On May 2, 2015, a massive storm cell hit the south-east corner of Queensland and caused some of the worst flash-flooding in the region’s history.
The east coast low caused havoc across the Sunshine Coast, with Caboolture copping the worst of the deadly cells, which dumped 360 millimetres of rain in less than 24 hours.
Five people lost their lives when their cars were swept away in floodwaters, and Deb Graham*, a 39-year-old Morayfield woman and her 60-year-old mother, came close to being added to the list of fatalities.
“I had just done the grocery shopping with Mum and we were five seconds from home,” Mrs Graham says.
The pair was caught in the chaos of flash-flooding – cars racing to get home and people running for shelter.
As they headed home, they didn’t realise the road at the bottom of a hill near their home was flooded and found themselves caught unawares.
Water hit their car and it began to float. Daylight was fading as the car quickly filled with water.
The electric windows were up and the switches ceased to work. Water pressure forced the doors shut and the car was sinking.
They found themselves underwater, in the dark and cold, fearing they were about to die. The older woman began to pray.
“Mum had got the groceries stuck in the door and miraculously, she got it open,” Mrs Graham says.
She swam around and opened her daughter’s door and the pair swam to the surface, leaving behind their car and everything in it.
They were swept downstream, helping each other stay afloat, grabbing at trees along the way, fighting for life for half an hour before help came when a man in a 4WD rescued them.
“Mum got trapped by vines and they had to untangle her,” Mrs Graham says.
“She took in a lot of water and was vomiting. It has taken up to recently to not be terrified of driving and I’ll only have cars with windows that aren’t electric.
“If it starts to rain, I have massive anxiety,” she says.
Mrs Graham and her mother were lucky to escape with their lives. Gympie man Neil Andrews was not so fortunate.
In October last year, the 67-year-old died when he tried to cross a flooded causeway and his car was swept away while his distressed wife, who was in a car behind him, watched on.
Peter Watson, the station officer at Maroochydore Fire Station, was one of the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services swift water technicians called to assist.
“We searched the banks and it was quite an arduous process, it was a very stormy night and an extremely remote rural location,” he says.
“We were out for five or six hours searching, and nothing was found.
“We decided to resume at first light, which was only a few hours away.
“We went back to the causeway where it first happened and started working our way down the back, with two teams on either side.
“The guys are well trained in reading hydrology – reading what the water is doing and why.
“There was a very subtle change in hydrology in the middle that indicated something was submerged.
“We sent a swimmer out who discovered straight away it was a car. It was only two feet under the water but couldn’t be seen.
“When we got it to the bank we discovered there was an occupant and had to go through the process of removing the occupant.
“We knew the family was present when we were doing the recovery – we were conscious of that and sensitive to that.
“It’s not good; it’s never something you want. The guys are very well trained, but it is rough on them.
“Your greatest hope is you will hear someone call out when you call out to them or they see the torchlight.”
In Australia, floods are ranked second (behind heatwaves) in terms of the total number of natural hazard fatalities since 1900, according to a 2016 report by the Bushfire & Natural Hazard Cooperative Research Centre.
An Analysis of Human Fatalities from Floods in Australia 1900-2015 found that since 1900, 1859 people in Australia have died in floods and most people have died while attempting to cross a bridge, causeway, culvert or road, either on foot or in a vehicle.
While most victims were capable of independent action and aware of the flood, the speed and depth of the water took them by surprise.
Most were trying to get home when they were caught out, though playing in floodwater was also a major cause of death, particularly for children and young adults.
More women and children died in floods due to the decisions of others – for example, being a passenger in a vehicle.
The majority of people on foot died during the day, whereas those in vehicles were more likely to die at night, when visibility was poorer.
While flood deaths have been declining since the early 1960s, those associated with motor vehicles are on the rise, particularly those associated with 4WD vehicles, which have increased over the past 15 years. Most drivers have been men.
“Our research has shown that many people simply ignore warnings and road closure signs,” the report says.
The research indicates that people drown in their vehicle as a result of the vehicle being inundated, being swept away, trying to escape a vehicle by attempting to swim or walk to safety, or by being thrown from a vehicle.
Vehicles can either be willingly driven into floodwaters, enter floodwater without warning, or be parked and suddenly surrounded by floodwater.
Explanations from motorists deliberately entering floodwater include not taking warnings seriously, not understanding the dangers, underestimating the risk, being impatient and thinking that they are invincible.
This is not news to Michelle Young. The director of regional operations for the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services north coast region, which covers Beerwah to Bundaberg, has seen it all and is concerned the ‘If it’s flooded, forget it’ message isn’t getting through.
She says as little as one centimetre of water is enough for a car to lose grip, depending on speed.
“We see this every season – more and more people attempting to drive through,” she says.
“People say they understand, but time and time again, people are not driving to the conditions, driving at high speeds at night in the pouring ran and they think, that’s only a few inches deep, I’ll drive through it.
“We’re finding about 50 per cent of 4WD and ute owners say ‘my car is prepared for this’ and they drive through because they think it can handle the terrain.
“They lose control of the vehicle and sadly, people lose their lives.
“The thing I find every time is, it was only a foot of water but it’s not necessarily the water, it’s the damage that’s occurred underneath they can’t see.
“The road could be washed away underneath.”
Ms Young is no longer surprised by some of the things people do around floodwater, like parents allowing children to swim in it.
One of the jobs she’ll never forget was a group of children playing in swift water in Brisbane.
One child, who was only seven, was swept against a stormwater grate and drowned.
“In Bundaberg recently, we had two young guys stuck on the roof of their vehicle,” she says.
“Just the roof was exposed, so they decided they would just sit there and have some beers. We had to send a swift water crew through.
“It was quite dangerous because if they had slipped off and got caught in the fast running water, it must end up somewhere and that’s usually a drain.
“You will be pushed hard against a drain and you won’t be able to get out.”
Cameron Herbert was a state swift water rescue instructor and now works as the technical rescue co-ordinator for the north coast region, in charge of about 50 swift water rescue technicians, most based on the Sunshine Coast.
He believes people are naturally more afraid of fire than water, but it’s the latter that’s more dangerous.
“The thing with swift water is it’s a very unstable and unpredictable environment,” he says.
“It’s probably the most dangerous environment. The power of water is so extreme and people underestimate it.
“In these events, it’s generally very murky so you don’t know what’s underneath.
“There could be trees, people could get their foot stuck between tree branches, a grate underneath or a man hole could be dislodged.
“There are dangerous obstacles underneath the water you can’t see.”
Mr Herbert, Mr Watson and Ms Young are all in agreement that what people don’t take into account when they choose to enter floodwaters is the lives of the rescuers that will be put at risk in the line of duty.
“During Tropical Cyclone Debbie, I had very strong words with a gentleman up there who was wanting to drive past me into floodwaters and we’d just pulled 13 people off the highway,” Mr Watson says.
“He had two females in the car. I said, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’. We’ve just pulled 13 people off the highway and you’re going to be next.’
“A lot of people in rural areas probably go through river crossings in 4WDs, but they don’t realise that in floods, the road can be washed away.
“It doesn’t take much for a car to become buoyant. Once the tyres aren’t on the road, they’re in trouble. People are complacent and they get their ambitions mixed up with their capabilities.
“The big message we always push – and it’s not a cliche – is, if it’s flooded, forget it. Have alternative plans and don’t take those unnecessary risks.
“By doing that, you put yourself in danger and if you’re lost, then your whole family suffers, but you’re also putting potentially dozens of other lives at risk to recover you or save you.”
Former civil geotechnical and environmental engineer Paul Fraser of Maleny believes the ‘If it’s flooded, forget it’ slogan needs a rethink.
“I think it’s really subjective and ambiguous,” he says. “They don’t quantify it. All they say is if there’s water over the road, don’t go through it.
“In heavy rain, there’s water over all roads. At what point do people make a judgement?
“There’s so many variables in terms of the velocity of the water across the road, the size of the vehicle, experience of the driver and the environment.
“I just think it needs to be a more complex message and smarten it up a bit, rather than having this broad, sweeping statement.
“If they’re serious about it, I think they would start to target the problem areas and sort those sorts of things out by putting culverts and better depth indicators in.”
Neither does Mr Fraser think the America slogan – ‘Turn around, don’t drown’ – is any better.
“I don’t know where you turn around to, because sometimes people get trapped between two streams.”
Mr Fraser recalls being stranded between two flooded rivers outside Dalby and spending the night in his car, rather than risk driving through.
“A lot of people would be concerned and say, ‘we’ll just try to get through’. We stayed there the night and the next morning the water had gone down.
“I know the limitations of my vehicle and it’s not worth pushing it. I just think there’s a lot of inexperienced people and the education isn’t good enough.
“It’s always in the back of my mind, that this message is not really good enough.”
Mr Watson disagrees.
“Unfortunately, we must always shoot for the lowest common denominator,” he says.
“I believe the slogan is simple and most of the time, that is exactly what is needed. A large number of our rescues are due to people entering obvious floodwater, similar to swimming in rips metres from the flags.
“The sad reality is, regardless of the message or publicity, we can’t legislate against poor decision making. Hence, the high demand for our service.”
*Name changed to protect privacy.
• Almost 30 per cent of Queenslanders have driven into floodwater
• About 20 per cent have thought about it, but not done it
• Any flooded road can be deadly and the size of your car does not matter. Any amount of water can float a vehicle away
• Once your car starts floating, there is nothing you can do
• Rising water can enter your car in seconds to disable electric windows and locks or stall your engine
• If you become stranded in fast rising water, stay calm and call Triple Zero.
Source: Queensland Government – floodwatersafety.initiatives.qld.gov.au