Citizens flee as Brisbane braces itself for worst floods in a century

Residents of Australia's third-largest city were warned yesterday to prepare for the worst floods in more than a century, as raging waters that have killed at least 11 people in inland Queensland towns surged towards the state capital, Brisbane.

The abrupt escalation of the flood crisis came after a freak storm sent a wall of water crashing through Toowoomba, 80 miles west of Brisbane, and neighbouring towns on Monday. Last night 77 people were still missing in the Lockyer Valley area, with more torrential downpours hampering the search and rescue operation.

Australians were still struggling to come to grips with the sudden tragedy in the Lockyer Valley when yet more dire warnings were issued – this time for Brisbane, which had been expected to escape relatively lightly. Yesterday forecasters said the Brisbane river was poised to break its banks in spectacular fashion, reaching a peak on Thursday and swamping 20,000 homes and businesses.

The city centre emptied almost instantly, with shops closing and office workers fleeing by bus, train and car. Thousands of people in low-lying suburbs were urged to leave their homes, with the Brisbane Lord Mayor, Campbell Newman, describing the situation as "very serious". Supermarkets reported panic buying, and military helicopters were on standby.

In the Lockyer Valley, the 11 confirmed fatalities include at least five children. The state premier, Anna Bligh, said the death toll would rise "potentially quite dramatically", and she revealed that whole families were among the missing. "Mother Nature has delivered something terrible in the last 48 hours, but there's more to go," she said.

Queenslanders have been battling floods for weeks, with river after swollen river bursting its banks, but until Monday the waters were rising slowly, giving people time to evacuate. What happened in the Toowoomba area – where terrified people clung to trees and telegraph poles as the water rushed through – has changed the whole tenor of the crisis.

Although there had been warnings of flash floods, the Lockyer Valley was completely unprepared for the "inland tsunami" that tossed cars around like corks and lifted houses off their foundations. Ms Bligh said the "incredibly intense" deluge that preceded the lethal events – an estimated 150mm of rain fell in half an hour – could not have been predicted.

Brisbane, a city of two million, has at least had more notice of the natural catastrophe heading its way. But disaster management officials fear its impact will be massive. "We are in uncharted territory," said Mr Newman.

Brisbane's last major flood was in 1974, after which the Wivenhoe Dam was built to protect the city. But the dam is already well over capacity after weeks of heavy rain, and when the torrent of water from Toowoomba reaches the coast, dam managers will have to release it into the Brisbane river.

The result, it is feared, will be floods of a magnitude not seen since 1893, with 15,000 people expected to be affected. Mr Newman said: "Today is very significant, tomorrow is bad, and Thursday is going to be devastating."

In 1974, thousands of homes were flooded and 14 people died when the Brisbane river flooded. Yesterday it was already lapping at boardwalks and waterside buildings after breaching its banks in numerous places. Boats, and even a ferry pontoon, were ripped from their moorings.

A total of 18 people have died in Queensland's worst floods for at least half a century; the latest casualties include a mother and two children whose car was swept away.

In the Toowoomba area, 40 people were pulled to safety from rooftops. Sixty residents who sought refuge in a primary school in the town of Grantham remained huddled there without power yesterday, waiting to be rescued.

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said she was "absolutely shocked" by television footage of the flash flooding. "The power of nature can still be a truly frightening power, and we've seen that on display in this country," she said.

Three-quarters of Queensland has now been declared a disaster zone, with the cost of the floods estimated at A$6bn (£3.8bn).

Q&A: So where is all the water coming from?

Is such heavy rainfall out of the ordinary in Australia?

It is quite normal for summer to be Australia's wettest season, when, per month, it receives almost three times more rain on average than London. However, with half of Brisbane's entire average monthly rainfall falling during just half an hour on Sunday, the scale of the deluge it is experiencing now is clear.



Why is the flooding happening now?

The underlying reason for this heavy rain is a weather system called La Niña. This natural cycle, which is currently approaching its strongest since records began in the 19th century, affects weather worldwide by causing sea temperatures in the eastern Pacific to drop while those in the west rise. Although the difference may be only a single degree Celsius and occurs off the coast of Peru – thousands of miles east of Australia – it can have a profound effect on the weather in Australia. Warmer seas lead to more rain, while strong winds drive tropical weather usually bound for the Americas towards Australia. Indeed, Argentina is also counting the cost of an opposite consequence of La Niña: drought. This weather system is the opposite of the better known El Niño, and can last for between three and six years.

Why is Brisbane suffering so badly?

The city is situated on the Pacific coast just a few miles from Australia's westernmost point, and Queensland's state capital has borne the brunt of the storms coming off the ocean. It has just had its wettest month on record. Added to this, the city not only sprawls around the Brisbane River and a number of smaller creeks that are all bursting their banks, but is also built on a low-lying flood plain at the end of the Lockyer Valley, which has been collecting water from the surrounding area and funnelling it into Brisbane. A so-called "king tide" means sea levels are simultaneously at their highest, and with the rain continuing to fall, the city is under siege from the water on four fronts. Brisbane could still have been spared the current floods had it not already experienced such a wet spring. This meant that the ground, which has been drought-ridden for the past few years, is now fully saturated and incapable of storing more water.

Rob Hastings

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most