Just a few months ago, many parts of northern Queensland were in the grip of a severe drought, which in some places had lasted for nearly a decade.
Cattle had to be specially fed with hay drops and many had to be put down. Meanwhile, the city of Townsville had to introduce water restrictions as the supply in its main dam dwindled.
Then the rain came.
More than a metre of it in many areas, dumping down on the region from Townsville inland to Mt Isa. Huge amounts of rain, obscene amounts, as if the heavens were making up for all the dry years by paying back the debt with interest.
Anthony Andersen, who owns and runs Eddington Station near Julia Creek in north-west Queensland, said at first he was happy to see the rain.
The area has officially been in drought for seven years, and Anthony said when the first rain started on January 31, he had no idea of what was to come.
“I’d had just over two inches (51 millimetres) of rain and I thought if we could get five or six inches out of it we’d be doing okay,” he said.
“Once we got to 10 inches (254 millimetres) we said ‘that’s good’ but then we had 15 inches (381 millimetres) in 24 hours and then another seven (177 millimetres) on top of that.”
“Probably three days in I thought we were getting enough rain that it might start to do something and got a bit excited, but after a couple of days of happiness it went to the next level.”
As the rain came down the water went up, covering paddocks and forcing the cattle there to scramble for ridgelines and other elevated positions which are unfortunately in short supply in the broad, flat country.
In a grim irony, after years of drought and in the middle of one of the hottest Australian summers on record, some cattle started to freeze to death.
“It got so wet and the wind just howled and the cattle started to weaken,” Anthony said.
“They were all right for the first couple of days, but then the weather started to take a toll.”
“Cattle that were trying to get out of the wind headed down into the low country, and some were even going into the floodwaters to get out of the wind that was hitting them at about 50km/h”
He estimates at least half of his 4500-head herd died in the rain event, but still hasn’t been able to get out and properly count.
That number doesn’t include the many dozens of calves that were with their mothers, almost all of which would have died, Anthony said.
“Calves have got no chance in this weather mate, if you came out of it with a five per cent calving rate, you’d be doing good,” he said.
Flooding in northern Queensland by the numbers
11,800 insurance claims in Townsville alone, amounting to $147 million
300,000 cattle estimated to have been killed, worth $300 million
1303 mm rain in Townsville since January 27 — more than a year’s worth.
Almost all of the 17,000-hectare station was covered in waist-deep mud, meaning cattle which had survived the water were trapped and slowly starving to death.
Efforts were being made to get feed to them, but while there was plenty of hay available, there were not enough helicopters, either private or charter, to cope with the number of property owners who needed them.
Compounding the problem was a shortage of aviation fuel, meaning what choppers there were were limited in the number of jobs they could do.
Overall its estimated up to 300,000 cattle have been killed by the rain event, with the cost to farmers predicted to be at least $300 million.
Other graziers have spoken of a «sea» of dead cattle as far as they could see on some properties.
At the very least the homestead at Eddington is high and dry, with Anthony saying it has never gone under in any flood.
The same can’t be said for large parts of the city of Townsville, which saw widespread inundation of its low-lying areas after the rain compounded with emergency releases from the Ross River Dam.
As of Friday, more than 11,000 insurance claims had been lodged, with the damage bill predicted to be nearly $150 million.
One of the worst-hit suburbs was the community of Oonoonba in Townsville’s east, nestled in a bend of the Ross River.
The suburb was right in the firing line as the dam’s floodgates were opened at the height of the crisis, with the extra water flowing almost directly through the area, before tidal flows pushed it back again, exacerbating the disaster.
Local resident Elise Eggerstedt’s house was spared somewhat because it was raised, but it still had 10 centimetres of water through it, which was enough.
“For the first 48 hours it looked okay but within the next couple of days all the paint was bubbling from the botton of the skirting to the top of the walls,” she said.
“All the doors and cupboards are all busted because they’re swollen, even in the kitchen which was hardwood it’s all swollen and warped.”
“Something which looked so small has just destroyed walls, skirting, I don’t even know what the bathroom is like behind all the tiles.”
Elise has spent the last few days slowly cleaning out her house, which she rents, with the help of her landlord, as well as some neighbours.
Despite the damage, she says she was relatively lucky.
“I could have lost a hell of a lot more,” she said.
“I have an aunt who lives one suburb over closer to the river and she had a foot of water in her house and it was black, completely black.”
“So in terms of salvaging things she can’t even get cleaners to come to her house, at least I can wash some of my stuff, I haven’t lost all my linen and things like that.”
Despite her best efforts though, Elise said ongoing rain in Townsville meant it was hard to get started on drying out the house, while a complete lack of power to her suburb, along with large parts of the city, meant they couldn’t run fans either.
Power was not expected to be restored in Oonoomea until February 12, and even then power would not be turned on in individual homes until they had been assessed by an electrician.
The trouble was finding one, with every electrician in the region tied up with doing assessments.
The other problem, Elise said, was accessing emergency money, both to get people through the current situation and for the long term.
Emergency Hardship Assistance of up to $900 for a family are available, but Elise said she had applied for hers earlier in the week and hadn’t heard back from authorities.
“I’m trying to save myself from mould and sewage, I’ve had 20 years worth of photos thrown away in a dumpster, it’s difficult,” she said.
Her main concern though is her eight-year-old son, who she said was putting on a brave face, but had also been affected by the disaster.
“He’s in an area where he can go back to school which is great for him, and he’s been helping with the clean-up,” she said.
“I thought he was going relatively okay until the teacher asked him how everything was going and he broke down and said ‘we’ve lost everything’.”
In the areas around Townsville many local farms were spared the full brunt of the deluge, but were still affected badly enough that they will feel an economic pinch which they sorely don’t need.
Robert Pace is a pineapple farmer in Rollingtone just north of Townsville, whose farm was partially inundated during the flooding.
As he watched the water slowly cover and drown parts of his crop, he thought about the changeability of the weather in the tropical north of the state.
“The temperatures in November were the highest we’ve ever seen here, a lot of our fruit was damaged then with sunburn, so it’s a bit of a double whammy,” he said.
“The stuff that’s been washed away, that’s about two years worth of income.”
Robert said he didn’t want to complain, as others had been hit harder, and he was confident he could get through the current crisis.
“We’ve been farming in this area for 80 years, it’s one of those things where you just tighten the belt and hope that next year’s going to be better.”
Anthony Andersen said it was “up to the bank” whether his operation would continue, but said even then it would take a long time to recover from this event.
“Seven years of drought and then a massive flood, it’s like the last knockout,” he said.
“There’s always ways to rebuild, we can maybe get back to where we were in about five years, three at the earliest, but it won’t happen overnight.”
Elise Eggerstedt’s concern was also in the long term, with many individuals and companies donating money which she said wasn’t making it to those who needed it.
“Apart from the evacuation centres, which I would never use because I’ve got a place to stay, how am I supposed to access that money?” she said.
“Where is that money going to support me or my next door neighbour, a little old lady who has her entire life in her carport?”
“After all the rolling news coverage is gone, and everyone moves on to whatever else has flashed up in the media, it doesn’t stop for the people who live here.”
If you would like to support those affected by floods, more information is available here.
Stuart Layt covers health, science and technology for the Brisbane Times. He was formerly the Queensland political reporter for AAP.