Friday, May 27, 2011

The 1974 Brisbane Flood - My Memories

Memories of my Suburb in the 1974 Brisbane Flood

Right: Jindalee after the January 2011 Flood.


In January, 2011, the Australian state of Queensland experienced disastrous flooding. I was holidaying on the Sunshine Coast north of Brisbane and watched on the television, as the city in which I had grown up, succumbed to muddy flood waters. A combination of water rushing from the flooded Lockyer Valley and overflow from the Wivenhoe Dam caused the city of Brisbane to be inundated with water just below the levels of a devastating earlier flood which occurred in 1974. Watching the flood waters rise brought back emotional memories for me. Jindalee, the suburb in which I had lived in 1974, had been devastated by the flood which occurred in that year. Although I had told my children the story of the '74 floods, they only fully comprehended my story as they watched the televised media coverage of the 2011 Brisbane flood.

The photograph, above right, was taken in Jindalee in January 2011, during the cleanup following the flood. In this blog, I am going to relate my memories of the 1974 Brisbane flood, as seen through the eyes of a teenager who was privileged to be a part of a team of volunteers who worked to help the suburb of Jindalee during a time of crisis.

The 1974 Brisbane Flood

In the latter months of 1973, South East Queensland experienced exceptionally heavy rainfall. In January of 1974 a cyclone named Wanda, moved toward the coast causing a deluge of rain for five days from the 24th. As always, the suburb in which I lived was quickly cut off from the Centenary Highway and the rest of Brisbane, as a creek flooded the only entry into and out of Jindalee. This was nothing new to the residents of the suburb who, unaware that dangerous water levels were building up in the Bremer and Lockyer Creeks, and that flood water was making its way towards Brisbane, regarded being 'cut off' as nothing more than an occasional inconvenience. I can recall being pleased that I had an excuse not to attend my part time job of music teaching, and I looked forward to a few days of leisure time.


On the morning of the 27 th of January, three days after the deluge of rain began, a gravel barge broke it's mooring up river from Jindalee. My sister and I were listening to the radio and heard the news. We rushed down to the riverbank near the high bridge which crosses the riv
er on the Centenary Highway, and watched in horror as the huge barge slammed into the side of the bridge. We felt the ground beneath our feet shudder as the barge collided with the two lane bridge and the extent of the structural damage was immediately obvious. With the barge lodged firmly beneath the upstream side of the bridge there was no choice but to dynamite and sink it before it demolished the bridge altogether. As teenagers, my sister and I watched all of this with the excitement of youth. We had no idea that a disaster was to befall Jindalee in only a matter of days.

Right: Photograph, Courtesy of the Qld State Library. My own photograph, taken at the moment of impact has been lost along with others that I took during the 1974 flood.

In the early hours of January, 29th, 1974, I was roused from sleep, by the sound of large trucks in the street outside my home. Wondering what was happening, I went outside into my front yard. I can still recall my disbelief as I gazed upon Bangalee Street filled with large army trucks and it seemed, hundreds of men in army uniforms. An officer shone a torch for me to enable me to look down my street and what befell my wide eyed stare, defied belief. I could simply not believe my eyes. Water covered what had been, only the evening before, many homes some of whose occupants I knew well. 

The officer explained to me that the flood had been caused by the creek and not the river and that they had been summoned to assist in rescuing people whose homes had flooded while they were sleeping. I don't think, looking back that anyone had any idea of the magnitude or sheer amount of water which was rushing toward Brisbane, or that it would bring with it a disaster on a scale which the residents of Jindalee had never known. There was a row of homes on the river bank which were not yet flooded but were cut off and left standing isolated between the raging river and the heavily flooded creek. With water on both sides of them, these home owners, many still asleep and unaware of any danger, needed to be rescued by members of the army. The Post Office gauge recorded that the flood waters peaked at 6.6 metres (22 feet) at 2.15 am on January 29th.

With the river rapidly rising and by now, water only several houses from my home, my family was instructed to gather a few valuables, to place everything in the home as high as possible and to prepare to be evacuated. Army trucks were evacuating as many people as possible. My father was away from home at the time and I recall my mother asking an army officer to help her to lift her precious Yamaha Organ onto our dining room table. My mother was a music teacher and the instrument was her pride and joy. My home was at the highest point on a ridge in Jindalee and by daylight the water was in the home below mine. The army was forced to abandon any more attempts to evacuate people since by morning the water was too deep for the trucks to re-enter the suburb. Help was gone and for the people of Jindalee, it was clear, we were now going to face the flood on our own.

 The scene which greeted me on the morning of January, 29, 1974. My home was on the left above the water level. The tyre marks on the road were left by Army Vehicles. The flood from the river was yet to arrive.

When my family moved to our home at Jindalee, we had not bought a house that my mother liked. My father had stubbornly refused to live in any house but one which he believed, would be high enough to survive a 100 year flood. At the time, my mother was not very happy with this decision. But my father was aware of something which was to stand our family in good stead.

 My great grandparents, Hugh and Sarah White, had owned a number of parcels of farmland which included the riverbank which is now the suburb of Jindalee. They had known well, the danger that the Brisbane River afforded the area. The land at what was known as Seventeen Mile Rocks had been severely flooded in 1930 and in 1841. Although my mother had not really wanted to buy that particular house, she was to thank my father for his decision, during this time of devastation in Jindalee. As the flood level rose perilously, the muddy waters only entered the rear of our property and my father, to his relief, was proven right. My family was one of the few fortunate ones in Jindalee, however, as much of the suburb quickly succumbed to flood water.

Right: A Map showing the parcels of farmland owned by my great grandfather, Hugh Eston White (marked in red). Map courtesy of The Centenary Historical Society.

In 1974, there was not the extensive media coverage that beseiged our television sets, radios, newspapers, twitter and facebook and which infectiously spread the word about flooding, as it did in 2011. Word of impending disaster did not reach the ears of Brisbane residents in 1974, in time for them to prepare for a flood of devastating proportions. Nor was there an army of helpers available to help families to remove furniture and possessions from their homes. 

As in the terrible 2011 Grantham disaster, a raging sinister menace, that was flood water, slipped into homes, in this case, in the dark middle of the night, taking families by surprise. 14 people lost their lives in nearby Brisbane suburbs and in the city of Ipswich. Jindalee at least was spared a death toll, because the creek had risen first, alerting residents of the suburb to possible danger. Because no one in Brisbane, realised the extent of the damage caused by floodwater in the outer suburb of Jindalee, for several days, there was no help from outside the suburb. Those families unaffected by the muddy river water, took it upon themselves to help others less fortunate.

Graham and Joan Nimmo, both primary school teachers at the Jindalee Primary School and leaders of the Uniting Church Youth Group remain among a group of unsung heroes for their untiring efforts to assist the people of Jindalee during and after the 1974 flood. 

On many occasions, the members of the Jindalee Youth Group, myself included, went on fishing or crabbing excursions in Graham's boat. We were frequent visitors to the Jindalee boat ramp, launching the boat for a day of water skiing or tobogganing. During the 1974 flood, Graham gathered a team of teenagers to go out every day in the boat with him to help the people of Jindalee (pictured above right).

I will never forget the shock of boating alongside power lines. That flood water could reach the height of the top of telegraph poles had never occurred to me. As we approached home after home to assist people 
stranded on verandahs and roofs, the full magnitude of what had happened to my suburb struck me. One photograph, which I took from the boat and which I have unfortunately lost showed a telegraph pole which had been washed high onto a roof and left there as the waters slowly receded. I watched from that boat as items of furniture which had been placed on roofs of homes on the riverbank, were taken away with the raging torrent. I recall vividly that we had to avoid being hit by a fast moving lounge as it went with the flood water. I couldn't help but feel for people who had lost everything in that murky, swirling current.

The owners of the local nursery in Jindalee set up a 'shop', a centre to provide food to residents of the suburb. Both of the shopping centres in the suburb were well under water so Graham took his boat out and we dived into that filthy muddy water to remove louver windows from a supermarket and swam inside to retrieve canned foods. Baby food was a high priority as in 1974 Jindalee had a young population. Looking back, I find myself shuddering at the thought of entering such sinister looking water, but young people have a high sense of adventure and I think that adventurous spirit, allowed us to ignore any danger. Graham and Joan were always mindful of all of their young charges and a were an inspiration to us all during that difficult time.

My mother contributed to the flood relief by cooking meals for many people. We had a gas stove and as there was no power, she had quite a heavy workload. We also had nine kittens born during the 1974 flood. Our cat, Hortense decided to give birth in my mother's wardrobe, however, she was so busy that she didn't mind at all. She placed a nice warm blanket in alongside her clothes for the 10 cats.

The Sinnamon family were pioneers of the 17 Mile Rocks area. Herc Sinnamon who still lived in one of the original farm houses which remained on dry land (only just) on the other side of the Centenary Highway, milked his cows daily and a group of us went with Graham by boat to collect the milk in buckets. With quite a few babies in Jindalee, Herc's fresh milk was much appreciated. Who would have thought that I would watch my first cow being milked during a flood.

Once word reached authorities about the extent of the flooding in Jindalee, we began to receive air drops of food and other essential supplies. Army helicopters made their drops on a small area of dry land. Graham took his boat to meet them and we carried the food to the nursery where it was distributed.

Joan Nimmo also played an important part in keeping the children of Jindalee busy during the 1974 flood, for which she later received a letter of praise from the Lord Mayor of Brisbane. Joan setting up a school in her backyard and providing fun activities such as painting and craft, not only entertaining the children but allowing flood affected parents the freedom to concentrate on cleaning up the badly damaged suburb. 

As the flood waters receded and the cleanup began, many people rallied together to clean metres of thick mud from inside homes. Because the Jindalee was a newer Brisbane suburb, the houses did not fare well after a week of flooding and relentless rain. Plasterboard walls and ceilings disintegrated and the damage was seen to be extensive. Every day people who did not know each other arrived at homes to help in the seemingly impossible cleanup. Jindalee buzzed with a spirit of generousity as everyone worked side by side to repair the damage caused by floodwater and mud.

When I visited Jindalee, this year, after the 2011 flood, I was overwhelmed by the familiarity of the smell of mud. I recognised that smell from 1974. Memories are often triggered by smells as well as sights and sounds. I don't think that I will ever forget the smell of mud in the homes in Jindalee following the 1974 flood.

Right: Burrendah Road as the flood waters receded and Graham's boat. 1974. Image Sharn White

Many people helped generously helped each other in Jindalee during the 1974 floods. My story is just one of many stories.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing the story of your experience. I was stranded at the Gold Coast for a few days, and when I came back to Brisbane I helped to clean someone's house at Graceville. It was absolutely heartbreaking. And yes, I do remember the smell!