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Rising from the Flood: Moving the Town of Grantham tells the story of how a community was able to relocate following one of Australia’s most terrifying natural disasters. Through acts of survival, heroism, leadership and love for community, the desperate people of Grantham found hope in Steve’s bold vision for a safe, new future and inspiration in Jamie’s achievement of an almost impossible task.
The first time I went to Grantham I couldn’t wrap my head around how water could cause such catastrophic damage. To this day, I still can’t. I can still recall the smell of mud, the sense of complete destruction. Grantham was the epicentre of the Queensland floods in the summer of 2011 and in the days that followed it was full of people helping in the clean-up and recovery effort. There was a certain buzz that often occurs following a disaster with everyone busy doing what they needed to do. There was no doubt, however, that it was a sombre mood as there were still people missing and the army continued their search for human remains.
Lockyer Valley Mayor Steve Jones had called me after the floods hit Grantham to ask if I could come out and give him a hand. He told me that he wanted to move the town of Grantham to higher ground. Queensland Premier Anna Bligh told him he needed someone to help him and she would send someone straight away. He said he would rather pick his own ‘bastard’ and picked me to be the director for the relocation of Grantham.
I had worked with Steve on a few unusual projects before. We always got along well which was surprising given we couldn’t have been more different. I was an ‘underfed’ American while he was overweight and as Aussie as they come. We worked well together and found we were capable of big things, forming a particularly strong relationship during the relocation of Grantham.
When I reflect on it now, moving the town of Grantham was an epic task. Thankfully, none of us realised just how difficult it would be at the outset and just got on with the job. I don’t think there are many people or organisations that would have taken it on, let alone been successful at it. Steve and I and the rest of the Grantham team weren’t perfect, but we had the right combination of skills to get the job done and to do it successfully. In most circumstances, people would have been overwhelmed with the task ahead and chosen a simpler path towards recovery. Steve rarely chose the simpler path.
After Steve had shown me the most devastated areas I had a good appreciation of what had occurred and the daunting task in front of us just to clean up Grantham, let alone relocate it. As such, for the first few weeks we were busy doing recovery work in the town. We had little time to dedicate to the relocation with all the logistic and clean-up issues. My notes from the time showed such tasks as:
- Get brooms from Bunnings and allocate them.
- Organise cold room and kitchen in town down by the army so they don’t have to walk up the hill.
- Need council trailer and loader at Harris Street.
- Get keys for the backhoe from the depot.
At this time, we were simply performing hundreds of tasks per day. Wake up, start going through the list, keep adding more to the list and hope today would be better than yesterday. Steve would usually ring by sunrise with jobs to do, we would meet up soon after and wouldn’t stop until late in the evening. I remember being on the mobile phone while more calls were coming in and going to voicemail. On any given day I would have been on the phone half the day and still have 30 voice messages to get back to. Being on the ground in Grantham much of the time, I would have little time to check emails and was usually away from my computer with it stuck in a corner of Steve’s office. During this time, I lived in a small motel in Gatton which was in dire need of a facelift. However, as I spent so little time there and was so desperately tired when I arrived late each evening, it really didn’t matter.
A large portion of our time was spent managing media requests. Jason Cubit was Lockyer Valley Regional Council’s Media and Events Officer and he, along with Steve and I, were constantly in contact with media from across Australia and the world. Press conferences, live crosses and comments from Steve all occurred with very little planning. The three of us became a tight-knit inner circle doing our best with what we had on offer and it often worked surprisingly well. Our relationship with the media became very positive due to our laid-back and relaxed approach to them. We tried to give them what they needed, and they generally responded by giving us a great run. With Steve’s natural comfort in front of the camera, the media would become one of our strongest allies in the challenges ahead.
In the beginning there were community meetings most evenings. I recall that these meetings were often difficult with some members of the community frightened about their future and sceptical of authority. Before the flood, few people in Australia had ever heard of Grantham and many who lived there liked it that way. People were now coming from all over Australia to talk to them about the event, the recovery process and offer their help. As a result, some residents were quick to snap, and it was no surprise that many were scared and dubious of outsiders.
When Steve spoke, most people listened. The majority of people in the community were there to understand what was happening. Steve knew how to handle the crowd and a lot was achieved at these meetings. I would routinely get approached by people afterwards who were kind and appreciative, even though they were desperate to get back to a normal life.
I can recall an older couple coming up to me not long after the event. It was following a community meeting and it was clearly visible on their faces how tired they were. I didn’t recognise them as they were not among the vocal members of Grantham but part of the silent majority. They told me that they wanted to demolish their home, get their insurance payout and hand their land over to council for a memorial park. In an event like this, people respond in different ways. Some people want to just lay down and rest, some are desperate to get back to yesterday, and some just want to fight for something. This couple was particularly memorable because they had lost almost everything and were ready to give away what little they had left, move on and never look back. The desire for people to walk away and start fresh somewhere else was strong in the early days. If our effort was to be successful, we needed to come up with solutions for these people before they gave up and left town for good.
There was a great deal of concern that if we did nothing, the community of Grantham would never recover and would eventually become a ghost town. We had been approached by a number of professionals who told us of the risks of a major increase in mental health issues following such a disaster. Domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, family separations and suicide were all real concerns. This was often the case following disasters and Grantham 2011 was one of the biggest disasters Australia had seen. During my time in Grantham, I saw evidence of all sorts of mental health and social issues. Many of these grew as time wore on. And there were others who saw far worse than I did.
If this post-disaster downward spiral was left unchecked, we could all see it spinning out of control. Soon after the flood, there was plenty of good government and not-for-profit mental health support available to the community. But the reality was Grantham needed something to give its residents hope. To simply clean up and put people back in their homes would not address these underlying issues that were growing by the day. Many people were scared and didn’t like the idea of going back, they needed an alternative. We had to make decisions quickly and deliver results that people could see if we were going to move the town.
It would be a few weeks until the general public was allowed back into Grantham. Before that, only residents and people with official business could enter. We were in and out so frequently, and Steve had become so prominent in the media, we were instantly recognised and rarely had to slow down at the barricades.
I distinctly remember problems arose in the Grantham community once the barricades were removed and the general public was allowed in. At that point, many people came to Grantham to offer their support. Grantham was the most devastated area in the Queensland floods of 2011, and they wanted to get in and help any way they could. Unfortunately, when dealing with a community as devastated as Grantham, what the public considered helpful often made our lives and the lives of community members more difficult.
The amount of money and assistance that flowed into Grantham in the months following the flood was overwhelming. Although people may have had the best of intentions, this charity went a long way towards tearing the community apart. Some people took everything they could, while others took nothing. The more vocal community members received more attention and support, and others resented this. Having now had years to reflect on this, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is an important middle ground that needs to be established. Too little and some people feel forgotten or marginalised, too much and some people feel empowered and entitled. And the people who don’t want anything get pissed off at everyone.
The idea to relocate the town was born the day after the flood. It was a logical idea given what had happened. Why would we rebuild Grantham back in the flood plain? Never before had a flood of this magnitude hit Grantham in its recorded history, but now we knew what could happen. It may never happen again in our lifetime, but it could also happen tomorrow. The risk was too great.
Steve told me about moving the town to higher ground the first day I went to Grantham. I remember he was very short on details; Steve was not a details man. His vision was to let the community build back on higher ground. We would make sure that it was done quickly to give people certainty. We would do this because we needed to pick people up and offer them hope. We would do this to give them their lives back. These were straightforward goals that would consume us and drive us through the impossibly turbulent months that followed.
The details were left to me to manage, with a close team of people making it happen. To be clear, many people were involved in the relocation process and most performed their jobs brilliantly. It was a big undertaking and there was a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it. However, our core team had to stay small and tight to keep focused on the key tasks to make the relocation a success.
We had many informal discussions about relocating the town before we got serious about it. At the time, it felt like a long while before we did anything practical about the relocation. In reality however, it was only a few weeks following the event. When Steve formally addressed moving the town, he went all in. This was when he promised the community that we would have people living in new homes by Christmas 2011. Less than twelve months following the disaster.
Rising from the Flood – by Jamie Simmonds is a custom published book and is distributed by Bad Apple Press, if you want more head over here