The soldiers slowly worked their way through the deserted streets of north Bundaberg, picking their path carefully to avoid the worst of the sucking mud and buckled tarmac.
A screen door banged and a stained curtain flapped on a rotting breeze.
Nothing else moved yesterday in the graveyard of broken things where only days ago the river surged against tin roofs. Pte Glenn Nash walked to the edge of a gaping pit, the size of an Olympic swimming pool, where a road used to be.
“It’s like the end of the world,” he said.
Closed to the public since the Burnett River burst its banks, locked down and deserted since residents fled rising waters in fear for their lives, this is Bundaberg’s exclusion zone.
The Weekend West, the first media crew taken into the worst-hit area of the flood stricken city by the Australian Army, can today reveal the devastation at ground level hidden behind the police barricades.
Sgt Brian Ford, from the 2/14 Light Horse Regiment, stared at a home that had been opened up like a child’s doll house, one wall entirely gone, the wrecked rooms within exposed to the unrelenting Queensland sun.
Two doors up he stopped at a vacant lot piled with debris.
“There was a house here,” he said.
About 1km away, the soldiers found the crumpled and splintered remains of the weatherboard building sitting in an intersection.
They moved through an apocalyptic landscape, going from house to house, forcing doors where necessary to check the inside of each ruined building.
“We clear the house, make sure it’s safe and there are no dead civilians,” Sgt Ford, 35, said.
Volunteer firefighters and council workers followed, examining homes more thoroughly for structural damage.
The soldiers passed dented cars half buried in neck-high drifts of sand where lawns and backyards used to be, boats beached on kerbs and sports ovals, household appliances and treasured possessions stuck in trees or jutting from the stinking mud that covered everything.
The destruction continued inside most homes. Broken furniture lay upended on carpets thick with sludge.
“It’s heartbreaking doing a search, going into a house, and seeing everything they own is just gone,” Sgt Ford said.
He shook his head when he saw the waterlogged remnants of a family photo album in a room with half a wall torn away.
Amid the chaos were little things that had escaped the water by chance — a porcelain rooster and a stack of plates on the top shelf of a house that had been totally uprooted, a photo of a smiling baby high up on a wall, a Yamaha motorcycle still standing erect beneath a house. Lance-Cpl Brendan Clohesy said it looked like some people had picked up and run halfway through doing something.
“It’s almost like people had no warning,” he said. “You go into some houses and there’s chopped-up fruit still sitting on the bench. It’s like a( nuclear holocaust.”
For Sgt Ford, the army’s role in Bundaberg was bittersweet.
Making homes safe so locals could return was a rewarding experience. Seeing firsthand the challenges they now faced on the road back to recovery was emotionally draining.
Up on a hill overlooking the devastation, locals gathered near the police cordon at North Bundaberg Primary School yesterday. They were told it wasn’t safe to return to their homes until 8am today at the earliest.
A couple from Brisbane, trapped in the area for six days, held each other and cried in frustration.
Sam Rizqallah, a local builder who had organised a food and shelter point at the school, said tensions were fraying and conditions in north Bundaberg deteriorating.
“We’ve got kids coming here with no nappies, no food,” he said. “We’ve got shop owners here charging $16 for three litres of milk. We need help.”
He said the army had begun to provide some of what was needed.
Josh Mathews, 6, said he was looking forward to going home.
“I miss my toys and my room and stuff,” he said.
His mother Kerrie Fidge, 38, was less excited. Like so many others who lived in Bundaberg’s exclusion zone, she didn’t know if her sons would have a home to return to.