11th January 2011
Watching these videos gives you a feel for the devastation.
Sometimes in life, an event happens that changes everything.
December 2010 was a happy time for our family, both in the UK and Australia. We were looking forward to a big family reunion in the UK over Christmas and into the New Year to celebrate the wedding of my eldest daughter Samantha. The wedding was planned for 11th January 2011. She picked this date because she had been told it was the luckiest day of the century - 11/1/11 in hindsight that is debatable!
In the days before the wedding, we watched on Sky News as the Toowoomba tsunami unfolded. Our 20 acres of woodland in Millmerran, that we were clearing to build on. was nearby and we knew people who lived and worked in Toowoomba and so we were horrified to see the streets that we had walked down less than two weeks earlier filled with water flowing like rivers. Even after receiving calls in the early hours of the morning, on the day of the wedding, saying that our house in Ipswich, about 40 minutes from Brisbane, had been breached didn't cause us to think for a moment that our house could have been severely affect.
Our high-set Queenslander style house, situated on a hill, was an unlikely target for flood water. At worst we thought breached possibly referred to flooding on the paved entertainment/BBQ area or the garage which was under the house, but we could deal with that.
The wedding day passed with little thought given to the potential flood damage. We would be flying home in a couple of days we could sort everything out then.
Samantha, the beautiful bride and Sarah Jane a very proud mother of the bride
Breached - actually meant submerged!
If you would like to read the chapter from Glass Half Full that tells more of this story it's included in this blog post.
Chapter 15 Losing it all to flood water
“If I am what I have, and if I lose what I have, who then am I?” Erich Fromm.
I think I have always believed in fate, and the ideology that ‘everything happens for a reason’. However, trying to rationalise the ‘reason’ for the events during and after January 2011 caused me to struggle with this concept, and if there is a ‘reason,’ it had better be a good one.
Samantha was due to get married in Looe, Cornwall, UK on 11th January 2011. We decided to surprise her by arranging earlier than planned flights to the UK, so that we would arrive on her doorstep on Christmas Day. I do not know why we thought travelling so close to Christmas would be good idea. I think we, or I, became carried away with the romantic, chick lit notions of it all. My perfect vision was of Samantha, whose family lived on the other side of the world, answering the door on Christmas morning to find them standing there, just when she thought she would spend another Christmas missing them, etc. Well, I suppose I watch too many girlie films and read too many romantic fiction novels.
The journey got off to a shaky start when we almost missed our connecting flight in Sydney. Our flight from Brisbane to Sydney was delayed by a thunderstorm. When we finally arrived in Sydney, we had to make a frenzied run from the domestic arrivals terminal to the international departure terminal. With Nigel and Phillip in lead positions, and Jaime and I bringing up the rear, we were determined that we would catch our Malaysia airlines flight to London Heathrow, if we just kept running. At the time, we thought how lucky we were that we did not have to collect our luggage after the Brisbane domestic flight, or we surely would not have made it to international departures on time. Thank goodness for being able to check the luggage in for the whole journey from Brisbane.
With an exhausted sigh of relief, we took our seats, the last people onto the plane. It was not our imagination; everybody was looking at us with that impatient look of, ‘we are all waiting for you’. Hot and sweaty, we were targeted by disapproving stares as we struggled to put our hand luggage into the overhead lockers and take our seats. This was to the obvious annoyance of a young couple who thought their luck was in, with four empty seats that they could have spread out on for a comfortable sleep during the long flight, if we had not made it in time. However, as far as we were concerned the main thing was it was all OK: we had made the flight. The flights were long, and after watching multiple inflight movies and eating an enormous amount of meals provided, after a quick stop in Kuala Lumpur, we eventually arrived at Heathrow on time. It was Christmas Day and yes, it was snowing; the iconic white Christmas. The temperature was -2 °C at six o’clock in the morning, and coming from peak summertime in Australia, we were unsuitably dressed in tee shirts, cotton trousers and thongs (flip-flops) on our feet.
As we stood at the baggage reclaim area the realisation soon dawned that we had not been as lucky with our luggage, as we had first thought. Sadly, our luggage had not completed the journey with us. This was quickly apparent as the other passengers left and the dizzying conveyor belt circled in front of us, empty apart from some stray remnants of luggage tags and a broken pushchair that no-one claimed. Nigel and I looked at each other: it was like that scene from ‘Home alone’, when they realise that Kevin is missing. The sense of realisation, denial and then horror at the implications of what this meant hit us. This was not mere holiday luggage that had failed to arrive: it was items of Samantha’s wedding ensemble and suitable winter clothing, which we desperately needed at this particular moment, as we stood shivering at the lost baggage desk completing numerous forms. All of our wedding outfits, gifts, paperwork, etc., were missing in action.
Anyway, now that the reality of these travel plans was plain to see, instead of thinking ‘I can’t wait to see the look on her face’, I now thought ‘what a nightmare’. Nigel, in his own forthright style, reminded me that I was being over-dramatic, and in hindsight, it was not that bad, but at the time I really did not need any hassle on top of jet lag! At the lost baggage desk, they soon discovered our luggage was still in Brisbane. Therefore, we were given the princely sum of forty-five pounds each, as compensation for the inconvenience. Forty-five pounds - did they have any idea what the consequences would be if our bags did not arrive? Anyway, we were told that our bags would be delivered in the next two days. Bearing in mind it was now Christmas Day, the likely hood of the next two-day deadline being met was extremely unlikely. However, the wedding was not until 11th January so there was no need to panic, just yet!
Walking through customs choosing the ‘nothing to declare’ exit, when the ‘nothing to wear’ exit would have been more appropriate, we must have looked very suspicious in our limited casual clothing and sunglasses. My imagination got the better of me and I had visions of being called to one side and strip-searched, as we had no bags and few clothes to conceal anything. However, we were not stopped and we proceeded to the courtesy bus, which would take us to the car hire pick up point. Everyone around us was wearing thick coats, boots and scarves, while we tiptoed through the snow and ice, shaking from head to foot. I could feel everybody looking at us, but what could we do: they don’t sell winter clothes in the duty-free shop. Luckily the car hire documents were in Nigel’s hand luggage, and so once the car keys were obtained and we were inside the car, the heater was put on full blast. It remained on for the entire journey.
We drove cautiously through some treacherous conditions and finally arrived in Liskeard just after midday. Our plan was simple: I would call Samantha on her mobile phone, at the same time as Nigel would go and ring the doorbell, she would say hang on there’s someone at the door and I would wait on the phone for the ‘surprise!’ Pretty much that is exactly how our little surprise panned out. Lots of hugs, tears, and laughter, especially at us standing in snow and ice wear summer clothes. Jaime and I quickly took advantage of Samantha's wardrobe and its contents.
Now this was Christmas as I remembered it. Christmas day television on in the background, dinner being cooked with anybody willing to help doing so, and Jaime eager to open a present, any present, even if it was not for her. We made telephone calls to the other children and our schedule of visits and pick up, etc. was made. We were happy; we were going to see all of the children over this Christmas and New Year period. It felt awesome, and the memories of the last two Christmases were now deeply buried.
The Christmas and New Year period with all of our children, in the lead up to the wedding, was amazing, having not seen them altogether for such a long time. As a big family group, we took over two, eight-berth caravans at the holiday resort in Looe where Samantha was working. The day after New Year, we moved to a holiday house on the sea-front with four bedrooms and plenty of space for the wedding day preparations.
On the days leading up to the wedding we had watched on Sky news the horrific images and tragic news footage of the inland tsunami that washed through the country town of Toowoomba. It was approximately an hour’s drive in each direction from our woodland in Millmerran and our house in Ipswich. We wondered about people we knew from Millmerran who worked there or visited regularly to see family and friends. As the tsunami was confined to the flood plains, we were just grateful that our properties were not near enough to be impacted.
In the early hours of the morning, 11th January 2011, we were awake after having missed calls on both of our mobile phones. They were numbers we didn’t recognise so we assumed maybe they were the travel insurance people checking that our luggage had arrived, which it had, four days after our arrival, thank goodness. Drinking tea and going over the schedule for the day’s events, we were now watching the Brisbane floods on Sky news. A sense of horror mixed with disbelief surged through us as we watched images of cars floating like boats through streets we had driven down. People were crying and desperately trying to check on the safety and whereabouts of family members. Alarm bells started to ring in our heads and panic ensued. Working out that the missed calls were from somewhere with a Brisbane telephone number, our immediate concern was then for Dave and Buster who were in kennels there. A frantic phone call reassured us that they were unaffected and that all was well, they kennel staff told us that John had called them from Tasmania after watching the footage on the national news. Next, we called to check on the car, which was at the Brisbane airport parking. A call them to confirmed that all cars were safe and unaffected. We felt somewhat reassured, but still anxious. However, as it stood as far as we knew, all was well in Ipswich, although we felt a deep sadness for the people we were watching on television struggling to retrieve their precious personal possessions from the dirty floodwater. While we had been frantically making calls, another caller was trying to get through to us. This call was not good news. A friend called to say Jacaranda Street in Ipswich had been, in parts, affected by floodwater, and that our property had been ‘breached,’ but that she could not tell us more than that at this stage as the area was cordoned off.
What does that even mean, ‘breached’? We were told it would be at least forty-eight hours before the State Emergency Service (SES) crews would let homeowners in to assess the damage, and so we decided, as there really was nothing we could do, that it would be fine. Positive as ever, I convinced myself that they probably meant the garden had been breached. Our house was on a corner plot and on a hill, nowhere near the River Bremer that had apparently burst its banks, so there was no way the house could have been ‘breached.’ No dramas, as they say in Australia. We would continue with the wedding day and we could deal with whatever had happened when we got home. We had plans for the entertaining area in the garden anyway, so this would be good excuse to bring these plans forward. We could not share our concerns or worries with anyone, except each other, not on Samantha’s wedding day.
Wedding Day celebrations
The wedding day was spectacular. Samantha looked like a princess and our girls, Clair, Molly and Jaime were beautiful bridesmaids. Our sons, Phillip and Robert looked like proper gents in their smart suits. We felt so proud; it was such a special day with so many close, personal moments between mother and daughter, and stepfather and stepdaughter. Samantha’s biological father had refused to attend her wedding, as he had not been given the role of walking her down the aisle. Bearing in mind their quite distant relationship, I think she made the right decision, but it was still disappointing for her that he did not attend.
Sarah Jane the proud mother of the beautiful bride Samantha
Even though it was January, the sun shone. There was still snow in places and the roads were icy. This was a slight problem for the ladies of the wedding party. In stiletto heels, trying to walk downhill on ice was impossible. Therefore, we had to take off our shoes and change into our trainers. Holding onto our shoes and the stone walls we made our way cautiously to the waiting wedding cars. This spectacle on a cold winter’s morning was highly amusing to the many onlookers that gathered in the small streets of Looe. For anyone who knows the small seaside town of Looe, the lanes are small, steep and winding. Not all lanes are accessible by a full size car, as they were originally built for carts to convey fish from the harbour; therefore walking was the only option. Nigel said afterwards that it was a very special moment, walking Samantha down the steep lane to the car, just the two of them, arm in arm. They have a very close bond, which was clear for all to see that day. Despite the nerves of being in the spotlight, they both smiled all the way down the aisle, with an occasional caring glance to each other to make sure everything was OK. A local singer, who was a close friend of Samantha, was singing ‘Ave Maria’. It was truly beautiful, and the sound track accompanied the CD of photographs afterwards. I was crying, as most mums do at this point in the proceedings. My first born, my little girl who was already a woman was now going into the care of someone else. A hard concept when your gut tells you something is not right, but you have nothing to base that instinct on.
At the wedding reception our family and friends, some of whom we had not seen for a few years, were all together and most importantly, all of our children were together in the same room, dancing, laughing and having fun. As a mum, I was so happy and proud of our big family. As I hugged Doug as they left for their honeymoon night at a local hotel, I told him to take care of my little girl. He said he would, and I believed him.
A few days later, when all the tearful good byes to the children had been said, we started our long journey home to Australia. As we started the arduous, thirty-six hour flight schedule, which would enforce sleep deprivation, all we could think about was what we would find when we got back. As the final flight landed in Brisbane, a sense of impending doom filled my thoughts. I do not know why, suddenly, when I had felt positive up to this point about the whole situation since we had received the telephone call. I think it was the reality of landing and going to see for ourselves what ‘breached’ meant.
We collected our car, and drove to collect Dave and Buster from the kennels which was in one of the nearby suburbs. As we headed home to Ipswich to start a new year, we had no idea what an impact the flood would have on the rest of our time in Australia. The drive from Brisbane to Ipswich is usually only forty minutes, but parts of the journey were like driving through news footage of a disaster zone. Rightly so, because this was a huge natural disaster. The severity varied from area to area, some places were almost unaffected whereas others displayed the remains of flood invasion. Piles of debris from local businesses and homes had been shovelled to the side of the road, ready for the council to collect and dispose of. Despite the intensity of the damage, as we drove past we could make out the remains of pictures, photographs, items of furniture, the remains of people’s lives reduced to a pile of waterlogged debris. It was heart breaking.
‘Breached’ was the word that had been used to describe the condition of our property. What this actually meant was ‘submerged up to the level of the roof’. Our home, a high set Queenslander set on a corner plot on a hill, made it hard to imagine or visualize what the house and garden would have looked like under water. The evidence of the flood was apparent immediately, with food packaging on our roof and the silt embedded tidemark around the house where the water had settled just under the facia boards. It was like a dirty scum ring left in the bath after a teenaged boy had used it. The windows, fly screens and doors were either missing or hanging off their hinges from where the exiting water pressure had forced them open. The steep concrete driveway was thick with mud and silt, and the SES ‘Danger Do Not Enter’ tape surrounded the house. A large crack in the concrete and brickwork on the left side of the building indicated why it was not safe to enter. Against my advice, Nigel carefully made his way up the driveway and walked around to the back of the house, as Jaime and I remained in the car. He found remnants of dog bowls and bedding squashed against the wire fence by the force of the water. Many pieces of broken kitchen units, wood, metal and items of unknown origin littered the ground. He would not tell me in detail what else he saw and I know why. He did not want me to have the image of things that were personal to us, from the house that we renovated into a home, destroyed in such a callous way by Mother Nature.
The entertaining area was thick with mud, and as Nigel carefully made his way back to the car, the look of shock, sadness and disbelief was obvious. We sat in silence in the car, looking down the street that was now unrecognisable: this felt surreal. The normally bustling street was quiet and empty, with just piles of debris to acknowledge what had happened there in our absence. In a state of disbelief, but thinking on our feet, we decided to head to the caravans and the motor home in Millmerran woods where we at least had somewhere to go. Many people were at the mercy of the rescue centres set up by the Red Cross and Salvation Army. We did not want to take advantage of the resources they made available when others more in need had nowhere else to go. It was mid-summer, the temperatures were in the high thirties, so living exposed to the heat and humidity would be intense, but we had a good set up there and we knew we could manage.
The drive back to the woods was horrific in its own way, due to not only our shocked state of mind, but also the sights we saw on the way. The large expanse of fields, which should have been filled with crops, had been flattened beyond recognition. Australian farmers are sadly used to having crops destroyed by bushfires and drought. They support each other and their communities to rebuild and restart their businesses, but this was different. This was floods and it was not just the farmers affected, it was the whole community. Lives had been lost, including a teenaged boy swept away from the roof of a car in Toowoomba because he made the rescuers take his mum and younger brother first. How do people recover from this type of disaster? It was a very humbling experience and put the worries that we may have had into perspective.
As we approached Toowoomba, we feared for what we might see. Again, the tidemarks on the buildings told the tale of destruction. We could not bear to stop; we did not want to see. Only an hour away from Millmerran, we now had to consider if our caravan and motor home had been affected. How widespread had the forces of nature been? Did we have anything left? Fortunately the only damage to our caravans was from sand that had blown or been washed through the camp, nothing that could not be cleaned up or moved. It did make me cry to see that the rain from the storm that had accompanied the Toowoomba tsunami, had leaked into our storage area where some of our personal effects were stored. Nigel quickly reminded me that there were many much worse off than us. What mattered now was that we had shelter, we were safe and we were together. So there it was, that at a time of indecision prior to leaving for the wedding, things had happened to take some of the decision-making out of our hands. From considering renting, selling and living between the two properties we would now lose them both. The bank in approximately nine months’ time would repossess them, because the mortgage on Jacaranda Street was secured on the woodland in Millmerran, as it was an asset. The process would be slow, painful, frustrating, and bureaucratic, but we were only one family out of many who would suffer at the hands of Mother Nature. We were lucky, if anyone can be considered lucky in these circumstances: we lost property and material goods, but there were people who lost members of their family, suffered miscarriages and stillbirths and/or lost their pets.
During the two weeks that followed, I think we were in shock, or at least I was. Disbelief, shock, anger, frustration, despair, the list could be endless, and ultimately useless. The range of emotions and feelings are without meaning, when you feel as if you have lost everything you have worked so hard to achieve. It was as if it was not happening to us, that we were spectators watching a television reality show. However, time and banks wait for no-one to recover from shock, and so we had to start to try to salvage the remains of our life and decide what to do, and where to go next.
Glass Half Full: Our Australian Adventure available from my author website:
For the whole story try the boxset: