Australian, The, 21.04.2011, p11
The Grantham victims are asking why they were not warned of the pending disaster
THE Lockyer Valley township of Grantham is now a hive of rebuilding activity and the rich surrounding farmland is a green carpet with cabbages, lettuce, potatoes and other crops in healthy growing abundance.
It is 101 days since the inland tidal wave struck the village and adjacent farms and took all before it, drowning 11 local residents in what was the worst flood disaster in Queensland’s history.
This coincides with the flood inquiry moving to Toowoomba, where harrowing evidence was heard on Tuesday.
The inquiry heard that a triple-O operator told Donna Rice it was her own fault for driving into a flooded street. Rice and her son Jordan drowned in the flash flood.
The inquiry is taking evidence on the flooding in the Lockyer Valley where the stories of witnesses and survivors are being revived, many of them painfully so.
Community leaders feel the local population has moved to a third emotional phase.
First there was the disaster itself, with people thankful they were alive and saddened because many of their friends, and perhaps family members, were not so lucky.
Then there was the clean up and the rush of help and attention to get them back on their feet, including money donated by caring Australians to the flood appeal launched by Premier Anna Bligh, which to date has attracted $254 million.
But now there is the resentment phase, with questions being asked about why people were not given any official warning to enable them to escape the deadly torrent sweeping their way after 3pm on Monday, January 10.
This phase also includes bitterness and some jealousy about financial assistance “others” received that was not available to all.
An example is the farmers who do not consider it fair that their entitlement to grants or low interest loans is subjected to means testing.
Distribution of the appeal funds is being handled by former Goss government treasurer David Hamill, who is doing the job on an honorary basis.
“So far we have received 34,000 applications for assistance from people affected by the floods and Cyclone Yasi, and about 5000 of these have been rejected because people did not meet the criteria for grants,” Hamill reported this week.
“We have made cash payments to about 20,000 flood victims and 6500 from the cyclone totalling $63.5m, and we are now moving on to payments for structural damage that people suffered.
“These will be grants up to $100,000 for people who lost their homes or whose homes suffered major structural damage.”
The one issue of most concern to Grantham residents is why they were not warned of the enormous flood bearing down on them.
“We are just so lucky, if you could call it lucky, that this happened in the daylight hours and not at night,” Stuart Damrow says.
Damrow, who has spent all his 50 years in Grantham, was until last week group controller of all 11 rural fire brigades in the Lockyer Valley. He has seen scores of local floods and knows every creek, tributary, bush track and road in the valley. His knowledge, and that of his fire brigade colleagues, is invaluable when disaster looms or strikes.
Damrow resigned his position last week because of utter frustration that the knowledge and experience of local brigade members was neither sought nor accepted during the crisis.
“At 3.45pm on the Monday, a Grantham brigade member, my mate Danny McGuire, phoned to say his property was severely flooded and he was going to escape with his wife and three children in the brigade truck,” Damrow says.
“There had been no warnings. I receive all emergency calls and pages and nothing had come through that day.”
McGuire made it only to the table drain outside his house before the water hit his truck, turning it sideways and around.
He reached out and put his eight-year-old son Zac into a low tree and then was washed out of the truck himself.
He clung to a tree for six hours, calling out to his son, before being rescued.
His wife and two young children drowned, unable to escape from the truck.
Damrow rushed to Gatton SES headquarters where triple-O calls were pouring in.
“It was total chaos. They were inundated with calls. They took names and addresses but had nobody to send.
“I understand the bulk of the local SES team had been sent to Rockhampton to help out up there and no one was available to help at home.
“I spoke to two police officers at a roadblock outside Gatton the night before and told them we should evacuate Grantham, but they told me it could not be done as there was no declared state of emergency.
“As well, there was no SMS warning to our people. I know this service is available because it was used previously in Esk.
“If this flood had hit at night, hundreds of people would have died, I am sure of that.
“If they had evacuated people on the Sunday night before the disaster, no one would have died.
“ I joined the brigade in 2000 to save lives and property. I was not allowed to do that, so I don’t want any part of it anymore.”
Damrow is to give evidence to the flood inquiry in Toowoomba next week.
The deluge of more than 100mm of rain that fell east of Toowoomba and formed the torrent that swept through the villages of Murphys Creek and Postmans Ridge, and the larger towns of Withcott and Helidon before careering downstream to Grantham, came after 2pm.
Sisters Sandy Halliday and Sue Turner own and operate Grantham’s only general store, newsagency and fast-food outlet, premises accustomed to being closed because of “annoying level” flooding that cuts off the road outside the shop and inconveniences the town for a day or so. There have been three such small floods since Boxing Day.
Just after 3pm on January 10, Sandy heard in her shop that the Warrego highway was cut 10km upstream at Helidon, unbelievable news because it was not thought possible that Sheep Station Creek could rise that far. Sandy rang Sue who lived at Helidon, and her sister drove down to see for herself if it was true.
“We went up to look and the creek was up to the pub and rising fast. I grabbed the phone and rang Sandy and said to get your arse out of there, there is so much water coming your way,” Turner says.
Phone records show that call was made at 3.31pm, less than half an hour before the terrifying wall of water wiped out Grantham.
But it was all the warning they had, and Sandy shouted to customers in her shop to run to safety. From there, the message spread.
Rob Wilkins ran up his road screaming to people to get out. He got his family in their ute and ran into a nearby house where Lisa Spierling was baking cakes, unaware of the danger to herself and her three children. “He screamed `get the f . . k out’,” she says.
Wilkins grabbed Ilsa, 4, shouting at the older two boys and Lisa to follow him to the ute.
“As we were reversing out, I saw the wall of water,” Spierling says. “It looked like a giant chocolate milkshake full of debris. It was rolling at us like a wave on the beach. It was rolling across the paddock. There was no floodwater in front: it was just a wall of water.”
They raced for the safety of the railway line, elevated above normal flood levels, shouting warnings to others as they sped way.
Dozens of people gathered on the railway line watching anxiously as the floodwaters from Lockyer Creek moved towards them from the south. People who could not get out of their houses scrambled on to roofs. Others were caught by the wave.
A neighbour’s yells alerted Frank King in his house in Railway Street and he ran to get his car to higher ground, but within minutes the water was around his ankles.
“I looked up and the water was rushing over the bonnet of my son John’s car and then both cars got swept away,” he says.
The car lodged against a small tree and Frank tried to climb on to it, but was trapped by weeds and sticks that wrapped around his legs. John grabbed his arm and held his father’s head above water.
Frank grabbed a tree, locked his fingers together around it, and hung on. The force of the water ripped off his trousers and shoes and sent mud up his nose.
He heard a woman screaming as she was swept away, tangled in pumpkin vines.
“I could see her head bobbing up and down,” King says, but he could do nothing to help her.
Miraculously, double front gates opened as she was swept along and she went though and was tossed on to the veranda of a house.
By this time, Rob Wilkins had untied his motor boat from his yard and he and his brother were rescuing people and getting them to the railway line.
They spotted four people clinging to a fence along the railway and got two on board, but then the motor cut out leaving a young couple clinging to the fence.
Frank King saw his neighbour Gilbert Kilah and two girls on top of his vehicle floating down Railway Street. The car hit a power pole stay-wire, tripped over and threw Kilah and Holly Delonte into the water.
“I heard them calling for help, screaming in terror as they went past, but there was nothing I could do,” King says.
Holly’s sister Emma hung on to the car’s roof rack and was rescued 100m down the creek at the railway bridge.
After spending two hours in the water, King grabbed the branch of a nearby tree and pulled himself out of the water.
By then the sun was going down. With no sign of help around, he realised he had to try to get home to see if his family was safe and set off, walking through neck-deep water.
He was overwhelmed to see his son emerge from his house and come and help him.
As the water began to recede, Jonathan Klaassen and his brother David went to see what was left of the town and they saw Matthew Keep trying to get back to his house.
He told them his daughter, Madison, 5, was in the house which was flooded. Keep jumped into the water and tried to swim to the house, but was swept downstream.
Klaassen ran 100m upstream, jumped in and let the current float him along to the house.
“I went inside and his daughter was on a lounge chair that was wedged up against the wall,” he says. “I called out to Matthew `there’s a little girl in here’ and went to pick her up, and I heard another voice in the house.
“I asked the little girl who it was and she said it was Jacob.
“I yelled to Jacob that I would be back to get him and took Madison outside and said to Matthew, `Mate there’s another child, Jacob in the house’, and Matthew rushed in and grabbed his son.
“The two men then climbed on the roof of the house and were airlifted to safety.”
The incongruously named Lucky 7 store operated by Sandy Halliday and Sue Turner was completely wiped out by the flood waters.
On Saturday, Halliday will open a temporary replacement store, newsagency and fast-food outlet.
Like the cleaner streets, the rebuilt homes, the railway line cleared of the cars jammed under it by the floodwaters, the shop “open for business” is yet another important symbol that life in this little town is returning to some normality.
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