Australian politics, society & culture

Comment: The Queensland Floods

Brisbane boys band together in the floods of '74. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia. © Bruce Postle

Alex Miller

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I was a young stockman of 16 on a cattle station in the Central Highlands of Queensland in 1954 when the great flood occurred in the Fitzroy River catchment. The sky turned black–green and 12 inches of rain fell in the first hour. Before nightfall the valley of the Coona Creek was a raging river 2 miles wide. Fresh out from England then, I was soon caught up in the old Queensland reality that any stranger in trouble is to be met as a friend in need. For days I worked with my boss freeing the neighbours’ cattle from entanglements of destroyed wire-fencing and feeding their horses stranded on islands.

February 2011

When I first arrived in the central Queensland town of Springsure on the train the previous year the roads were impassable and I was stuck in town and unable to get out to the station. I had no money but the hotel down by the railway – it is still there – took me in and gave me bed and board and a free run of the bar for more than a week before I could get a lift out to the station with the mailman. Some months later, when I was droving a mob of bullocks into the saleyards in Springsure with the boss I told him I was going to the pub to pay them for that week. I still see him sitting his pied horse in the shade of a leopard gum. He spat aside and said dryly, “Yeah, well, they’ll never speak to you again if you do that.”

January’s tragic events prove once again that the Queenslander’s readiness to help a stranger in need is no empty myth. No one has ever wanted a reward for such help. They just want to know you’ll be there for them if they ever need you. It is a cultural given of that country; I never heard it questioned. My first experience of it at 16 made an optimist of me. I fell in love with Queensland and with humanity generally. I’d had my doubts about humanity before that, and I’ve had them since, but something of that experience stuck and my optimism is still with me. In ’74 another flood of a similar size to the ’54 flood devastated vast areas of south-east Queensland, including much of the capital, Brisbane, so the headlines and communal memories for that one were bigger.

Since those major floods of the ’50s and the ’70s numerous dams and levees have been built that have mitigated to some extent the destructive power of floods in central and south-east Queensland. Each of these great floods has followed on from an extended period of drought. Though vast and devastating and deeply tragic, today’s floods are not something new but a part of an old established pattern in the Queensland climate. The flood of 1898 was far bigger than anything we’ve seen in modern times. Indigenous people and old Queenslanders are familiar with these periodic weather extremes and tend to take them in their stride, getting on with the recovery when the crisis has passed as if recovery is just another part of normal life. There is an admirably laconic faith in the power of renewal in this attitude that seeks no acknowledgement but is private and invariably modest. And maybe, some would say, just a little old-fashioned.

So it is greatly heartening, though perhaps not surprising, to see that the cosmopolitan populations of contemporary Queensland cities, many of whom are new to the state, particularly in Brisbane, have vigorously adopted the old Queensland attitude during these present floods. Strangers in trouble have been met as friends, many people going unasked to the aid of others without question or hesitation, and often at considerable risk to themselves.

Indigenous people speak of the 100-year flood. Some even of the 1000-year flood, stories of which have been kept alive in their oral traditions. And despite global warming – I am not a sceptic – our records show that the old weather patterns have not noticeably changed in Queensland over the past 150 years of white settlement. Nor, it seems, has the spirit of the people who live there. The legendary readiness of Queenslanders to go to the aid of strangers during tragic crises such as the January floods is not unique, however, to that state but is surely a universal human response to the immediacy of common tragedy. We are moved by such humanity on an almost daily basis by the images of disaster and recovery on our television screens. In the abstract we humans can be a pretty mean bunch, but make a claim on our immediate sympathies and, whether we see someone in trouble in a blizzard on a motorway in Kent or in a flood in Brisbane, it seems we are able to call on something approaching the heroic within ourselves in order to go to the aid of our fellow humans. To witness this is surely to know something of the enduring good of our common humanity.

Alex Miller

Alex Miller is a highly acclaimed Australian writer. He is the author of Lovesong, Journey to the Stone Country, Landscape of Farewell and Autumn Laing. He won the 2012 Melbourne Prize for Literature for his “outstanding contribution” to Australian culture.
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Published in The Monthly, February 2011, No. 64