After the flood

In August, the RACQ Foundation sent a team of 16 RACQ volunteers to 12 Julia Creek stations to assist the community in their efforts to rebuild and recover following a once-in-a-lifetime flood. The Road Ahead’s Jessica Wilson was one of them.

The view from the 4WD was bleak as our team of four RACQ Foundation volunteers drove along dirt roads to the Julia Creek cattle station that was to be our home for the next five days.

I’d read about how the drought and flood had affected Queensland’s farmers, but nothing could have prepared me for the devastation that was now part of everyday life for this outback community.

The red dust in the air and parched, cracked earth that lay ahead made it hard to believe that just six months ago the region was devastated by one of the worst floods in Queensland history.

Decomposing cow carcasses dotted the barren landscape, some of more than 500,000 cattle that were killed by the unprecedented flood water that ravaged north-west Queensland.

A kangaroo carcass high in the boughs of a prickly acacia tree, an invasive species and what seemed to be the only plant that survived the flood, a tell-tale sign that the road we’re driving on was recently metres underwater.

Arriving at Wyaldra Station the feeling of remoteness was overwhelming. Looking out over the dusty plains, there was nothing but concrete-like craggy earth between me and the horizon.

It hits home how isolated the family that lives at Wyaldra is and how self-reliant they need to be to survive – if your car breaks down out here you can’t just call RACQ Roadside Assistance, you’re stranded.

Our hosts Graham, Denise and 11-year-old Jordan graciously welcomed us into their home, a single-story house on stumps that had been completely refurbished after being gutted by the flood.

Graham, a tall, stocky man with a larger-than-life personality, regaled us with the family’s experience of drought and flood.

He told of the elation of hearing the raindrops dancing on the tin roof following seven years of drought. Of talking optimistically about the kind of year the rain would bring and how their struggles had been worth it.

Of realising, after four days of constant, unrelenting downpour, that they may be, in Graham’s words, “up the creek without a paddle”.

Over the next week the rain continued to fall, drenching the parched landscape in more than 580mm of water in just 10 days, equivalent to three years’ worth of average rainfall.

Graham described the panic of trying to save important items and documents from the rapidly rising flood water, sustaining life threatening injuries, and the moment he realised he would need to be rescued from their isolated property by helicopter.

Julia Creek farmers who had kept their cattle alive for seven years through one of Australia’s worst droughts, watched as more than 500,000 head of cattle were wiped out across north-western Queensland in a matter of days.

Many of the cattle that didn’t drown in the floodwater succumbed to the elements, with the usually 40oC temperatures plummeting to as low as 17oC in the days after the rain stopped.

Graham described being flown home by chopper to bury the bodies of hundreds of deceased cattle and salvaging the family’s belongings while desperately trying to keep the surviving stock alive.

Denise, a quiet, petite woman who is clearly the boss of the household, told of the heartache of clearing the corpses of poddy lambs, hand-reared by 12-year-old daughter Isabella (who was away at boarding school), from underneath the house and breaking the news to the children that they had lost everything.

With a wry smile, Graham quipped about finding bits and pieces of their belongings when out mustering cattle. We soon found out that this was not a joke, unearthing a shell mobile lovingly handmade by a kindy-aged Isabella and other household debris, including a cooking pot and a hammer, from the compact dirt behind the house.

Graham told of the first muster after the flood and how the elation of finding surviving cattle quickly turned to bitter disappointment when they discovered the cattle belonged to other graziers and had been washed on to his station by the rapidly flowing flood water.

Over the next five days our group of RACQ Foundation volunteers set to work reconstructing a path between the main house and another building used as Jordan’s School of the Air classroom, pulling up damaged fence posts, collecting debris and rebuilding the garden beds around the house.

The work was physically demanding and the hot sun unrelenting, a far cry from our comfortable airconditioned office in Brisbane, but it was worth it to see Denise’s smile as she saw her much-loved garden slowly return to its former glory.

Despite their personal devastation, Graham and Denise are optimistic for the future and do what they can to help their community. On our first night we joined them at the Julia Creek Caravan Park to cook a Bush Dinner to raise money for the local pony club, serving a BBQ to more than 100 grey nomads.

As Denise reminded us, you can’t change what has happened, but you can be grateful for what you still have and help others to get back on their feet.

She’s thankful for the support the family has received from the Queensland community and firmly believes in paying it forward.

As Graham said, “We’re Queenslanders, we help people. It’s just what you do”.

Founded in 2011 after the south-east Queensland floods, the RACQ Foundation has distributed more than $8.8 million to 230 Queensland community groups and organisations affected by natural disasters. Members can donate to the RACQ Foundation at any RACQ branch.

Photos by Jessica Wilson, Michael Tyler and Denise Abdy.