A Brief Beginning
In 1974 a robust La Nina was occurring. An approximated 900 billion tons of rain descended on Queensland in the month of January alone.
It had been an unusually wet spring. By late October, most of southern Queensland‘s riverways were nearing the limit.
Cyclone Wanda was travelling south as a tropical depression with a connected deep monsoonal trough. As it progressed southward, it produced torrential and catastrophic rainfall in SE Queensland.
Ex Cyclone Wanda Vents Her Fury
In the early morning of 25 January, torrential rain began to fall on Brisbane and surrounding areas.
As Brisbane, Queensland’s capital city, planned for its annual Australia Day public holiday on 26 January, a broad monsoonal trough, associated with Cyclone Wanda, hung above the 13,500 km² Brisbane River catchment.
The slow-moving tropical rain depression dumped vast volumes of rain, flooding local creeks and the Bremer River branch upstream in Ipswich. Brisbane underwent three separate extreme rain events, with a record 600 mm of rain falling across three days.
On 26 January, Brisbane experienced 314 mm of rain, which was only the second recorded time that the medium monthly rainfall was surpassed in 24 hours and earned it the city’s wettest day in 87 years.
The capital braced itself for riverine floods. On 29 January, the river climaxed at 5.45 meters in Brisbane city, the most significant floods since 1893 (8.35 m and 8.09 m). The 1974 flood endures as Brisbane’s fifth-highest recorded flood.
Some outlying and flood-tolerant areas surrounding Brisbane were believed to have recorded over 1000mm of rainfall in a 3 day period.
From a meteorological perspective, it was a once in a 50-year weather event. Circumstances leading up to the floods only exasperated the severe weather event.
Brisbane Is Unprepared
In 1959, the Government had built the construction of Somerset Dam, a dual-purpose structure intended to provide water supply and alleviate floods. Much of the populace considered major floods to be a thing of the past.
Consequently, urban and industrial expansion flourished on the floodplain in Brisbane, significantly enhancing the flood risk. As floodwaters surged towards the city, major damage was unavoidable.
The intense rain fell, and onlookers watched in awe as the raging river rushed at 22–25 kilometres per hour towards Moreton Bay. Local publications, the Courier-Mail and Sunday Mail gave graphic descriptions:
“houses were swept into raging floodwaters,” “ripped off their stumps, steel walls of factories were torn open, and luxury craft were smashed to matchwood.”
The Brisbane River Explodes
Now more extensive than three kilometres across at its widest, the river had ballooned into its floodplain, submerged or consumed all in its path. Upstream, urban landscapes lay inundated to a depth of nine meters, leaving home and buildings submerged to roof height for up to 3 days.
Floodwaters cut motorways and railway lines and sealed the airport to jets. Only one bridge over the river continued to operate, streets became canals, and Brisbane grew isolated. Flooded neighbourhoods were left without gas, and electricity supplies were impeded with suburban substations, and the central power station engulfed.
Coal production, 40 kilometres upstream in Ipswich, stopped, with stored reserves left rain-soaked. Raw sewage from the immersed Ipswich sewerage plant and domestic toilets flowed into the river. Debris, chemical contaminants, dead fowl, cattle and horses drifted in the floodwaters, deepening gastroenteritis and tetanus dangers.
As the floodwaters subsided, they left behind films of disease-carrying sludge, and the rotten stench of mud and effluent saturated the air.
The 1974 Floods Bring Death and Despair
The floods claimed 16 lives in Brisbane and affected 13,000 homes in 30 suburbs—left swamped, submerged, inundated, or damaged. These figures are extraordinary in a metropolis of 712,500 people with 217,847 dwellings.
People cried and wept openly in the streets as they retreated to the shells of their homes, their possessions destroyed or lessened to rubble. With agricultural areas devastated and food left decomposing in the Brisbane Markets, the city faced food shortages.
Many industries, shops, and businesses struggled to recommence work, threatening the companies and their employees’ subsistence. The estimated damage reached a crippling AU$178 million. Parliamentarian Bill Lickiss declared the event as:
“a flood disaster that is unparalleled in the history of this State.”
Sixteen souls lost their lives, including twelve people who were drowned in Ipswich and Brisbane.
The initial flood-related deaths occurred at 11:20 pm on 24 January.
Hazel Dulcie Afflick (40 years) and Raymond Roy Davidson (29 years from Wacol) were killed in a head-on crash at Wacol. Both motorists were blinded by gale-force winds and heavy rain.
An army amphibious LARC transport was carrying out digging work at Bellbowrie when the vehicle hit immersed power lines that were still live. Captain Ian Kerr and Corporal Neville Hourigan of the Australian Army Reserve (formerly called the Citizens Military Force) were tossed from the vehicle. Bill Lickiss leapt into the water to save them. Hourigan died at the scene, and Kerr’s remains were discovered after the flood had receded. Lickiss was bestowed the Queen’s Gallantry Medal.
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A young boy, Shane David Patterson (of Yeronga), was swept from his father’s arms on the road over Oxley Creek in Inala and died.
In addition to those that drowned, Robert Adams (aged 56 years) succumbed to a heart attack through the evacuation of a caravan park at Newmarket. Aidan Sutton, a civilian working alongside the Queensland Police, aged 50 years, went to his home in St Lucia for his reading glasses and was swept away in the floodwaters. His body was discovered in a tree.
The floods should have once again questioned the sanity of building on a floodplain, presenting a chance to modify human behaviour. The parliamentary opposition and the city called for a public inquiry to investigate the widespread damage and avoid a recurrence of such devastating flooding.
But Queensland’s Conservative Government declined, committing instead to constructing a secondary flood-mitigation and water-supply dam, Wivenhoe. The over-reliance on structural engineering, rather than floodplain control to lessen the hazard, continued.