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Flood survivors recall tales of horror and heartache

HEROISM AND SURVIVAL: Veteran investigative reporter Amanda Gearing is keeping the story and the struggle of some survivors of the January 2011 floods alive.
HEROISM AND SURVIVAL: Veteran investigative reporter Amanda Gearing is keeping the story and the struggle of some survivors of the January 2011 floods alive.

NO Queenslander will forget the scenes of flood horror and heartache which swept through Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley on January 10, 2011, claiming 24 lives.

But for those who lived through that devastation - the life and death choices which no-one should have to make, who risked their own lives to save others, who lost family, friends, property, and in some cases everything dear to them, who had to completely rebuild their lives - those six years in many cases have been an eternity.

Some of these brave survivors will take part in a panel, hosted by veteran investigative reporter and author Amanda Gearing, as part of USQ's Bookcase writers' festival from 1.30pm on Saturday, July 22, at which her book The Torrent: A True Story of Heroism and Survival will be officially launched.

Amanda, who is also keynote speaker at the festival, covered the floods for three weeks for the Australian newspaper and won a Walkley Award in 2012 for her ABC Radio National documentary The Day That Changed Grantham.

She spoke to 120 survivors from the eight worst affected areas for her first book, released a year after the floods, aimed at raising awareness of flash flooding, improving preparedness and hopefully saving lives.

For her latest book, she returned five years later and reinterviewed 30 of that original group to update what had happened for those individuals and their communities.

While reporters often return to the scene of a tragedy one or two years afterwards, Amanda said this is the first longer term data, which shows that while some people have successfully moved on with their lives, many are still haunted by that day, suffering PTSD and still fighting for insurance compensation.

She writes: "Those who lost possessions but who were not traumatised by the disaster, who remained healthy and had insurance with companies that promptly paid their claims, were able to resume their work, repair or replace their homes and return to a relatively normal life within months or a few years.

"However, for those people who were bereaved of one or more family members during or after the flood, who were traumatised on the day, who lost their ability to work or whose insurance claims were slow and difficult, the journey has generally been far more challenging".

Amanda said while emergency services debriefings led to the adoption of new equipment by helicopter rescue services, including special equipment for children, multi-tasking of fire crews to conduct winch rescues, the addition of power boats to the rescue fleet, and a change to coloured wetsuits for swift water operators to improve their visibility at night, there are still major lessons to be learned from the tragedy.

Victims, for instance, were offered counselling and relief funding only in the affected towns - which many could not attend either because they had been forced to move away, or because they were suffering PTSD, meaning that in many cases those most in need, never received help.

Those affected have since suffered chronic illness, marriage break-up, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Some have been forced to stay on in the region because they received little or no insurance, and alternative government housing was only offered a few miles up the hill, forcing people to cope in situ with their trauma, when many would have preferred to leave.

Amanda said it was important to learn every painful lesson which could be learned from the suffering which occurred, and continues to occur. That includes the need to change policy, to alter insurance practices, to understand the fragmentation of the communities and to officially recognise those amazing members of the public who put their own lives at risk to help save their neighbours in situations when even trained officials with the right equipment struggled.

This is not the first cause in which Amanda's writing has played a major part. She was instrumental in reporting the Toowoomba Supreme Court trial in 2001 that became the case behind the movie Don't Tell, a charity screening of which will also be shown on Saturday night, followed by a Q&A hosted by Amanda with lawyer, movie author and executive producer Stephen Roche.

You can hear Amanda's keynote address at the festival on Saturday at 10am, while on Sunday, she will run an investigative journalism master class in which she delves into her 18-month investigation that led to law reform in Australia and forced the resignation of Governor General Peter Hollingworth over failure to protect children from a known child sex offender.

For all the details, including booking, simply search USQ Bookcase.

Topics:  amanda gearing bookcase writers festival flood lockyer valley toowoomba floods university of southern queensland usq


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