Ben Collins / Business Insider.
“I wouldn’t vote for either of the bastards,” says Karen Howie. “It would only encourage them.”
Lighting a cigarette, she leans against the windowsill behind the counter of an independent petrol station in Grantham, Queensland.
The “bastards” she’s talking about are Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, and the man who wants to replace him, Tony Abbott.
Howie looks older than her 55 years. But then this town has been through an extraordinary tragedy – it was the scene of the biggest natural disaster to strike Australia in the lifetime of the last parliament. Its effects are still playing out.
In 2011, a freak rainfall hit the normally-arid hills inland. Building in puddles, creeks, eddies, and tributaries, it eventually formed a wall of brown water that scythed through the Lockyer Valley. It turned much of Grantham into flotsam, dumping it by the pylons of the bridge on the edge of the town.
They are tough here, but these days people are angry. Forgotten, they feel they were used as photo props for politicians in the days after the disaster.
More than 30 people died in the flood. Most were from here in the Lockyer Valley. Twelve were from Grantham itself.
In Howie’s store, pen lines and dates on the wall show the water lines from previous floods that have swept through.
“My floors are never as clean as when we get these,” she says, pointing to the ankle-high marks. “We’re not sooks.”
Above her head though, written just before the roof, there’s one word.
When it hit, it tore and lifted corrugated iron, wood, trucks, cars and animal carcasses. They were driven under the pylons of Grantham’s rail bridge, while residents fled to the higher ground.
The water went all the way to Brisbane, where the CBD was evacuated, but images of the bridge made a nation hold its breath.
When the locals first returned to their ruined homes, they were warned to stay away from anything that smelled off.
Five people were still missing from Murphys Creek upstream, and police divers and military helicopters were looking for bodies.
“The one thing that pissed me off the most,” says Howie, “was the politicians pulling up, especially the local ones like [Lockyer Valley mayor] Steve Jones.”
“They just got their heads on television kissing babies and all that bullshit. Not one of them, not one, came to see how people were getting on.”
“They were just there for the press.”
After the floods, the government led by then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard imposed a levy, to pay for the reconstruction. It took around $1 dollar per week from people earning more than $60,000 per year.
“We have seen literally walls of water smashing into cars and buildings … People hanging on for dear life to trees and signposts. I am sure these images have shocked most Australians,” she said at a 2011 press conference.
“There are people who are frightened, people who are desperately waiting for news of their loved ones.”
Billions were pledged and spent on the reconstruction of Queensland’s food-affected areas.
Australia goes to the polls on Saturday. In this town though, the government’s efforts will not win many votes.
“There are no plans to do anything in Grantham. They just want it to go away,” Howie says.
“Grantham is dying; I’m watching it die before my eyes.”
It is a desolate town. In the so-called “new estate,” sunburned hills, rough with scrub, are broken only by a few homes built higher up above the creek, which splits Grantham.
On the new asphalt, the shimmer of heat blurs the treeline on the ridge, as the road winds through the buildings. Below, all the way to the mountain range in the distance, there are farms: flat land, destined to flood.
No one is walking the footpaths. There are few cars in the driveways. From the midday sun, there is little shade.
“For sale” signs are staked in the dirt, in front of several houses, many with multiple agents trying to offload them to someone who wants to move to a dying outpost.
Mar Purton’s house, in the old part of town, only got “about eight inches of flooding”.
“We didn’t put in any insurance claims, or none of that.”
Purton, 41, is the secretary and treasurer of the Gatton Rural Fire Brigade. She still remembers her husband, wading waist-deep onto the train tracks in front of their home to pull children to safety.
Her friend, Jocelyn Jibson, was swept to her death, along with her husband Garry and his father Llync, when a truck they were trying to escape in was caught in the torrent.
“I’m still on anti-depressants,” she tells Business Insider. “I rang my mum that day, and said ‘whatever happens, know that I love you.”
“I try to deal with it… we have a group of friends, we talk about it [the flood], we all lived through the same thing.”
She, like Howie, says more could have been done to help the people here and the relief they’ve had has been a token effort.
“They put a railway line back in that’s so f—ing noisy it’s not funny. And they put a roundabout in a lagoon. “
She is referring to a roundabout in the new development. “When we have a flood, that’s where our water goes. If you head up to our new estate, you will see they have put a roundabout in a lagoon.”
Howie, like many residents Business Insider spoke to, is not happy with what the redevelopment money was spent on.
“The Beautification of Grantham project has spent $1.2 million on a park that no one uses. Everyone wants a pub, there is nowhere to go now that the old one has been washed away.”
Janelle Warburton owns the store where Howie works. Under her red baseball cap she is bald. In April this year she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Her last session of chemotherapy is scheduled for next week, after which she needs two more operations: gut-wrenching treatment to fight an illness “caused by all this.”
When the wall of water came through, her husband was in the shop. “He just said all the windows went black. His head butted up against the ceiling. He managed to get out and grab the gutter, and pull himself up.”
Then he sat for eight hours, until he swam to safety at midnight, she says. “That’s when the Black Hawks should have come in.”
“But no, they sent them to other areas that had not even flooded yet. There were still people on the rooves. They have night vision … I just don’t understand.”
Warburton blames the Federal Government, and says she won’t vote for either Labor or the Coalition at the September 07 election. “They just lie.”
“People clinging to their gutters for that amount of time … thinking why isn’t anyone coming,” she said.
“Australia is stuffed.”
Warburton’s husband spent several months in hospital after the floods, suffering from respiratory issues, which she blames on the chemicals infused in the flood waters he was forced to swim through.
“They lie, they always lie. We got treated like brain dead morons here. We’re not silly. We have eyes in our head and a brain to think with.”
“They just lie to get what they want, not what we want. If you don’t have people, you don’t have votes.”
Asked what she would tell the Prime Minister, or Opposition leader, she says: “Wake up.”
Ben Collins took a road trip from opposition leader Tony Abbott’s electorate of Warringah in Sydney to prime minister Kevin Rudd’s electorate of Griffith in Brisbane ahead of the federal election on September 7. He spoke to voters about their concerns and what they hope to see happen in the coming three years. Other stories from the trip are here.
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