The Orara feeds into the Clarence in the record 2013 February flood.
The Orara feeds into the Clarence in the record 2013 February flood. Debrah Novak

Flood fever strikes, but we’ve seen it all before

FLOODS have played a significant part in the history of the Clarence Valley. No one can delve into the area's past and overlook those challenging periods. It's a threatening bond, rekindled as nature sees fit, time and time again as the river and its people, partake in some serious "shirt-fronting", pushing one other to the limits.

With the levee wall doing the lion's share of the challenge these days, sometimes it comes down that last row of sandbags to save the town from deluge. Before that feat of engineering was constructed, Grafton was inevitably transformed into a Venetian city, almost every type of watercraft including the odd bathtub, providing a makeshift transport system that traversed canals that were once dusty streets.

This latest forecast and warnings predicting moderate to major flooding will also be added to the roll call of recorded history that began back in 1839. Since then the Clarence has flooded about 120 times, the lowest peaked at 1.42m (Prince St gauge) in 1983, the highest just recently in 2013 at 8.09m, exceeding the 8m levee height but contained by manual labour and a great deal of good fortune.

If the levees were to breach, the entire area from the river to Junction Hill is at risk of flooding; some places would be more than 3m deep. But this should come as no surprise, after all Grafton literally is built on a flood plain.

The Clarence River is a breathtakingly beautiful expanse of water, the envy of many inland regional centres but, when nature throws us a curve ball, it certainly reminds us who the boss is.

Floods that affect the Clarence Valley aren't always the result of localised rain; in fact, a great many are borne from rainfall from quite a distance away.

There's nothing more eerie than watching the river rise rapidly with not a drop of rain in the sky.

Much like the scenario unfolding this time around, most flooding occurs as a result of intense rainfall caused by slow-moving or stationary low-pressure systems located off northern NSW or southern Queensland.

These may be ex-tropical cyclones or east coast low-pressure systems. Heavy rainfall, in excess of 225mm in 24 hours, is common in the Clarence River catchment. On this occasion, the predications were estimated up to 300mm and as low as 150mm.

But it takes a massive amount of water to flood the "mighty" Clarence, as it is often tagged.

The basin stretches 250km from north to south and 120km west from Grafton. Most of the catchment is make up of steep, deeply-dissected hill country, starting at the junction of the Maryland and Boonoo Boonoo Rivers, traversing for 430km, with 10 other rivers flowing into it, before it reaches the mouth at Yamba.

Throw in the creeks and catchments and include the voluminous feeder the Mann, which is in turn fed from the Dorrigo Plateau and New England Tablelands, and you can imagine the many different rainfall scenarios that can unfold to give the Clarence a major flushing. She copes well today considering.

One of the first flood reports from The Daily Examiner (Clarence and Richmond Examiner) was from April 30, 1861, and provides an eloquently composed, but ultimately tragic, snippet from the Clarence River's early recorded flood history:

"No sooner had we began to congratulate ourselves upon the return of fine weather, and the passable state of our streets; mail communication with our neighbours on the Richmond and other places resumed, that our enjoyment is suddenly stopped, by another very heavy fall of rain visiting us, which commenced Friday afternoon, and continued without intermission up to midday on Sunday, when the heavens gave some indication - that the storm was about to abate. The quantity of water that fell is greater that we ever remember in the same space of time, exceeding as it did11 inches.

The river rose bank high, Mr Wilcox's and many other houses on the south being more than half under water. During the whole of Saturday night and Sunday morning, people were busily engaged in removing to the high ground.

At daybreak Monday morning the reports of firearms announced to the good people of the town, that their neighbours in the low lands were in danger. Great

praise is due to Messrs. Laman, McKenzie and other gentlemen, who with promptness, worthy of the occasion, voluntarily manned a boat, and removed those families in immediate danger.

The back water now began to break over the town, completely inundating the whole of the back streets, many of which were impassable.

Soon the water was in Prince Street and many parts were completely flooded, also Gilmore's new house in Villier's Street and the slaughter-house at the back. The receiving store of Mr Thomas Fisher was three feet under water. The boat house belonging to the Customs has been washed away.

A butcher's boy named Daniel Forde, aged 11, was carrying a basket of meat on horseback. At the corner of Pound and Alice Streets he got into trouble, and fell off. A police constable name Christian Seidtz, aged 35, who lived in his own cottage on the southern corner of that intersection, plunged into the water to save him. They were both drowned in full view of Seidtz's wife, who was left with four children under six years old. It was reported that the estimated depth of the water was ten feet."

Due to such heartache and destitution during those periods, the conversations began and petitions were submitted about the need for flood protection.

Events like these were not isolated over the floods that followed, nine people drowning in the 1863 flood in various scenarios including trying to cross waters on horseback, the equivalent to today's foolhardy attempts in the confines of a motor vehicle.

The flood in 1876 was particularly destructive, the Brisbane Courier reporting "waters five feet higher than any previous flood" were followed by the grim news that "a mother had taken refuge upon a housetop with her infant and the unfortunate woman was compelled to witness her child sink below the current never to be seen again".

Similar stories of tragedy and stamina continued, 60 people spending an entire night on a fence and houses and stock being swept away while the city was almost entirely submerged. Narrow escapes and evacuations abound up and down the river system and we are yet to arrive at the 20th century.

With improving communication and establishment of bodies such as the Grafton Water Brigade - the early version of our emergency services - the loss of lives were fewer but the floods continued to get bigger and businesses continued to be inundated.

As a result, initial construction of levees in North Grafton began as early as the 1890s but it would be more than a century later until the protection we see today would be completed.

Mr Edward Hockey, of the South Grafton family store, noted in his diary in 1890 about the water being nine-foot deep in the shop, while in 1948 Mr Barry Winkler caught a nine-inch mullet swimming in Mackellys store while he was there helping to remove stock. Two more were also seen frolicking in the nearby Coles store window.

It wasn't uncommon to get three and four floods the same year, sometimes five, within weeks and months of each another. The conversations about flood-proofing continued. Sir Earle Page's dam proposal never eventuated, despite advocating for one for more than half a century.

In 1953 a levee bank was constructed on the northern side of the river in Grafton while nothing was done on the south side where serious erosion continued. This was after a spate of really bad floods - five in nine years.

In 1954 the city was inundated again when the levee began to crumble and water poured through unprotected sites. The Examiner wrote: "How long have we to see sights like this? No words can convey the utter desolation of the water picture, or the utter misery suffered by people fleeing with their children from the dangers of the flood water."

Similar scenes continued as business had flood sale after sale, others attempting to outwit nature with their flood-proof constructions. During our biggest floods, it is estimated 20,000 million litres of water pass Grafton every second.

Flood mitigation continued throughout the 1960s until the late 1990s through to today's management, one levee section, floodgate and drain at a time and, as flood waters came and went, construction workers soldiered on until the last pieces of land in South Grafton were protected.

It is estimated that there is more than 100km of levee, 155km of drain, 300 floodgates and 24km of riverbank protection constructed (as of 2011) providing relief from waters to certain levels for towns and agricultural lands for the past few seasons, and leaving a much drier picture these days compared with the devastation that came before us.

This is by no means the complete picture of flooding in the Clarence but it does illustrate some of the resilience and tragedy that has shaped the community that exists today.

And it will no doubt continue to be shaped as we are dictated to by that enormous life source we live beside.

Dummies' guide to flooding

Initial flood level: The height on the reference gauge at which landholders or townspeople begin to be affected.

Flood: When the "initial flood level" is exceeded.

Minor flooding: Causes inconvenience, such as closing of minor roads and the submergence of low-level bridges.

Moderate flooding: Low-lying areas are inundated requiring removal of stock and/or evacuation of some houses. Main traffic bridges may be covered.

Major flooding: Extensive rural areas are flooded with properties, village and towns isolated and/or appreciable urban area flooded.

Local flooding: This term will be used in cases where intense rainfall could be expected to cause high run-off in restricted areas but would not lead to significant rises in main streams.

Significant river rises: This term will be used when it is not certain that initial flood levels would be exceeded in main streams by appreciable river rises. It would generally only be used in the preliminary flood warnings. It should alert landholders to the possible need for attention to pumps etc.

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