Floods a part of Rocky’s history

Published:05 April 2017

Dr Barbara Webster with her book about the Great Flood of 1918 in Rockhampton.

As Rockhampton lives out another major flood event, images of the city’s Great Flood of 1918 reminds us how history repeats itself, writes PRISCILLA CRIGHTON.

As Rockhampton residents watch the waters of the Fitzroy River rise and inundate its low-lying city areas, into backyards, businesses and homes, we are reminded that the city is no stranger to major floods. It’s simply déjà vu for many locals, many of whom survived the 1954, 1991 and 2011 floods that rose well above the nine-metre mark.

However, when early predictions of a 9.4-metre or higher flood were talked about late last week (it’s now been revised to around nine metres), it’s understandable that many residents were concerned. The fear of smashing the 1954 flood level turned people’s attention up the flood measure to 10.11 metres to the city’s Great Flood of 1918 – an event that has been framed and mounted on walls of historic and corporate buildings around the city.

According to Rockhampton flood historian Dr Barbara Webster from CQUniversity, the Fitzroy River, boasting the second largest catchment in Australia, is no stranger to flooding. Dr Webster has provided an insight into the wrath of this river in her book entitled Marooned – Rockhampton’s Great Flood of 1918.

Similar to this week's event, the 1918 flood was a result of a perfect combination of events. After a time of hot and muggy weather, on Sunday 20 January 1918, Rockhampton woke to blustery winds and intermittent showers. The squalls gave way to driving rain and gales. A cyclone had crossed the coast at Mackay, all but wiping out the city, and Rockhampton was experiencing its aftermath. The force of the wind prised off roofing iron, uprooted 50-year-old trees and tossed them about like matchsticks. Even large jacarandas and bunya pines at the Botanic Gardens could not withstand the winds. This is how Dr Webster explains it in her book.

“When the deluge began in Rockhampton, the Fitzroy was already in a state of minor flood,” Dr Webster said. She writes in her book that the city had experienced the flow-on effect from summer monsoonal storms in the western part of the catchment in an arc from Clermont to Emerald and south to Springsure. The cyclone topped the river system up with its record rainfall of 873mm for January, and in turn, produced the city’s highest ever flood since white settlement in 1856. In fact the river peaked twice, first on the 23 January and later on 1 February at 10.11 metres.

She wrote: “In this catastrophic event, eight people drowned and hundreds of houses and businesses were awash in Rockhampton and the then-separate township of North Rockhampton. Both were isolated for three weeks or more as floodwater cut railway lines and roads and severed water, gas, telephone and telegraph services.

“There was no early warning system like we have today. There was no SES or Red Cross, and no helicopters, heavy machinery or pressure hoses. All the same, people were rescued and given refuge, food supplies were maintained by boat and by slaughtering cattle pulled from the river, and streets and houses were cleaned up as the waters receded. And it was the locals who did

those tasks – police and special ‘flood constables’, aldermen and their wives, church organisations, council workers, and neighbourhood and family groups.”

In some ways, the flood victims of 1918 faired reasonably well; they were more resilient, more “stoic”. “They were used to looking after themselves in times of hardship with little help from government organisations,” Dr Webster explained. “Neighbours rallied to help each other on a daily basis, not just in times of disaster.”

Most homes in these early years had solid timber walls, unlike today’s plasterboard walls which suffer badly after water inundation and need to be removed and replaced. Most of the people who were flooded also had fewer material things to lose. Life was a lot simpler – a blessing in disguise as horse and cart and rowboat was the only way to remove people’s possessions to higher ground.

For those not flooded out, but cut off by waters, Dr Webster believes having a rainwater tank, wood stove and ‘chooks’ in the backyard helped to ease the burden of disrupted services and supplies. Loss of electricity wasn’t an issue as there simply wasn’t any, other than in some inner city streets. Gas supplies were cut to those who used gas lighting.

Similar to today, many were evacuated from their homes, taking refuge with relatives, church halls and schools. There were reports of sightseers, especially from ‘well-to-do’ parts of town, their boats causing wakes that made life worse for those still in their homes – an issue for us today too.

Dr Webster wrote: “Akin to this week’s flood events, news reporters, photographers and ‘cinematographers’ abounded and police warned children of the dangers of flood waters and intending looters to beware.”

Although this week’s floodwaters will threaten the city’s CBD, most local businesses will be spared devastation. However, back in 1918 water came up to the corner of East and William Street where Subway and the Giddy Goat now stands. This became the drop-off point for boats carrying people from the flood inundated suburb of Depot Hill. Water was also in Quay Street and Bolsover Street to the City Hall corner.

“With state and local elections a few weeks away, politicians weighed in on the event too. And, as appears to happen in many natural disasters, after a few weeks, the spirit of cooperation waned, bickering began over distribution of funds and contesting ideas were floated about how Rockhampton could be flood proofed,” said Dr Webster.

One recommendation after the 2011 flood event was to build a new bridge to the south of the city, which recently became a reality. The new Yeppen Bridge will prevent the city from being cut off from the South during floods – at least most floods – although another 1918 flood might test it.

Flood levees have often been talked about during flood events, but flood proofing Rockhampton will never be an easy task. Floods have been a part of this city for longer than white settlers can remember. Aboriginal people have told stories of mega-inundations where a “sea of brown water stretched virtually from Mount Archer to the Mount Morgan range”.

“When the first white people came here in the late 1850s, Aborigines told stories of huge floods. They used to retreat to the top of The Range because everywhere else was flooded. When one H Parsloe arrived in 1863, he saw flood debris five metres up in a tree outside the present School of Arts and Library. Elderly people told The Morning Bulletin reporters these stories back in 1918,” Dr Webster states in her book.

The resilience of Rockhampton’s people back in 1918 mirrors much of what we see today. Neighbours helping neighbours, community groups coming to the rescue and hard work by all to get business back to usual as quickly as possible. However, if there is something to learn from our city’s flood history, it is that we can be assured it will happen again.

Marooned: Rockhampton’s Great Flood of 1918 was published by the Cooperative Research Centre for Coastal Zone, Estuary and Waterway Management Brisbane. Copies are still available via the Rockhampton & District Historical Society and the Capricorn Coast Historical Society.