Loss in Grantham FLOOD DISASTER

By: Tony Koch, Michael McKenna

THE shock is fading, the ground has begun to dry and the receding waters are revealing the full horror that visited communities dotted along the Lockyer Valley on Monday afternoon.
With phones and power cut and simple survival taking up every waking minute since the deadly walls of water struck, tumbling down the escarpment from Toowoomba on its way to Brisbane, most in the communities of Grantham, Murphys Creek, Helidon and Postmans Ridge have had little idea of the magnitude of the tragedy.
It was only yesterday, as the army joined police in the search to find those swept away in the torrent, that survivors stopped to take stock of their losses and, in some cases, their luck.
The carnage is soul-destroying, and indiscriminate. Concrete slabs, where a home once stood on the lush hillside, lay covered in stinking mud just 10m away from another residence standing virtually untouched. Families that days ago felt blessed to have escaped the wrath of waters now sob as they scour the surrounding paddocks and creek banks for family photographs and clothes.
These valley's deadly creeks have given up some of those whose lives they snatched away -- but not all. Now the terrible uncertainty about who died, who may have fled to safety, and who was simply lucky enough to be away or flee to higher ground when the flash flood hit, is gnawing at the communities.
People remember other disasters, including the horrific Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009, but they say this is a horror of a different kind. No one really knows if the creeks of the Lockyer Valley will ever give up their grim secrets. The bodies of victims swept from their disintegrating houses or caught in their cars could have been carried, like their personal items, far from their homes. One body was found in a field yesterday, hundreds of metres from the nearest house.
Now the rumours are flying. Early yesterday, Queensland police told the media that another 11 people made up of two families from the 500-strong community of Murphys Creek, 96km west of Brisbane, were missing.
Four people had already been confirmed dead, with four missing, and no one could work out who these families were or where they had lived. A few hours later, the gossip was that they were from Postmans Ridge, 8km away. Last night, that community was frightened and bewildered after doing an informal headcount.
But no one is in any doubt that the death toll, which last night stood at 12 in the valley, including lives lost in Toowoomba, will rise. At least 61 people remain missing, with ``grave fears'' held for 12.
As police went door-to-door, tracing the trail of destruction that smashed through the picturesque Lockyer Valley, the search for bodies focused on Grantham, 25km east of Murphys Creek.
Murphys Creek resident Murray Imms said the community was only now waking up to the full horror of the flash flood and what was left in its wake. ``Mate, it is only now that people are getting to their homes and the scope of what happened is sinking in,'' he said.
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``They have lost everything and in most cases they are not covered under insurance because it is flood.
``We have people now living in their garden sheds, because their homes are unsafe or there is just too much mud inside their homes.
``Who knows how many are dead. We have done our best to check houses, but there are homes we can't get to, the community is just scattered. But we are strong and we are helping each other out and we will get through it.''
A convoy of army trucks rolled into Murphys Creek yesterday to set up camp. More than 100 soldiers joined the overworked police and emergency services workers combing the gullies and swollen creeks around the town, moving eastward. All were grim-faced, reflecting the work. Their job was to find the bodies of people who were swept away in Monday's torrent. Stockmen on horseback traversed the perimeters of the flood's high-water mark, clearly delineated by piles of debris, smashed household furniture, farm equipment and myriad plastic items.
They were to report on what they saw -- or smelled -- to the police teams following up.
For the past three days, police divers have concentrated on waters at the railway bridge over Sandy Creek in the heart of Grantham where, with the help of a large excavator, motor vehicles are being lifted from the mud and water. As they are placed on the bank of the creek, police check to see if there is a body inside. Yesterday, there was relief as a waterhole at the base of the bridge, a choke point for the debris washed into the valley, was finally pronounced clear of bodies, alleviating fears that it was a mass grave.
After the freak storm struck Toowoomba about 1pm on Monday, torrential rain in the Lockyer valley below fed a wall of water up to 8m that smashed homes and tossed about cars like corks, carrying all before it. There had been no warning. The torrent spewed into a bottleneck of gullies and once-trickling creeks..
Houses in the upper reaches of Murphys Creek caught the first and full impact. Survivors say the funnel of water then seemed to join the already swollen Murphys Creek, fanning out across the valley into a surging, brown tide that was, in parts, estimated to be 1km wide and up to 2m high.
It then pushed through to Postmans Ridge.
On the other side of the range, the huge volume of fast-running water met the headwaters of Lockyer Creek above Grantham, a town of about 150 people with just a general store, pub, fuel station, newsagency, a disused butchery and a couple of dozen homes.
There had been two floods in the past two months in Grantham, but they were confined within the banks of the creek.
Retired soldier Jim Findlay lives in a high-set home, 50m from the railway bridge and 40m from the quaint state school perched on the township's highest point.
``I was watching Sandy Creek where it runs east into Lockyer Creek and suddenly there was the roaring and the creek began to flow in the opposite direction,'' he said. ``I knew then something was wrong, and within just minutes there was a surge of water getting deeper and running faster as it approached, and pushing cars, water tanks and a steel shipping container before it. They were jammed up against the railway bridge by the force of the water and people -- men, women and children -- were running along the line to get to the school and safety.''
Local welder Kel Wood, who was at the Grantham Hotel with four friends on Monday afternoon, saw the wall of water coming, pushing along cars and water tanks. It was moving too fast for them to make a dash for home.
``We got around the far side of the hotel and all hell broke loose, with water rooster-tailing as high as the telegraph poles, and I estimate it was moving at up to 60kmh. It was 3m deep in no time and we watched a low-set brick house beside the pub absolutely implode, with three people inside.
``The roof collapsed and it was all swept away, and there is no way in the world any of them survived.''
By nightfall on Monday, more than 40 valley residents had been rescued but a further 40 were left on their roofs because the helicopters could not work after dark.
The rooftop rescues started the next day but efforts were hampered by storms across the valley that delivered more than 250mm of rain throughout the day.
By Wednesday, the reality struck, with police divers appearing in the town and search teams with cadaver dogs being assembled to search every house, shed and pile of debris.
Police were working on information that more than 50 people were known to be missing, and it is reasonable to assume that many of them had perished.