating past’

Bette is staying with Jamal and his wife as Paul and his sister try to get to Cairns amid transport chaos. She is in reasonably good spirits, Paul says, but the reality of the situation is “going to be a bit hard for her to take”.

Like Bette, Dear also lost many of his belongings.

“As we were rescuing the two guys, we saw bits of our house floating past,” he says. His drum kit was the first thing he saw.

“We thought, honestly, we have got nothing left.”

Dear is back at the site of his house. “The roads up here have not been damaged, they have been obliterated … [Power] lines are tangled around trees and power poles have been ripped out.

“It is a catastrophic site.”

But amid the heartbreak, Dear says it is heartwarming to see “everyone just giving everything they can, supporting people”.

“Emergency services are only arriving now. All the rescuing, all the looking after people, sheltering them, has been done locally.

“It is just a wonderful thing to witness that.”

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.