A Look Back at the History of Flooding in Brisbane: Causes and Consequences
Brisbane, the capital city of Queensland, Australia, is known for its subtropical climate, cultural attractions, and outdoor recreational opportunities. However, the city’s location on the banks of the Brisbane River has also made it vulnerable to flooding throughout its history.
Since European settlement in the Brisbane area there have been major floods in the following years: January 1841, May 1857, October 1858, March 1890, February 1893, February 1931, January 1974, January 2011 and most recently February 2022.
Brisbane: Highest flood in Brisbane’s recorded history (to 2016). The first recorded flood in Brisbane occurred in 1841, “55 feet above the ordinary height of the Bremer” (The Early Floods of the Brisbane-Bremer River System, 1823-1867) when the Brisbane River broke its banks and caused significant damage. This flood was caused by heavy rainfall and high tides. The heavy rainfall was a result of a tropical cyclone that had formed off the coast of Queensland, which brought in large amounts of rain that caused the river to overflow its banks.
Heavy floods experienced at Ipswich on 10th January 1844 (HA Hunt, 1913 – The Early Floods of the Brisbane-Bremer River System, 1823-1867). Flood peak at Brisbane about 4 feet less than the record 1841 flood.
Heavy floods experienced at Ipswich on 17th December 1845 (HA Hunt, 1913)
Heavy floods at Brisbane and Ipswich. Ipswich: “We are informed by a person of credit that the Bremer roses 24 or 25 foot.” (From Moreton Bay Courier) Possibly peaked Tuesday 13 April of Wednesday 14 April following the Easter weekend.
Great floods at Ipswich and Brisbane in May; river at Ipswich rose 45 feet, and at Brisbane 12 feet.
“The following morning the wharves were completely inundated with the water rising over the banks to flow the lower portions of both North and South Brisbane. Frogs’ Hollow was badly affected and the residents of between twenty and thirty houses had to be evacuated.”
Brisbane Courier, 29th June 1907: “The flood of 1857 was the result of eight weeks’ continuous, but not heavy, rain. There had been a strong fresh in the river for several weeks, and during a portion of this time all vehicular traffic between North and South Brisbane was suspended as the horse-punt at Russell-street was unable to cross on account of the strong current. At Ipswich the river rose 45 feet, and waterside stores were submerged to the roof; in the Brisbane reaches, however, the flood waters did not rise more than 7 feet above ordinary springs. Rowing boats were plying in Margaret, Mary, and Charlotte streets, but except near Edward and George streets there were few house in the streets named. There were only a couple of houses in Albert-street between Charlotte and Alice streets, and the whole of the low-lying ground from Elizabeth-street to the river was a muddy lake. At South Brisbane one could stand on a hill at Cordelia-street near Boundary-street and see an unbroken sheet of water stretching from Melbourne-street to Tribune-street. Stanley-street was submerged from Walmsley-street to within 1000 yards of the present dry dock. A good deal of the land at Hill-end was submerged, as was also the land on the opposite side of the river, now known as St. Lucia, and which was then a dense vine scrub. Most of the scrub lands at Oxley were also under water, as was Montague-road from the Stanley-street to the present West-end Reserve”.
“Nothing but the absence of a fresh in the Brisbane River prevented the most calamitous consequences in Ipswich, as the water rose even opposite Woodend some six feet higher than during the flood of May 1857.” October 1858 (From the North Australian).
Brisbane Great deal of damage done by floods; road to Ipswich impassable; Oxley-Creek residents flooded out; hundreds of acres of land under water; machinery at the mill affected, work stopped; Frog’s Hollow under water; telegraphic communication with Sydney interrupted. River 40 feet above ordinary level.
Brisbane: The greatest amount of damage by recent floods occurred at South Brisbane, Frog’s Hollow, and Fortitude Valley. For many miles along the banks of the river farmers were flooded out, and crops, furniture and in some cases their habitations swept away. Stone jetty at Cleveland completely swept away during a gale on the 18th.
Ipswich: Ipswich surrounded by impassable rivers and creeks immense damage caused. At Gatton the creek rose 1 5 feet higher than ever known before.
Heavy flood at Brisbane 17 to 19 June. At Ipswich one of the greatest floods experienced since 1864 occurred, and the Bremer rose 40 feet above ordinary level; eight persons and over 6,000 sheep drowned at Cecil Plains. Floods also general up country; great damage at places.
The Brisbane River flooded again on March 13, 1890, reaching a height that was 4 feet 2 inches higher than the previous flood in 1887. The flooding subsided the next day.
After cyclonic weather off Brisbane, the bloated Brisbane River burst its banks on February 4, 1893, flooding much of Brisbane’s major commercial centre and numerous low-lying suburbs. Three years had passed since a less severe flood in 1890.
In the February of 1893, the Brisbane River burst its banks three times. It was the occurrence of three major floods in the same month that saw the period named “Black February“. In June of the same year, there was a fourth flood event.
The second cyclone hit on February 11, causing only minor flooding in comparison to the first. The third cyclone, which hit Brisbane on February 19, was almost as destructive as the first, displacing up to one-third of the city’s residents. This time, however, the flood in the Brisbane River was caused primarily by water from the Brisbane River’s upper reaches, rather than the Stanley River.
The Brisbane population was conscious of the prior flood and quickly moved furniture and valuables to higher ground. Those who had recently escaped the first flood were complacent and stared in horror as the waters rose and swallowed their goods. The 1893 Brisbane flood was the worst since white colonisation.
Brisbane had a bustling port with ships going up the river to Eagle Street, Albert Street, and South Brisbane wharves.
River ports create unique challenges for authorities. Large ocean-going vessels had to be properly secured or they could float with the flood and damage wharfs and bridges. The wharves were damaged by large ocean vessels floating above the roof lines due to rising seawater.
South Brisbane and West End’s low-lying riverbanks were especially vulnerable to the torrent. West End buildings were swept downriver and smashed against Victoria Bridge pylons by the water.
HIGH WATER MARK EIGHT INCHES BELOW THE RECORD BRISBANE, Sunday, 5 p.m. The water rose gradually all last night and until 3 p.m. to-day, when it was 8 inches below the mark of the great flood a of a fortnight ago. The flood is now slowly subsiding. Three fatalities are reported thus far Sydney Hollyman, 18 years, a deaf mute employed in the Civil Service grocery stores, Edward-street, was found drowned; a lad named Thomas E. Patton, aged 11 years, was drowned at Paddington; and the body of a child was found floating in Moreton Bay. It is expected other fatalities will be re ported as communication is restored. The water in Queen-street this morning was 7 feet deep at the intersection of Edward-street. A terrific tornado was experienced in Moreton Bay and on its shores on Friday, but it only lasted for a short time. It burst into Canoona Creek, sending the water 40 feet high. The steamers Paluma and Elamang and the hulk Marie Evans have all been floated out of the Botantical Gardens. Pettigrew’s old steamer, the Tadoraah Rajah, sank at the wharf last night. The steam launch Midge to-day took a quantity of flour to Oxley in consequence of the receipt of information that the residents were well-nigh starving. Queen-street last night presented a weird scene. A stretch of water 200 yards in width lay at the intersection of Edward-street, and there was a similar expanse at the intersection – of Creek street Boats were not allowed to ply after dark. The scene was dismal, the only relief being an occasional lantern, attached to a cord or rope, marking the limits of the water. The scene, as viewed from Spring Hill to day, was one of utter desolation. Looking along Edward-street, there was one stretch of water from Charlotte-street right across the Botanical Gardens to Kangaroo Point Several hundred houses were sub merged at West End and many scores at Kangaroo Point. There is a feeling of relief now that the water is subsiding.The Warwick Argus, 21 February 1893
The 1893 floods killed 35 people.
The next major flood occurred in 1887, when the river reached a height of 15.4 meters, causing widespread damage and loss of life. This flood was also caused by heavy rainfall and high tides. The heavy rainfall was a result of a La Niña weather pattern which brought in more rainfall than usual and caused the river to overflow its banks.
Most city wharves submerged and water reached almost to Stanley Street, South Brisbane. More serious inundations in parts of suburbs, notably the Milton, Oxley, Rocklea, Fairfield and Sherwood districts. Bridges and roads in Greater Brisbane area damaged to extent of about 25,000 pounds.
Tropical Cyclone entered the Coral Sea near Cooktown and moved southward to Hervey Bay. Initially serious flooding occurred in north Queensland with one drowning. As the system moved south towards Hervey Bay, major floods developed over southeast Queensland with thirteen hundred homes inundated in Brisbane on the 5th February. Two people drowned. Most of the flooding in Brisbane was in Breakfast Creek where one thousand and fifty six houses were flooded – three hundred and ninety six above floor level. Around midday on the 5th February, before the heavy rain in the creek catchment, high tide level at the mouth of Breakfast Creek was 1.1 m above ordinary high water spring levels. The subsequent flood levels above Bowen Bridge exceeded the February 1893 flood levels. (From Queensland Times, Mon 9 Feb 1931)
On Saturday 24th October there was flash flooding in the Brisbane City metropolitan area in Kedron Brook and Enoggera Creek resulting in damage to furniture and fittings in private homes. Several people were drowned.
In 1974, the Brisbane River reached a height of 6.6 meters, causing widespread damage to the city. This flood was caused by a combination of heavy rainfall, high tides, and a storm surge. A storm surge is an abnormal rise in sea level caused by the wind and low pressure of a storm, which in this case was caused by a tropical cyclone. The combination of heavy rainfall, high tides and storm surge caused the river to overflow its banks.
The floods that occurred on January 27, 1974, are considered to be the worst to hit Brisbane in the twentieth century. The river system was at capacity by the end of October 1973, thanks to an extremely wet spring. Cyclone Wanda, on the other hand, dumped 642 mm of rain on the city in just 36 hours.
The floods peaked at 6.6 metres according to the City Gauge which led to the River breaking its banks and causing around 8,500 homes to be flooded and the formation of a 200 square kilometres inland sea. During this time, fourteen people were killed, the majority of whom were in the inner city suburbs. The total damage was estimated to be $200 million. As a result of these floods, the Wivenhoe Dam and other flood mitigation measures were put in place to help control water levels and ensure that such devastation never happened again to the people of Brisbane.
The flood in Brisbane which occurred in January 2011, when the Brisbane River reached a height of 4.46 meters, causing widespread damage and loss of life. This flood was caused by a combination of heavy rainfall and high river levels in the catchment area. The heavy rainfall was a result of a La Niña weather pattern which brought in more rainfall than usual and caused the river to overflow its banks. The high river levels were caused by the heavy rainfall in the catchment area which flows into the river and caused the river to overflow its banks.
Flood waters affected approximately 20,000 houses, with St Lucia, West End, Rocklea, and Graceville among the worst affected areas. Due to the flooding, much of Queensland was declared a disaster zone, with 35 people killed and approximately 200,000 people affected across the state.
The flooding was caused by a low pressure system over Queensland’s southern coast, which drew moisture from the Coral Sea to the north and raised it over the Queensland coastline. The area of colder air higher in the atmosphere through which the low-pressure system moved, causing the atmosphere to become unstable and allowing moisture to be lifted up and fall as rain. It was one of Brisbane’s biggest flooding events which brought more damage than the floods of 2011. Local flooding was a culminative combination of dam outflow, catchment runoff, intense sustained rainfall for two weeks with rising creek levels.
The Brisbane CBD was flooded, as were the inner city areas of South Bank and South Brisbane, Milton, West End, Windsor, Lutwyche, Gordon Park, Grange, Wooloowin, Toombul, and Newstead. The Brisbane River reached a height of 3.8 metres (12 feet) on February 28th, higher than the 2.3-metre (7 ft 7 in) peak height of flooding in 2013, but lower than the 3.9 metres recorded during the 2010-2011 Queensland floods and less than the peak height of 4.46m in 2011. The Kedron Brook Floodway broke its weir at multiple points, inundating houses in the surrounding suburbs and flooding the popular and iconic Toombul Shopping Centre, which was forced to close permanently due to flood damage. The Kedron Brook Floodway sustained significant infrastructure damage as a result of the 1000mm of rain that fell in its catchment during the 72-hour flood period. More than 23,000 homes in 177 Brisbane suburbs were inundated. Houses not impacted by the floodwaters suffered severe outbreaks of black mould as well as building and ground saturation.
During the February disaster, 22 people are known to have died. Almost a thousand schools were closed in South East Queensland and the Wide Bay-Burnett region as a result of the flooding, and the public was advised to avoid non-essential travel. Food shortages have been reported throughout the region.
Brisbane had implemented several measures to reduce the risk of flooding, such as building flood-proof infrastructure, maintaining river channels, and improving the city’s stormwater drainage system. However, the city remains at risk of flooding due to its location on the river and the potential for heavy rainfall and high tides, and even the weather patterns like El Niño and La Niña, which can affect the amount of rainfall the city receives.
Despite the challenges that come with living on the banks of a river, the city of Brisbane continues to attract residents and visitors alike with its unique blend of natural beauty and urban amenities. However, it’s important to be aware of the potential risks of flooding, and to take precautions to protect yourself and your property in the event of a flood.
It’s also worth mentioning that the city of Brisbane has made significant efforts to prevent and mitigate the effects of floods. These efforts include the construction of flood-proof infrastructure, such as the construction of flood gates and walls, as well as upgrading existing infrastructure. The city also has a flood warning system in place, which alerts residents and businesses of potential floods in real-time.
Additionally, the city has been working on improving the drainage system to ensure that the water is directed away from the city and into the river quickly. This includes the construction of new stormwater channels, and the maintenance of existing channels to ensure they are clear and functioning properly.
Despite these efforts, it’s important for residents and visitors to be prepared for the possibility of flooding. This includes having an emergency plan in place, and knowing what to do in the event of a flood. Some tips include having an emergency kit ready, staying informed of the weather and flood warnings, and being aware of evacuation routes.
The history of flooding in Brisbane serves as a reminder of the potential risks of living on the banks of a river. However, the city has made significant efforts to prevent and mitigate the effects of floods, and residents and visitors can take steps to protect themselves and their property. It’s also important to be aware of the current weather patterns and forecast, and to stay informed of flood warnings in order to stay safe in case of any potential flooding event.