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Brisbane under water

Rain, hail and toxic sludge – this Briton picked a bad time to move to to Queensland.

We knew something wasn't right the day we arrived in Brisbane in mid-December. The rain was so intense that we had to pull over in our hire car because the windscreen wipers couldn't clear the water quickly enough. As soon as you stepped outside, it was as if someone had thrown a bucket of water over you - and then another one every second or so thereafter.

The sound of rain was loud enough to drown out the television and we had to raise our voices to make ourselves heard. This wasn't quite what we had expected from Australia and our friends back home couldn't believe it, either, judging by their texts and emails telling us how "lucky" we were to be enjoying the "glorious sunshine". It had rained every day since November; and there had been little change in the weather when, on 11 January, the Brisbane River finally burst its banks.

We had come to live here for a year while my wife, who is a doctor, took up a job swap - but it seemed we had shipped our three-month-old twins around the world with perfect timing to be caught in one of the country's worst natural disasters in a century. A few days after we moved in to Fortitude Valley, the area was placed on the flood warning list (we should have realised there was a clue in the word "valley"). Several streets would have to be submerged, we were told, when the authorities opened the Wivenhoe Dam to prevent it from bursting.

This, however, would be controlled flooding, not the "inland tsunami" suffered by nearby Toowoomba. Our apartment was on the third floor, which meant that it was well above the projected high-water mark. So we thought we would try to sit it out. We stocked up on candles, scavenged matches from a hotel, got hold of plenty of food and drink and filled the bath with water. We had helped to sandbag the local shops and we wanted to see it through. We might be stranded for a while if things turned out for the worst, but we wouldn't get wet, we assumed, unless we had to go out for a spot of looting.

Our neighbours told us we were mad before packing their 4x4 and heading off to the coast. As we watched men loading the contents of furniture stores into removal vans, we started to worry that they might have had a point.

It was looking promising on Wednesday morning: the rain had finally been replaced by hot sunshine. We put the babies in their buggy and went over to a lookout spot above the river, from where it seemed that the threat had been overplayed. Despite scenes of stripped supermarkets on television, our local shop was open and fully stocked.

Everything changed quickly. First, there was an evacuation siren; then our electricity was cut off. With no air con and the sun turning our apartment into a greenhouse, the adventure didn't seem such fun. We were told the power could be off for five days or more. We discovered that our radio didn't work on batteries, so we had no further access to news and information. Our neighbours had fled and the apartment complex was empty. We learned that the mobile-phone network was working on battery power and would soon be down, too. The corridors and fire escapes were in darkness.

It was time to get out. When a generous family of Brisbaners offered to let us house-sit their place in the hills, we accepted. As we left town, a lake was forming at the end of our street. We took a circuitous route out around the roadblocks and the new pools and tributaries that were appearing rapidly. By this time, some of the streets looked like canals.


Queenslanders have responded selflessly to the crisis. The local politicians - a world away from the slick, supercilious types back home - have mucked in and the press has positioned itself as part of the solution rather than the hype. In spite of the toxic sludge that covered parts of the city after the water subsided, the media have eschewed the scaremongering that their counterparts would have enjoyed in Britain, where a BBC reporter described the recent delays at Heathrow as "a scene from hell".

Australia's attitude has arguably been too positive. It was only after several days of round-the-clock TV viewing that we heard anyone on screen mention climate change, and it was dismissed as "too early to start talking about while there's work to be done". The Aussies wanted to get out and get things fixed. No one has been in the mood to apportion blame. Yet the trains carrying coal to feed China's industries are so long that it can take them a minute to pass by.

And there is a reliance on cars that would make even an American blanch. Some suburban streets here have no pavements. Many McDonald's "drive-thrus" will not accept customers on foot, but helpfully offer the number of a local taxi firm that will send a cab to chauffeur you to collect your burger.

I concede that we were deterred from buying a car only by the cost. Thanks to an enfeebled British pound, my old Ford Focus would have been worth slightly more in Brisbane today than I paid for it five years ago in London. But now, after the floods, we find ourselves able to afford a larger model because of another unexpected consequence of the weather. Next week, we're taking ourselves to a "hail sale", at which Queenslanders can pick up a cut-price vehicle that has been peppered by hailstones the size of golf balls. Some great reward for the hardships they have endured.

Nicholas Fearn is the author of "Zeno and the Tortoise" (Atlantic Books, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency