Twenty-two lives lost, tens of thousands cut off and more than 10,000 homes ruined as Queensland is engulfed by one of the state's worst floods. With stoic courage and good old Aussie resilience, the residents of 20 towns rose to meet the disaster. However, as the muddy waters recede, the cost of the devastation is being measured in billions. Sue Williams reports.
State in crisis
The great Aussie spirit lives in Queensland. Groups of families, facing ruin after being evacuated from their own flood-ravaged homes, worked tirelessly to fill sandbags to protect the homes of others. Their selfless generosity brought a lump to the throat of Premier Anna Bligh on her tour of disaster-hit Rockhampton and other towns. "It's just heart-breaking to watch this," she told The Weekly. "But then, in the midst of all this extraordinary hardship, there's such a remarkable resilience and generosity. It's going to be a long, long road to recovery, but there's incredible spirit here."
Such scenes were played out every day as large swathes of Queensland battled to survive the worst floods in living memory, with 10 lives lost and the volume of water in the south-east of the state alone enough to cover the whole of new South Wales.
In Rockhampton, the worst-hit town, where floodwaters peaked at 9.2 metres, and more than 500 people were evacuated, three times the volume of water of Sydney Harbour rushed past in the swollen Fitzroy River every 24 hours. More than 1000 homes were inundated, thousands more cut off, more than 20 towns and communities hit and over 200,0000 people affected by the flooding of an area the size of France and Germany combined. Now, as murky waters leave Rockhampton, Bundaberg, Theodore, Emerald and St George, the brave locals are sweeping up mud and snake-infested vegetation, and most of them are vowing to rebuild their lives.
Where the water is going
As water levels finally fell in Rockhampton, with vast volumes gushing out into the sea, marine scientists began to fear for the health of the Great Barrier Reef from the sheer onslaught of pesticides, fertilisers and soil rushing into the ocean. Inland, with the rest of the water flowing south, pushing over the border into New South Wales and rushing into the Darling River on its way to the head of the Murray, South Australia put low-lying areas on high alert.
The damage bill
The cost of the floods has been put at more than $5 billion and possibly as high as $9 billion. AMP chief economist Shane Oliver says more than $6 billion worth of exports alone have been lost, mostly in coal as mines were flooded and 40 had to be shut down. Since Queensland supplies half of the world's coking coal – mostly to China and India – and 40 per cent of its thermal coal, power prices are now expected to rise even more, with the volume of steel production around the world also predicted to be hit.
Up to $1 billion worth of agricultural produce has been lost, too, according to Brad Pfeffer of the Queensland Farmers' Federation. "It's hard to assess just how much until the waters finally go and reveal what's lying underneath," he says. "But about 80 per cent of the state's farms will be affected in some way, with stock lost or missing and crops ruined. Farmers are resilient people, but we've had calls from some in tears."
Prices of some fruit and vegetables have already almost doubled in many places, the cost of milk has risen and sodden paddocks will delay planting for next year, forcing prices up through winter, too. "There's such widespread devastation, there'll be a flow-on even into next year," says Growcom chief executive Alex Livingstone.
Read more of this story in the February issue of The Australian Women's Weekly.
Video: A look at Australia's worst natural disasters.