Apocolyptic: The Northern Queensland Flood of 2019
for Tri-State Livestock News
Editor’s note: Sally Webster and her husband raised Beryl the Brahman (an orphan calf) as a member of their family. The “bovine celebrity” has made television appearances and has a large following on Facebook; this was taken from a recent post.
“Initially, I wasn’t sure if I could post this; but I feel it is our duty, as custodians of this great land, to share, educate and bring to life what has happened and is happening right now in North West Queensland, Australia.
And this is a HUGE part of Beryl’s amazing story, still now, surviving, against all odds…..
On the 29th of January, our prayers were answered and the horrendous prolonged drought of 2018 (and for others a lot longer) was broken.
Rejoice! 80 mm of pure gold rain water fell from the sky. However, our sheer delight soon faded to worry and finally absolute heartbreak and devastation as over the next 11 days; over 32 inches of rain fell over our great and amazing property. This total is above our ANNUAL rainfall – and we got that in just 11 days.
The elements were against us. Constant rain, howling winds and cold, cold weather saw our livelihoods, pets, mates and “family members” start to die due to exposure. And not only that, record breaking floods have swept across our great region, killing literally hundreds of thousands of cattle. Horses, sheep, goats also included. But also wiping out kangaroos, emus, lizards and all kinds of native animals.
It is said that over 800 properties have been affected. An area of land twice the size of Tasmania, and, the size of France – has been covered by flood waters.
This is a complete and utter national disaster. A leading Australian Industry has been king hit!! And we need to get what’s happening out there – out across Australia and out to our friends across the pond.
Please know also that there was literally nothing anyone could do. Higher ground you say? Where would we have taken them? Mt. Everest? Put them in shelter you say – how do you fit 4,000-5,000 head in a shed? We couldn’t even GET to these animals to move them.
We are so passionate about where we live, what we do and our communities – and if we could have done something – we would have.
Our property alone has lost 90 percent + of the cattle that were living on this property, we had nearly 4,000 here. To put into perspective, that is our next 2-3 years income completely gone. And we are some of the luckier ones. Our houses never went under and we managed to save our horses in time.
So back to Beryl. She has been living in a paddock for about 12 months now away from our homestead. It was important to us to let her be with other cows and also, to have a little baby of her own.
The rains started and we weren’t too worried. But as the days kept on with the conditions and we could see that around our house, weaners were “dropping like flies” (no matter what shelter we provided or what hay and feed we put out.) We were getting desperately worried about Beryl and her fate.
The rain eased and there was a break in the weather so Jake ploughed out to her paddock. We were pacing anxiously around the two-way to hear of any news. “I found Lilly” was the first call. Lilly is my niece’s poddy calf, similar in age to Beryl. I was beside myself.
Nearly an hour passed and we heard “I’ve found Beryl – she’s been living by herself out the back of this ridge eating prickle bush.”
We realize, finding two Brahmans amongst 4,000 is no great win. But boy, oh, boy it was good for the soul. And as the tears flowed Jake bought them home and finally we had them safely with us. And a whole lotta nice was put into our hearts for the day.
The timing was so lucky – the weather didn’t break for another two days – it was so cold – and I can guarantee if Jake didn’t go and get her – she wouldn’t have survived.
So now she hasn’t left the house. She’s back on her blanket and back into Sayos and Jatz crackers. And I am happy my little love is home.
But my heart is heavy. Heavy for my family, heavy for my friends and heavy for our community.
Flood waters are dropping but this is nowhere near being over.
Dead animals are literally, at every direction we look.
My husband and my brother-in-law have been hectically trying to get hay to animals that have survived but have not eaten in literally 10 days besides a few prickly thorns off an old prickly bush.
Every single person for hundreds of kilometers is doing the exact same thing. Fighting for our animals, our livelihoods and, fighting for the ability for AUSTRALIA and the WORLD to see what is happening right here, right now. And fighting for you, to help us!
To the amazing and resilient people of NW Queensland. I have no words but a whole lotta love and a rum when all of this is over.
To the local councils you guys have done an amazing job. To all the angels of the sky, the helicopter pilots, words are not enough. The army has also done an amazing job helping to get fodder out to places cut off from everywhere. But the locals – the local people have been and are amazing. They are living this nightmare themselves – but still helping each other.
And there is still fences to mend, turkey nests, dams, pipelines, troughs to fix……the next 12 months is going to be really tough. And that’s an understatement.
So as you go to bed, or as you wake. Hold your family a little tighter, feed your pets a little extra, smile at a complete stranger. Life could be so much worse.
And please, if you can, give a little to a place that has always, given a lot.
And please, buy Australian beef!
Currently our land is quiet and bare. Once a bustling area of cattle and the other Australian animals moving about, seeking out food and water, there are now areas without birds, without ground animals, kangaroos, cows and many other ground dwelling animals. Nothing. No noise. It’s very apocalyptic. The eerie sound of death. It’s devastating.
The Australian Outback is a land of severe extremes. Graziers (ranchers) have suffered through seven years of extreme drought, most regions receiving less than half the normal amount of moisture. The stockmen have been spending every dime they had to purchase feed. Many graziers have sold the majority of their stock, holding onto small choice breeding groups in hopes of being able to rebuild their herds once the rains came. But once the rain, that has been so desperately needed came, it was hard and fast. Northwest Queensland saw two years’ worth of rain in under two weeks’ time, receiving 30 to 42 inches of rain. It started Jan. 27 and finally cleared Feb. 8. On Feb. 9 experts estimated that more than 7,722 square miles (or an area about one-eighth the size of North Dakota) were underwater and the flood at its widest point was over 46 miles across, stretching across the Flinders River drainage. The main zone that suffered high volumes of cattle death loss is about half the size of South Dakota.
The unprecedented monsoon trough was accompanied by sustained winds of over 40 mph. Australia is in late summer with temperatures still soaring to over 100 degrees F, with places even reaching over 110 degrees. The storm brought unseasonably low temperatures, down into the 60s accompanied by winds over 45 mph.
The cattle are tropical breeds, mainly Brahman, with short hair and thin hides to help let the heat out. The wet and cold cattle huddled for warmth and then eventually died from exposure by the thousands. The ones in the flood zone sought high ground, but most drowned. Live cattle found after the flood had lost half their body weight and many were too weak to stand. The death toll is of a magnitude almost hard to fathom; close to 800 properties are estimating losses of 50 to 100 percent of their herds. Currently the numbers are guessed at between 300,000 to 500,000 head of dead cattle. The zone of cattle deaths is roughly five times larger than that covered by the water. This is being called the worst flood ever in Australian history.
At this point in time we have no idea what we will do. Apart from doing the emergency tasks with choppers around the four properties, we aren’t yet able to get around in any vehicles to really see what we are dealing with in the way of repairs. Once we can see this then we can access where we are at. At this stage we are assuming from the air, that our estimate is around 50 percent of our entire herd of cattle has perished in the storm.
Our priority now is to dispose of the thousands of dead cattle in the paddocks which over an area of 120,000 acres is a formidable task. They are currently scattered like someone has thrown rice over an area of land, with the occasional clump of bodies in piles.
The Gispy Brahman Stud, the Curley family’s cattle station north of Cloncurry, Queensland, produces Brahman bulls to sell for breeding purposes. They had only recently turned the bulls out for the breeding season, so the bulls were in peak condition, having a head start going into the storm and fared better than most. Cows were still calving, and most of those died. Their weaned calves from the previous year died as well.
ASSESSING THE DAMAGE
Due to the boggy, gumbo-like nature of the ground, the graziers were unable to get around during the storm, the small helicopters they use for gathering cattle and checking the land cannot fly in rain. That is still the main mode of transportation in many areas after this rain event. Once the rain started it never stopped, so the graziers were unable to reach or move their stock. Droughts come on slow and can be coped with, but the flooding came on overnight. The graziers are facing the instant loss of good, healthy stock and were powerless to prevent the tragedy. But the nightmare is far from over.
“Shortly we will be facing potential disease in our groundwater from all of the dead cattle lying around. We will have to be incredibly proactive to ensure that this won’t happen. We have limited resources on the ground in the way of human help at the moment, mostly due to not being able to get into the stations as they are still very wet, but we are incredibly grateful for the family and friends that are here now doing their very best to help in this crisis. We could really do with a lot more support to help us all face what the devastation will be, and to help clean up the bodies of cattle and other wildlife that will be in the thousands. Our daily tasks have gone by the wayside as we are tending to many other more urgent issues, so we would love to call out anyone that can lend a hand to us and the many other stations facing this devastation. We really can’t stress enough that we need people power presently to help us through these tasks.
The people of Australia have offered so many well wishes and their support and we wish that we could be in touch with everyone, but it’s simply not possible at this stage. We would like to say to you all thank you and it means the world to us. It’s very warming to have the Australian and international people come behind us.
Saying this, we really need the Australian government and the banks to collectively come together to help us through this horrible devastation. I had an interview with the ABC national Australia breakfast show to discuss what we thought would be advantageous. We presented that we would need four years of suspended interest and mortgage payments to allow us to rebuild and then we could look at business as usual. Most people we know have lost more than half of their herd and we will need to have help of this kind. If not, we will be potentially looking at an industry that will be wiped out as we know it. I’m not sure if many people outside of our industry understand that insurance isn’t an option for many people when they have cattle. So for many it’s game over. That’s devastating.
The Australian Agricultural Company is a world-leading producer of beef and agricultural products and Australia’s largest beef producer. The company has 21 properties, four of which have been some of the hardest hit by the flooding. According to a Feb. 11 press release from the company, “Our immediate focus is on our people, the welfare of our animals and the tight knit communities in which we operate. The full effects of the flood are being managed and measured in real time.”
Their Wondoola station has been the hardest hit with the herd of 30,000 composite cows and calves sustaining extreme losses and even the headquarters being underwater. Their other herds in the region are also suffering significant death loss. The AACO is Australia’s only listed beef stock company, and since news of the disaster, shares have taken a sharp drop. The company had spent $500,000 building earth mounds for the cattle to shelter on in case of floods, but with water up to rooftops and even two-story homes submerged, the mounds couldn’t save the cattle.
Some of the victims have been posting photos and information on social media, with Jacqueline Curley’s photo album going viral across the globe. But a great many of them are still too heartbroken to voice their pain and have even stopped answering the phone. They are spending days lifting cattle out of bogs and digging through piles of dead for possible survivors, feeding and doctoring them only to be forced to shoot them when it’s obvious they won’t survive.
Stockmen and pilots come back to headquarters begging for more bullets as they carry out the devastating task of humanely putting animals, including horses and pets, out of their misery. One family’s homestead is two stories high and both levels are underwater. They were choppered out and he was forced to make the choice to shoot his working dogs, their horses and his children’s ponies so they wouldn’t suffer any longer trying to swim in the deep water.
These people are now facing the daunting task of burying their livelihoods. Some are able to reach the carcasses but others can’t get the equipment in because of the boggy ground. On top of everything else, the weather has turned hot again. They are in danger of sickness and disease as the rotting bodies contaminate groundwater, all while risking infection from working every day in the mud and battling the insects. The grass will flourish in some areas, while others have had such massive erosion the land will take months and years to heal, especially where there is water standing.
Many graziers have no money to rebuild and no hope for any kind of an income for years. The cattle they were fattening to sell are dead or shrunk to shadows. The drought-stricken Outback already had one of the highest suicide rates in the world and many fear this flood will be the breaking point for countless more. The Royal Flying Doctors are sending in extra doctors and the government has set aside money for mental health support, but with the stigma attached to mental health issues, few are expected to seek help.
The bush chopper pilots work tirelessly hauling hay and supplies, giving a glimmer of hope to those sinking in despair as they deliver feed and fuel to those cut off from the outside world. They are the region’s first responders. Hay is dropped from helicopters to cattle stranded on high ground, hoping to keep them alive until they can be rescued.
“The rain stopped here over a week ago. Our water is dropping, the properties north of here still have river heights of over 62 feet and one river is still nearly 50 miles wide. Unimaginable and never seen before. The flat country is all still under water and will be for many more weeks yet. The only way in and out is by chopper,” said Jennifer Hetherington, Livestock Agent employee in Cloncurry, Queensland. Many of her clients are victims of the flood.
“We are seeing pictures of station owners wading through mud trying to save their cattle or rounding up horses on jet skis. Chopper pilots (bless them) are delivering feed and fuel off their backs. Politicians are flying around in planes full of media for ubiquitous photo opportunities. Where is all the help?” Hetherington said.
Infrastructure of all kinds is gone or damaged: fences, tanks, roads, bridges, and in some cases the homes were also flooded. Due to the railroad tracks being wrecked and most of the outside roads damaged, the stations and surrounding towns are cut off from much of the desperately needed supplies. The damaged roads are hampering the delivery of donated hay and supplies. In places the floodwater has reached to the power lines. The flood waters are just now reaching the coast, so the water is still rising for some and carrying with it carcasses and filth from upstream as the river drains into the Gulf of Carpentaria. The eastern part of Queensland has also been inundated; the coastal town of Townsville is largely underwater due to almost 6 feet of rain. The sparsely populated flooded western regions have received little media coverage, something the locals find infuriating.
While northwest Queensland is underwater, southern Queensland is still in the grip of one of the worst droughts in history. They are facing a heatwave and bush fires in the middle of Australia, but the south has had snow in the forecast.
Friends, neighbors and even those with no contacts are volunteering their time and collecting donations. Hay and personal donations along with money are being collected and distributed to those most desperately in need. ❖