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Climate change will kill you, part two: flood

Jan 12, 2021 • 18m42s

In 2011 the Queensland town of Grantham was inundated with rain, causing flash flooding. It had a devastating impact on the town’s residents. But events like this are predicted to become more common, as the planet warms leading to more extreme weather events. Today, Climate change will kill you, part two: flood.

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Climate change will kill you, part two: flood

• Jan 12, 2021

Climate change will kill you, part two: flood

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is ‘Climate Change Will Kill You’, a special series from 7am.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“So do you feel like you’re a victim of a climate change disaster?”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #2:

“Umm…”

RUBY:

Journalist Paddy Manning has spent the past year talking to the families of some of the first casualties of the climate crisis.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #3:

“I yelled out, grabbed Zach first, don’t worry about me. And they grabbed Zach and they said it’s deep right under you, but on the road we’re only waist deep… so that’s when I jumped out of the tree…”

RUBY:

This series, inspired by his book, Body Count, is about them.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“So they call that an inland Tsunami.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #3:

“Tsunami yeah.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“Is that how you think of it, wall of water?”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #3:

“Yeah.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“It was just one big push?”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #3:

“A wall of water. Yeah.”

RUBY:

This is episode two: flood.

[Theme music ends]

RUBY:

Paddy, we're starting this story in Grantham, which is a small town in rural Queensland. Can you tell me a bit about what it was like when you visited?

PADDY:

So it's a town of a few hundred people about 100 kilometres west of Brisbane. There's a couple of sheds, farm equipment sold out of one.

And otherwise, you know, there's the Rural Fire Service, you know, shed up on the hill and houses dotted about the place. But there's no real centre to it.

I went past, stopped at the one cafe I could see, the floating cafe it’s called for obvious reasons on the floodplain there, and went inside. And sure enough, there's a wall full of clippings from the floods and the aftermath. Pretty sad little display actually.

RUBY:

Let’s talk about those floods Paddy, what was it like in Grantham in 2011 when they hit?

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #1:

“Still dotted through the old town site are the haunting reminders of that fateful January afternoon…”

PADDY:

It had been raining up there for weeks and weeks.

The ground in Grantham was sodden. It couldn't absorb any more water. And then after just an intense period of rain, this flash flood started up in Toowoomba and then raced down.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2:

“There are cars up trees, there’s a house in town, where people don’t know where the house came from.”

PADDY:

Two hours after the flash flood hit Toowoomba, the wall of water as high as three metres hit Grantham.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2:

“Now in Grantham it is a scene of utter devastation”

Unidentified Reporter #3:
“As the deadly flood waters surged through the town, reducing a neighbouring house to rubble, and carrying the three people who were sheltering there to their deaths…”

PADDY:

Grantham suffered one of the most incredible floods that Australia had ever seen, it was described by the state's police commissioner as an inland tsunami.

And Grantham was completely unprepared.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #4:

“People got individual warnings from friends and relatives that were further up the valley and that’s luck of the draw.”

PADDY:

A weather gauge at the Helidon Bridge registered an enormous rise in the Lockyer Creek, but the computer system automatically discounted it as inaccurate. By the time the bureau realised the ratings were actually correct, it was too late.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:

“With all the access to media, computer radio, there should have been warning.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #5:

“They couldn’t actually give you a definitive answer on something as simple as should I stay or should I go?”

PADDY:

So Grantham had no warning, And I spoke to Danny McGuire, who survived that flood, and he remembers the moment clearly.

Archival Tape -- Paddy:

“Okay that’s recording, now, I’ll just…”

Archival Tape -- Danny McGuire:

“How’s that?”

Archival Tape -- Paddy:

“Alright can you talk there, I’ll check you levels.”

Archival Tape -- Danny McGuire:

“Yeah, Danny McGuire…”

Archival Tape -- Paddy:

“Good on ya.”

RUBY:

Can you tell me a bit about Danny and what he was doing in the hours that led up to the moment that that wave hit his town?

PADDY:

Yes, so Danny lived on the flood plain with his partner Lync and their three kids, Jocelyn, Zach and Gary.

Archival Tape -- Paddy:

“And this boy?”

Archival Tape -- Danny McGuire:

“Zach.”

Archival Tape -- Paddy:

“Teenager, he's not a boy anymore.”

Archival Tape -- Danny McGuire:

“Zach, he's the middle one. Yeah. Yeah. He's 16 now.”

Archival Tape -- Paddy:

“16 now.”

PADDY:

And Grantham had been flooding gently the way it always flooded. And Danny and Lync, they both had swift water rescue training. They had both been working over the last 24 hours pulling cars out of floodwaters.

Archival Tape -- Paddy:

“And you said the water was up to..?”

Archival Tape -- Danny McGuire:

“Halfway up the doors.”

Archival Tape -- Paddy:

“And at that point, are you worried or is that...?”

Archival Tape -- Danny McGuire:

“Nah, I had it higher.”

PADDY:

They were both exhausted. And Danny, after, you know, rescuing, he'd rescued about three different vehicles, including one of the fire trucks that had got itself into trouble.

Archival Tape -- Danny McGuire:

“And he goes holy shit. And I’m going mate, that’s how it is…”

PADDY:

After working all night, he'd gone in for a sleep on the morning and was then woken up by his neighbour, who came and said, look, and was pointing at this wall of water coming towards them literally with a house floating on the top of it.

Archival Tape -- Danny McGuire:

“He said look and we looked across the paddock, and all you could see is a bloody house coming in the water, and I said well I’m outta here, and he goes yeah same here.”

PADDY:

The problem was the fire truck he had been using to do the rescues was still tied to one of the other vehicles that he'd rescued. And, you know, with only seconds to spare, he had to cut that strap and get Linc and the family and the kids into the fire truck and turn it around, do a three point turn and get out of his front driveway before this wall of water came.

Archival Tape -- Danny McGuire:

“I picked Lync up and got back, just on the bitumen, and then the wave of water hit me.”

PADDY:

And I stood there with him. He showed me exactly where the water came from, how it hit the culvert, and then it hit with such force. It jumped the road and came down on top of his fire truck.

Archival Tape -- Danny McGuire:

“My window was already down, and I said to Lync try and get your window down, cause it's all electric. It wouldn’t go down. Next minute the truck got spun again and Zach was beside me and so I grabbed him and threw him, there was a tree coming.

I threw Zach out and said climb buddy and he climbed and I said, don’t stop just keep going to the top.

And then Lync was screaming because she couldn't get the window down. Next minute, I went to grab Jocy because she was next and I got sucked out of the truck, and I end up getting smashed up against the last tree in the street.”

PADDY:

Danny’s wife Lync and the two kids didn’t make it, they drowned.

RUBY:

And so what about Zach and Danny?

PADDY:

Zach had hung onto the branches of a tree. Like Danny can't swim either. So they're in separate trees, clinging on for dear life, shouting out to each other.

Archival Tape -- Paddy:

“You could hear each other?”

Archival Tape -- Danny McGuire:

“Yeah. And all he kept asking was where's mum and that and I said mate I don’t know where the truck is. I said, hopefully she got out. I wasn’t going to tell him different.”

PADDY:

By now it was late in the evening when they were actually finally rescued by people walking back along the road with flashlights and told Danny to jump.

Archival Tape -- Danny McGuire:

“I said, yelled out grab Zach first, don’t worry about me. And they grabbed Zach, and then he goes, it’s deep right under you, but on the road we’re only waist deep… so that’s when I jumped…”

PADDY:

It's hard to imagine their fear and you know, the sadness of...

RUBY:

It is devastating, Patty, that's half a family gone.

PADDY:

Yeah.

RUBY:

And so Paddy, what role did climate change play, in causing these floods, do we know?

PADDY:

We now know that climate change was a major factor, but it took a lot of years for that science to come in.

You can't say that, you know, any particular event is caused by climate change, but you can say that climate change made it more likely or more severe. And that's certainly the case with the Queensland floods of 2011.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

[Advertisement]

RUBY:

Paddy, after those floods in Queensland, there was a lot of debate about what caused them and whether climate change really did have a role. Can you tell me about that?

PADDY:

Yeah, well, almost immediately there was a debate about whether the floods were linked to global warming.

Archival Tape -- Fran Kelly:

“Senator Joyce good morning, welcome to breakfast.”

Archival Tape -- Barnaby Joyce:

“Morning Fran.”

Archival Tape -- Fran Kelly:

“We’ll get to the climate change debate in a moment…”

PADDY:

But for example, Barnaby Joyce, a Queensland Nationals senator, told journalists it was the wrong time to talk about it. You know, he said it was just nature, quote-unquote.

Archival Tape -- Fran Kelly:

“Do you agree the Coalition recognises the world is warming, humans have an impact on that warming?”

Archival Tape -- Barnaby Joyce:

“Well certainly the world is warming and at some other point I imagine it will be cooling. The one thing I can assure you can, Fran, is that it’s not staying the same and it never has, never will.”

PADDY:

And, you know, the debate would only piss people off who, you know, right then dealing with the consequences of the flooding.

Archival Tape --

“It’s neither going to get warmer nor colder nor stay the same by reason of the actions of Australia. What you can do is do immense damage to your economy, what you definitely will do is make people poorer and those who are doing it tough will have less money because of basically a frolick that you went on that they never agreed to…”

PADDY:

On the other hand, economist Ross Garnaut, who is then climate change adviser to the Gillard Labour government, went public saying, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Archival Tape -- Ross Garnaut:

“A warming climate does lead to intensification of the sorts of extreme climatic events that we’ve seen in Queensland…”

PADDY:

Given the planet had only warned by one degree on average and was on track to warm by somewhere between three and four degrees.

Archival Tape -- Ross Garnaut:

“And I think people wishing to avoid those awful challenges in Queensland will be amongst the people supporting effective action on climate change.”

PADDY:

So, you know, the climate wars broke out again and just became another sort of he said she said argument between politicians and the voice of scientists, the voice of doctors was not present.

RUBY:

Right, but what was the science saying?

PADDY:

You know, the thing about science is careful science takes time. And it was only, you know, a few years later, in late 2015, that researchers felt able to pronounce on whether and to what extent the Queensland floods of 2011 could be attributed to climate change.

So a paper in a peer reviewed journal, Geophysical Research Letters, confirmed that background warming had increased the likelihood of the extreme rainfall that caused the 2011 floods that dumped so much water it caused the global sea levels to drop by seven millimetres.

RUBY:

And what does Danny, someone who lost most of his family in these floods, think about the role that climate change played in this?

Archival Tape -- Paddy:

“So what do you think of the role of climate change?”

Archival Tape -- Danny McGuire:

“Yeah, it’s changing. But it’s changing back to old cycles like back when I was a kid and that.”

PADDY:

Well I think that it is linked to Danny's view that if the climate is changing, it's going back to the way it was when he was a kid.

Archival Tape -- Danny McGuire:

“Like everyone’s complaining now, there’s bad fire season and that. Yeah it is. But this is how it was when I was 15, 16.”

PADDY:

So if you don't believe that the planet is hotting up and that there is going to be increasing risk of extreme rainfall and therefore flash flooding, then you might be more prepared to build on a flood plain. And that is the case in Grantham, where Danny wants to rebuild the family home, which is a beautiful old Queenslander that sits right where the where the 2011 flood came racing through, you know, with a wall of water.

Whereas the council is saying we need to recognise the risk and build on higher ground. And they've tried, you know, they've got a new subdivision and hundreds of new homes that they're trying to build higher up. But Danny doesn't want to live there.

Archival Tape -- Paddy:

“What about Zach?”

Archival Tape -- Danny McGuire:

“Uh, you know, when it comes up to his mom's birthday and that, you ain't do nothing.”

Archival Tape -- Paddy:

“Yeah.”

Archival Tape -- Danny McGuire:

“He just plays up.”

Archival Tape -- Paddy:

“He wants to move back down to the house that you used to live in.”

Archival Tape -- Danny McGuire:

“Yeah. Yeah. That's all he wants.”

PADDY:

You know, the communities, they take a long time to recover. Kinglake that was devastated in the Black Saturday fires, you know, sent a convoy of people, of volunteers after the 2011 floods to Grantham because they recognised that here was another small town struck by a, you know, unprecedented extreme weather event and reeling, you know, in the aftermath.

So it's a complicated, you know, discussion. It shows that basically communities need leadership from the government and recognising the risk from increased flooding due to, you know, warming is part of that.

And, in Danny's case, if he doesn't believe that the planet is getting hotter, then why would he not, you know, rebuild on his back on the floodplain? If he doesn't believe that climate change is happening or that it's causing increased flooding risk, then he would, you know, he would be perfectly happy to go back where he was.

RUBY:

So, Paddy, last episode we were talking about the increasing intensity of bushfires and how that's making parts of Australia impossible to live in. And I'm wondering if extreme weather events, things like the floods that happen in Queensland, are also having a comparable impact on communities. Do you think that it is starting to feel like nowhere in Australia is really a safe place to live?

PADDY:

Yes, I think it is. We have an extremely variable climate and, you know, whether it's the higher risk from heatwaves in the, you know, up in the Northern Territory rendering parts of the territory unliveable. We've got a higher risk of drought that's going to undermine, you know, our agriculture and in particular in the regions. We've got the risk of bushfire, you know, escalating. We've got the risks from flood. At the coast, we've got rising sea levels and we've got in our suburbs a lot of homes that have been built, especially in the last 20 years, which are not well designed to cope with heat and which are completely reliant and on air conditioning, which can fail, you know, with deadly consequences.

So it is the reality that Australia has a lot at stake here. And if we want to look after ourselves and our children, we're going to have to face up to the risks that global warming presents.

RUBY:

And is the solution to this, as you were alluding to before, is it about leadership, having leadership on this?

PADDY:

Yes, I think that, you know, a consequence of the kind of climate wars that we've been having in federal politics for the last, you know, a decade or more is that governments haven't levelled with the Australian people about the danger that we're facing. There's a public awareness exercise that needs to happen here. And then we need to rethink the way we plan, build and design our cities.

RUBY:

That was Paddy Manning, the author of Body Count, which inspired this series.

Next week, on the final episode of 'Climate Change Will Kill You', we look at the relationship between climate change and disease. If you don’t already subscribe to 7am, follow us in your favourite podcast app so you don’t miss out.

I’m Ruby Jones. Thanks for listening.

In 2011 the Queensland town of Grantham was inundated with rain, causing flash flooding. It had a devastating impact on the town’s residents. But events like this are predicted to become more common, as the planet warms leading to more extreme weather events. Today, Climate change will kill you part two: flood.

Guest: Contributing editor to The Monthly, Paddy Manning.

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.


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: Climate change will kill you, part two: flood