Inland Tsunami

On 10th of January 2011, the tiny railway town of Grantham was devastated when the worst floods in living memory struck the Lockyer Valley in Queensland, Australia.  Without any warning the town was hit by what residents have described as an inland tsunami, claiming the lives of seventeen people with three still missing.

Six weeks on Grantham resembles a ghost town. The streets are empty and the houses mere skeletons. Walking around one might be forgiven for thinking Grantham has been abandoned rather than struck by a natural disaster. The place is deserted; there are no people around, no sound of wildlife. The town is quiet, almost serene. It takes a closer inspection to understand the brutal force of the January flood. From the outside many of the houses appear almost normal but once inside the damage is clear. In a recently-built bungalow only the supporting beams remain, the plasterboard walls completely ripped apart by the onrushing water. Seeing the destruction it is hard to imagine how anyone survived that day. The house is just a shell now. Only a few posters on the wall serve as the lone reminders that this was, until very recently, someone’s home.

The small town of Grantham, with a population of 370, bore the brunt of the floodwaters and television images from here were broadcast across the world. Survivors speak of the floodwater as a living being, describing the enormous power behind the water that destroyed everything in its path. The carnage that is the remains of a child’s room is a stark reminder of the lives lost on that fateful day. Dolls, children’s clothing and mud are all jumbled into an almost unrecognisable mess. In one kitchen everything is swept away apart from boxes of cereal that still stand, precisely aligned, on the top shelves. This juxtaposition between calm and disaster add to the emotional tension that is ever present. Walking through empty houses, not knowing the fate of its residents, is quite unnerving. Seeing people’s memories, keepsakes and personal items buried in the mud is a humbling experience. Some houses have been cleared whilst others have remained untouched since January. Those that have been left untouched instils a riot with my imagination. Small items, even those as innocent as a toy horse, is capable of conjuring up images of that black day. There is a clear mark on the walls showing how high the flood waters rose, like tree lines they provide a record showing the different levels of the water.

Entering what used to be the Keep family home through the broken garage door, their car is wedged under it. The key is still in the ignition whilst a child’s shoe rests on the seat. The house is eerily silent and moving from room to room one is struck by how little has been cleared since the flood-waters hit. In one bedroom, a woman’s clothing is still neatly organised in the wardrobe whilst all around is devastated. A dark line just below the clothes rail gives a clear indicator of how deep the water was. The colourful dresses and shirts are in stark contrast to the monochrome scene of destruction that is all around. The stench from the light brown, mud-covered floor further serve to enhance this visual disparity.

Elsewhere there are family photos, furniture strewn about and, very poignantly, a teddy bear sitting in the mud. The sun is streaming in through the broken walls and the teddy bear is bathing in the early morning light. Bow tie skew-whiff, partly covered in straw and silt, it becomes a symbol for the catastrophe that unfolded here. This house was the epicentre of one of the greatest tragedies to occur that Saturday in January. Living in their dream home was Matthew and Stacy Keep and their young family; 5 year old Madison, 4 year old Jacob and 23 month old Jessica. Stacy’s mother also lived with the family and Matthew’s mother, by tragic coincidence, was visiting on the day the flood struck. Talking to Nine News a month after the horrific floods, Matthew and Stacy Keep describe the waters as exploding through the house without warning and all of sudden the whole family was fighting for their lives. Matthew and Stacy saw Madison and Jacob swept away from them whilst Stacy was desperately holding on to their youngest daughter Jessica. Matthew was eventually taken by the water and shortly afterwards Stacy too was swept out of their house, fighting to stay alive in the torrent of water. Ultimately, Stacy had to let go of Jessica or she would have drowned herself. Stacy speaks of the moment she lost Jessica forever. “I couldn’t move…the force of the water just kept coming. So at that point I didn’t know what to do and so the water just swept her out of my arms.” At this point Stacy thought her entire family was gone. Matthew, who at this point was stranded on a neighbour’s roof, feared the same. Miraculously though, both Stacy and Matthew survived as did their two older children, but Jessica and both grandparents died. Matthew Keep tells of his anger at the lack of any warning. Only the weekend before the whole town had been evacuated as a precaution. Why not this time? He feels it is the one question that needs to be answered. The maximum warning anyone had was 10 minutes and that was only because a family member called after hearing rumours that the river had burst its banks. Neither the local government nor the police issued any warnings. Matthew Keep believes that even 2 minutes would have been enough for him to save his mother and young daughter.

In the days following the flood, Grantham and its citizens were thrust into the media headlight as images of the tragedy were broadcast around the world. The initial rescue response was swift, now however some residents feel the government and the world has deserted them. At first patriotism was high and Australian flags adorned every building. Now the few residents who are hoping to rebuild their lives in Grantham speak of a growing frustration with insurance companies, the police and the lack of government pressure. There is anger that the police locked down the town for 9 days and prevented people from returning to their houses. One survivor likens it to a war zone. “To put it into perspective, more people died in those 3 hours than the total war dead of Australian troops fighting in Afghanistan. And where else in the world are people stopped from returning to their homes for nine days?” The Police blame looters for being forced to impose a cordon. But like one resident said, if he had been in his home how could there be a problem with looting? The enforcement of the cordon was very strict with the Police not letting anyone past whatever the reason.

“I wasn’t even allowed back to feed my dogs”, says Craig, one of the few people I’ve met who is intent on rebuilding his life here. He is angry at how the police treated the residents of Grantham as criminals and threatened to arrest anyone going beyond the police cordon to their own home.  Outside the house, his pride and joy vintage BMW is wedged at an impossible angle between two trees. He can’t move it because insurers still have not come to see him and take a damage assessment. Its deep maroon colour contrasts heavily with the kaleidoscope of green that surrounds it. The combination of colours and the position of the car create an almost surrealist picture. It is one that sums up the general mood here, as survivors talk about being in limbo. Waiting and hoping that the insurance companies will finally let them know what is going to be covered or not. There is a growing disappointment with the lack of government intervention. Many survivors want the Australian government to put pressure on insurers to speed up the claims process. However, this does not seem to be happening.

It is easy to see why residents trying to rebuild their lives here are frustrated. Nothing seems to be happening, the only help visible are the constant police patrols that circle the empty streets. One small stall belonging to a local charity, provides coffee and fresh water. When I visit, the only people using it are the police. I ask were all the people are; “They’ve all gone away, who would want to came back and live here?” is the answer of one of the volunteers. Inhabitants, some who had little to start with, have lost almost all their possessions. Several weeks have passed yet insurance companies still haven’t informed residents about when they can expect any settlement, or to what extent they will be covered. Most properties are in the same state now as just a few days after the floods. Craig, one resident determined to stay and rebuild his life in Grantham, echoes the feelings of many residents: “We are the forgotten people.”

 

Patrik Lundin