11 January 2024

How a two-storey house in Rossville saved 15 lives during record floods

| Matt Nicholls
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Brad and Viola and their dog Yona after the flooding in Rossville.

Brad Smith’s hands are still a little shaky as he rolls a cigarette.

“I think it was six days ago,” he says of when he decided to start smoking again, having been off the darts for decades.

“We’ve already talked about (quitting). When everything is cleaned and in the machinery shed, I’ll stop.”

When you hear the story of Brad and his wife Viola, you’ll understand why he went looking for some stress relief.

At the height of the floods, they had five adults, six dogs and four cats taking refuge on the mezzanine of their two-storey property, with water lapping at the balcony.

Fifteen lives that may have been lost if not for the unique design of the purpose-built house, although it wasn’t built to go underwater.

Brad and Viola ended up stuck on their Rossville property for five days as a swollen Wallaby Creek prevented access by road.

Helicopters eventually arrived as authorities conducted welfare checks, and some of their neighbours who had taken refuge at their property were airlifted out, but it was a long slog for Brad and Viola.

While the water has now subsided, the impact of the flooding will be felt for a long time.

Their house is no longer habitable, one cat had to be euthanised as a result of the stress, while Brad and Viola’s four horses were unable to be saved.

One carcass was discovered, while the three other horses are missing, presumed dead.

Lush green paddocks were turned into a river bed as floodwater engulfed Brad and Viola’s Rossville property.

Speaking to Cape York Weekly, Brad said he was still in shock.

“I thought we have always been well prepared because we’re standalone … completely off the grid,” he said.

“We are used to getting flooded in. Every wet season we get cut off for several days because of the creek. But we’re prepared for that with food in the freezer.

“The water has never threatened the house before.”

Brad and Viola moved to Rossville around 13 years ago and had just put the finishing touches on their property to set themselves up for retirement.

“We’ve got satellite internet, we’ve got mobile reception here in Rossville, which is new, and we’ve got our own independent power system,” he said.

“When we knew about the cyclone coming we were well prepared. And (Cyclone Jasper) was a non-event, really.”

The heavy rain that followed was not predicted, however.

“It wasn’t until the Sunday that I thought there might be an issue,” Brad said.

“I think it was around lunchtime when the water from the bottom paddock – which always floods in the wet season – started rising towards the house and made me take notice. It only took two to three hours to get to the house.”

A text message from Cook Shire Council came in to warn them of the flooding “just before 3 o’clock” but it was too late for most.

“It was a generic message … it said move to higher ground. We couldn’t go anywhere. We’d already been flooded in for a few days. As soon as you see water in the paddocks we are already cut off at the creek,” Brad said.

Floodwater rose to Brad and Viola’s mezzanine balcony.

Shortly after, a panicked neighbour came by holding her cat with a dog next to her.

Her two other dogs were struggling in the floodwater.

“I grabbed her and the dog and got them in the door and up the stairs. Then I went and grabbed the other two dogs by the scruff of the neck and got them inside,” Brad recalled.

“At that point we had four dogs and four cats upstairs and the water was still rising.”

Then came Pete, another neighbour looking for higher ground.

“He told us that our other neighbour, Robin, was going to stay put on the roof of his van.”

Brad’s attention then turned to Lizzie, who lived on their property under a giant marquee.

“I went out and yelled to Lizzie to get in her car and drive to higher ground,” he said.

“She couldn’t get out but she would have been fine if she could get to higher ground.

“She was hanging on to her two dogs and managed to get them into the tray and up near the roof of the car, but she wasn’t able to drive (to higher ground).”

Lizzie stayed there for six hours – up to her neck in water at one point – until the water subsided briefly enough to get to the house.

The downstairs section of the house was completely destroyed.

“It was strange because the water came down three times and went back up again,” Brad said.

“At about 9 o’clock at night we saw a flashlight outside and said ‘that’s Lizzie’, so we got her and the two dogs upstairs.”

That took it to five adults, six dogs and four cats.

Then the water rose again.

“At this stage we were thinking we’d have to get on the roof of the house. And there was no way we could get the animals on the roof with us,” Brad said.

“All of our downstairs belongings were floating around so we started grabbing stuff we thought we might be able to use; things like food, cups and water bottles.”

Calling for help was pointless.

“I tried to call Triple Zero … even though the phone said ‘emergency calls only’, it didn’t work. I made 16 calls and nothing happened,” Brad said.

On the Monday afternoon, once the water had fallen enough, Robin walked over.

“He looked like a drowned rat, having spent the night on the roof of his van,” Brad said.

“He was the first we got airlifted out because he needed medical assistance. He and Pete both have terminal illnesses.”

While Brad and Viola are keen to rebuild their life on the property they love, they do so with caution.

All of their belongings were destroyed.

“Who knows what the water is going to do next time? The landscape has changed so much. It’s a bit of a worry,” Brad said.

“It took 13 years to get it to the way we wanted and we don’t have insurance … we had insurance but the cost was too much after a couple of hard years.”

Brad, who is the president of the Rossville and District Citizens Association, said he had learnt one key point as a result of the floods.

“You’ve got to look after one another,” he said.

“That’s the most important thing. Whether you’re the person looking after someone or someone else is looking after you, the main thing is to be there for each other.”

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