Blair Charlton knows about storm recovery – she won an award for her part in the New Orleans clean-up after Hurricane Katrina – but there’s something about the floods that swept across northern New South Wales this week she finds especially challenging.
It’s the stink, says the 75-year-old as she drags damp and splintered furniture and house fittings to her sodden Gunnedah yard.
“Aside from writing off my garden I’ve worked two years on, there’s now the stench,” she said.
“The poor chickens — I had to wade down the [yard] to get them out. I could see a couple float away.
“Their bodies are still down there. I haven’t had the heart to look yet.”
Ms Charlton and her Gunnedah neighbours are accustomed to dust in their homes after years of low rainfall in the state’s north-east but that changed in a near-biblical way last week as Australia’s wettest November on record culminated in extraordinary rain totals across the eastern states.
Floodwaters destroyed at least 20 homes in Gunnedah and damaged up to 100 as the Namoi River reached a peak of 8.61 metres, surpassing the 1974 flood record of 8.53 metres.
After a stormy, wet and cool start to spring that delivered intense supercell hail storms, flash flooding alerts and overflowing dams from Tasmania to South Australia and Queensland, it was no surprise when the Bureau of Meteorology on November 23 officially declared this would be another La Niña summer.
Then the rain really set in and, in parts of NSW and Queensland, did not stop for days.
Maryborough, in Queensland’s Wide Bay region, broke a 152-year record with 310 millimetres of rain for the month while central Queensland cattle property Carnarvon station received 356 millimetres — the most recorded there in November for 70 years.
The downpours caused widespread flooding in areas that until recently were in drought.
Reddish-brown water entered homes and businesses along Queensland-New South Wales border country, with residents of Inglewood, Toomelah and Boggabilla ordered to evacuate in the past week.
Just as farmers were about to bring in crops worth celebrating, the deluge submerged them, forcing some growers to revert to hand picking where it was too wet to harvest with machinery.
La Niña’s storming encore
It’s eastern Australia’s second summer in a row to be dominated by La Niña, the system associated with wetter-than-average conditions for northern and eastern Australia and the Bureau of Meteorology is expecting it to persist until at least January, meaning the already-soaked regions could be in for more heavy rains.
And the extreme start to the season has caught the attention of climate watchers.
University of Southern Queensland climate scientist Christa Pudmenzky said the conditions were reminiscent of climate patterns in 2010-2011, which resulted in devastating floods, with multiple fatalities in southern Queensland.
“This event is not as severe as 2010-2011,” Dr Pudmenzky said.
“But it is important to keep an eye on it.
But in disheartening news for regions just coming out of drought, she said there was no guarantee of continuing rains after January.
“At the moment, everything is wet but … maybe next year or a year after, we might slowly go back into drought,” Dr Pudmenzky said.
“We always have to be prepared for the future.”
World Meteorological Association climatologist Roger Stone told the ABC more research was urgently needed into how climate change would affect future La Niña and El Niño systems.
“We really need to know more about how those systems are going to interact before we can tie down what the future’s going to be for Australia,” he said.
Dam inflows inconsistent
Dams across the New England North West region in NSW are full to overflowing and SES Western Zone superintendent Mitch Parker said water releases were being closely monitored.
“Previously we had some reserves for those catchments in those dams and, unfortunately, we don’t have that anymore,” he said.
“We’re working with Water New South Wales and keeping a close eye on those.”
Coolmunda Dam, near Inglewood in southern Queensland, where evacuation orders were issued last weekend, was still spilling megalitres late this week.
But it’s a different story on the other side of the Great Dividing Range for south-east Queensland’s largest water storage, Wivenhoe Dam, which is only at 40 per cent capacity, up from about 35 per cent capacity in September.
Toowoomba Mayor Paul Antonio said he was concerned about the region’s water security, with rainfall missing the major catchments.
“There is a problem with future water for this broader area.”
From drought to flood
Rainfall totals in Queensland’s Wide Bay-Burnett region indicate an easing of drought conditions, according to the BOM, with some areas receiving more than triple their monthly average in November. The Goondiwindi region, which includes Inglewood, only had its drought status revoked in May after seven years.
Mayor Lawrence Springborg said it was confronting to now be dealing with floods.
“It’s been quite extreme,” he said.
‘Massive’ clean-up underway
Residents in the affected areas now face the daunting job of cleaning up after floods, many rushing to remove the mud from their homes before it sets hard.
Lauren Mackley moved to Gunnedah with her husband Dion six months ago and in that time has had a baby and renovated her house, while dealing with a pandemic, mouse plague and, now, the flood.
Their newly renovated house has mud shin-deep on its floors but Ms Mackley is not complaining.
“You know this will happen when you buy into a flood plain. I just thought I had more time,” she said.
“It was petrifying.”
Homes across town quickly became overcrowded as people sought emergency accommodation.
“Ten of us were sleeping at my sister’s place. We’d already been there for a week and then the big floods came through,” Ms Mackley said.
“It was heartbreaking. We knew there was no saving [our place]. We just had a massive clean-up on our hands.”
SES Western Division used new software to track and record the damage caused by the Namoi River flooding.
A spokesperson told the ABC it would store information for when the next major rain event happened in the region.
Life after flood
Meanwhile, Blair Charlton is trying to remain sunny in the aftermath of all the rain.
“I’ve learnt that there is life beyond the flood,” Ms Charlton said.
Ms Charlton, who was visiting family in New Orleans in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit and spent six months with the Red Cross recovery effort, had a service medal awarded to her by the city for her contributions.
Despite her experience and stoic response, Ms Charlton said the Gunnedah flood was devastating and she was getting through it by thinking about a future that was drier, but not too dry.