Deluge cannot swamp spirit of Bundaberg
All hands to the pump: Surf Life Savers help evacuees. Picture: Lincoln Baker/ The West Australian

The river came for Frank and Joy Taylor on Monday night, flooding through north Bundaberg and rushing up their driveway, turning the street out the front of their home into a fast flowing tributary.

Mrs Taylor, 75, knew it was time to run.

"We had to pull down the neighbour's back fence to get out," she said. "We went to the high school. They said, 'You can't come in here, it's going under'."

Much of the central Queens- land city they call home had disappeared beneath the muddy water broiling out of the Burnett River by the time the elderly couple made it to Oakwood Primary School, where they were evacuated by helicopter to a makeshift shelter on higher ground.

Mr Taylor, 83, sat on a stretcher bed in a shed on Bundaberg showground yesterday, bandages on his legs and a stunned expression on his face.

The legs he hurt getting into the army helicopter that saved him. The look on his face set in after a friend who was rescued after them saw what had become of their home.

"All she could see was the roof," Mrs Taylor said. "We left everything behind."

Mr Taylor, a retired bus and truck driver who used to ride the highways in outback WA, looked at his wife. Their house was not insured.

"There's 70 years of hard work gone down the drain," he said. "We'll have to start all over again."

He glanced around at the sea of beds spread out across the floor of the shed, the sick and the elderly lying prostrate, the women holding babies and small children.

"I'm looking for my mother," one middle-aged woman told a nearby volunteer.

"I've heard they are setting up a quarantine tent for gastro," another said.

"I haven't seen my son for three days," Beverly Johnson, 85, said.

A helicopter bearing another load of flood refugees roared overhead. Mr Taylor patted his wife's hand.

"Don't worry about us," he said.

"There's people worse off than us."

In the drowned city of Bundaberg, the only thing running higher than the river is the level of compassion and concern local residents hold for each other.

Bruce Dalton, 44, cautiously steered his tinny down the centre of Quay Street, scanning the archipelago of tin roofs, pointing out sunken landmarks below the muddy waterline.

He motored past the wrecks of pleasure boats and trawlers in a surreal urban wetland, where signs and traffic lights bent like reeds. He circled a Caltex service station where the water lapped against lettering on the roof that read "clearance 4m".

Crouched in the bow, his mate Brett Jensen, 40, shook his head when he surveyed the watery remains of his restaurant, destroyed by flooding for the second time in less than two years.

"I'm young enough that I can come back," Mr Jensen said. "But there are a lot of people in Bundaberg that are ready to retire and they've lost everything."

Mr Dalton, a solicitor, has taken on the role of ferrying friends back to their homes and businesses to survey the damage. With many having lost every- thing, it has been a grim task.

The pair passed a couple of youngsters in a beat-up wooden runabout, Ryan Barratt, 20, and Alyssa Williams, 19, who had returned to their home to find their beloved dogs had been taken by the river.

"We cried when we saw they weren't there," Ms Williams said.

They'd expected the worst when they saw an entire house among the debris hurtling down the river a few days earlier.

While the fury of the flood abated yesterday, the water was still running high, turning houses into atolls and suburbs into islands.

One homeowner-turned-castaway, Neil Shaw, 59, remained trapped in north Bundaberg where food and fresh water was beginning to run scarce.

He had decided to make the most of a bad situation by casting a fishing line in his backyard.

"They were biting real good last night," he said.

Janet and Clint VanDerBerg were evacuated by the army from the suburb of Gooburrum on Tuesday.

Two of their children, Jack, 10, and Lachlan, 12, have a rare and life-threatening congenital condition that causes a vital protein in their immune system to leak into their tissue, causing them to swell.

Like hundreds of others in the evacuation camp at the showground, Mrs VanDerBerg said she didn't know what had happened to their home or where they would go next.

"People are panicking," she said. "Nobody knows what's going on."

Across the rest of the city, people waited for petrol to arrive, or the gas or electricity to be turned back on, or for loved ones to call with an assurance they were OK.

In the border suburbs between the drowned and dry homes residents surveyed the damage in the flood's wake.

Annette Nash, 63, walked across the slick of mud on the floor of her home of 37 years and said looters were now the immediate concern. Replacing walls and flooring were a problem for another day.

The receding water, still lapping at her back door, stretched out like an inland sea all the way to the horizon. "That was all sugarcane fields," she said.

Local farmer Gino Marcon, 53, said the damage to the agricultural industry was disastrous.

"Most of us (farmers) have suffered some sort of loss," he said. "Farming provides about 50 per cent of the jobs in Bundaberg."

Douglas Jensen, 92, shuffled into the shin-deep water in his front yard and eyed the ground floor of his home where the water had rushed through. The World War II veteran, who has lived in Bundaberg all his life, said he'd weathered at least five major floods.

None of them had touched his home before. "I've seen a few things," he said. "But I've never seen anything like this."

Poker-faced, he tugged on his Akubra and looked to where the river had turned the bottom of the street he'd lived in for 56 years into a canal.

"We'll clean it up," he said.

He got started on the garden, right away.


The West Australian

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