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Charleville commemorates 31 years since devastating 1990 flood

Wednesday April 21, 2021 - 02:27 EST
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Flooded houses and cars on the corner of Sturt and Edward streets in Charleville. - ABC

It was something Colin McDonald never thought he'd see.

His sheep property north-east of Charleville sits on the Warrego River, but some parts are so high the thought of them flooding had never crossed his mind.

That all changed on April 21, 1990, when the river peaked at a record 8.54 metres after weeks of heavy rain in the region. 

It caused a devastating flood that inundated more than 1,000 homes and required the whole town of Charleville to be evacuated.

"It all hit in a bang," Mr McDonald said.

"There was nowhere that wasn't affected.

"There was country that we had no reason to think that it would ever flood, and it did, and the same in town."

On the morning of April 21, 1990, Charleville residents woke to a scene they'd never seen before and have never seen since.

Many were caught out by the rapidly rising floodwaters, with some being evacuated from the roofs of their homes by helicopter.

More than 2,800 residents were taken to shelter in the airport hangar after electricity to the whole town was wiped out.

This week Charleville residents are belatedly commemorating the 30th anniversary of the flood, 31 years after it hit, after events to mark the three-decade milestone had to be cancelled last year due to COVID-19.

No loss of life down to good luck

The morning the Warrego River peaked, Charleville local George Balsillie took to the streets ? which by then had been transformed into rivers ? in his ski-boat with two mates.

"The [State Emergency Service] had their boat out, and that was busy," Mr Balsillie said.

"I had somebody sing out from the SES boat, 'George, can you rescue that fella over there?' There was a bloke hanging on to a No Parking sign somewhere in Wills Street, on Wilkinson's corner.

"[The water was] right up to his chest, and here he was hanging on to his post."

Mr Balsillie, who is the former president of the Charleville Historic House, said they tried to get to the man several times but failed.

"So we ended up taking the boat right down around Galatea Street and coming up and circumnavigated and [came] up against him," Mr Balsillie said.

"We rolled this fella in and got him out of trouble."

Mr Balsillie said, with only two boats working to rescue people, it was lucky there were no fatalities. 

"The water was doing around 43 kilometres an hour apparently down the street there," he said.

"He would've probably perished otherwise. It was just good luck that there wasn't loss of life."

The first-ever 'Mud Army'

Murweh Shire Mayor Shaun Radnedge was away at a butcher's college at the time of the flood but said the devastation made newspaper headlines across the state.

"The front page of The Courier Mail was a car floating down past Hotel Corones, so pretty devastating," Cr Radnedge said.

"I remember rolling back into town, and it looked like a war zone."

The council has organised five days of events this week to commemorate the event, including a morning tea, bus tours and a talk at the SES shed.

Locals marched down Wills Street on Tuesday night with home-decorated lanterns as part of a healing exercise.

Similar lantern parades were held on the first and 25th anniversaries of the disaster. 

Cr Radnedge said a core focus of the "reunion" was to say thank you to Queensland's first 'Mud Army', which came to help in the aftermath.

"It was just unbelievable with the people that [came] to Charleville to help out," he said.

"I'm talking run-of-the-mill people that were just in Brisbane or whatever, and they just decided to come out and give their time, the donations, tradies and things like that.

"All the donations, the mattresses, the food, it was just hard to believe.

"The town was actually just really buzzing with people pinging around town."

Recovery still ongoing

Mr McDonald said the double-storey Queenslander house at his property, Woolabra, had water up to its second flood at the peak of the flood.

The station would be inundated with water for six weeks, but things would never go back to the way they were.

Mr McDonald lost his merino stud and 3,000 sheep in the disaster.

"All the machinery went under. We had nothing to drag away the dead sheep from under the house," he said.

"It was a pretty harrowing time."

Less than a year later, his livelihood was rocked again by the 1991 wool crash.

Mr McDonald said, 31 years later, his family was still recovering.

"There have been other floods, but not like the 1990 devastation."

Cr Radnedge said it took years for residents in town to recover.

"I still remember our family home down in King Street ? we didn't have floor coverings for two years," he said.

"We're talking 12 months, if not years, to get back on its feet. 

"The resilience and the spine of the Charleville people really [came] to the fore."


© ABC 2021

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