A town changed forever by devastating tragedy
Those of us who grew up in Toowoomba always knew two things. Not much ever happens there and it does not flood.
Resting on top of the Great Dividing Range, any rain would run off steeply down the mountain to the east and gently over the Darling Downs to the west.
All that changed just after lunch on Monday, with chilling and terrifying speed. And with deadly consequences. So many lives lost. And so many families heart-broken.
The speed and force of the torrents that charged through the city centre was simply incomprehensible.
Even those who witnessed it struggled to take it all in. An inland tsunami, as it was described, was not far from the mark. Cars were washed away with dramatic ferocity. Sadly too, as we were to learn with disbelief, human bodies.
Within a few short hours the deluge and the devastation was all over. Toowoomba would be forever scarred.
The corner of James and Kitchener streets, from where two people were swept to their deaths, has seen its share of tragedy, being a major intersection where large semi-trailers rumble through to the west. But nothing, nothing like this.
And the city’s heart, near the Grand Central shopping centre which houses Myer, a cinema and dozens of shops, was where so many people were caught unaware by the speed and impact of the torrent of water.
Normally, Toowoomba’s two main water courses that trickle through the city are barely noticeable. The very fact that they are simply named West Creek and East Creek perhaps indicates the scant regard the city’s founding fathers paid them.
West Creek passes by a rugby league oval on (appropriately enough) Water St - a bone-jarring plateau of rock-hard red soil far removed from a lush flood plain.
And likewise, East Creek was usually little more than a stream that you stepped over. As a kid, there was never much joy to be had playing in them because they were little more than moving puddles.
Occasionally Lake Annand - a small ornamental lake in a park - would spill over after a summer storm, but that was about it.
Similarly, down in the Lockyer Valley - a vegetable-growing plain that you pass through to get to Brisbane - doesn’t have a history of flooding.
The now overwhelmed Lockyer Creek, where in past summers we’d camp in the searing heat, has been little more than a weed-covered river bed during recent drought years. Now there is that much water, no one knows where the creek starts and ends.
The full human toll of the disaster in the Lockyer Valley might take days to finalise. If it ever stops raining, that is.
The floodwaters have isolated countless farms. And they could stay that way for days.
Many people choose to live simple lives out of town on small holdings - in caravans, shacks and temporary homes. Some like it that way, others have bought a piece of land and live rough on-site while they build their dream home.
Some of these dwellings have been washed away. Who knows who’s missing and what level of devastation is yet to unfold in Brisbane.
And also to the west where towns such as Condamine and St George will bear the brunt of the unstoppable overflow.
Stock and crop losses will be crippling. Toowoomba is a hub for the Darling Downs and Lockyer Valley farming communities, so the impact will linger for a long time.
For many people, though, everyday life does goes on. Despite Toowoomba mayor Peter Taylor urging some people not to go to work, many did just that. It’s what you do.
Those who could help were out at daybreak helping to clean up or preparing for more bad weather. And come it will.
Toowoomba is a conservative, quiet place. That’s why many people live there. And never want to leave. I’ve always thought of it as Australia’s forgotten city. A quiet achiever maybe. Many interstaters don’t realise how big it actually is (population 90,000).
It’s a place of beautiful parks and gardens, and timber homes ageing gracefully on streets lined by camphor laurels. Maybe its easy beauty lulled people into a false sense of comfort.
Those who live there are immensely proud of the place and will pull together in this time of crisis.
Comparisons with the Black Saturday bushfires are perhaps inappropriate because all natural disasters are ugly and indiscriminate.
But spare a thought for all Queenslanders (because this has been unfolding for weeks across the centre of the state) who are suffering.
And give and help where you can.
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