Recovering From the Brisbane Floods

One tour operator recounts the disaster and how his company has survived and thrived By: Jim Calio & John Sharpe
Riverlife a year after the floods // © 2012 John Sharpe
Riverlife a year after the floods // © 2012 John Sharpe

The Details

Riverlife and Tangatours

A year ago a series of floods devastated large parts of Queensland, Australia, killing 35 people, causing an estimated $1 billion in damage and causing three-quarters of the state to be declared a disaster zone. Many businesses that relied heavily on tourism were affected, but they have slowly picked up the pieces and returned to normal. One of these is Riverlife, an outdoor adventure and kayak company located on the banks of the Brisbane River, which runs right through the center of the city. The owner, John Sharpe, recalls how the rising tide nearly destroyed his business, how he coped with the aftermath and why he's optimistic about the future.

Late in the afternoon of the first day, as the water began to rise and we knew there was no way out, we started to ask passersby to help us get our stock and equipment up to a higher level of the building. Our main building has two stories. Most people would stay and help us move things for about 20 minutes or so and then walk through the rising water to get home. We ended up being trapped at Riverlife for two to three days with the water rising.

We had no idea how high it was going to get, but we knew we had to release the floating pontoons first as they would have caused major structural damage. We also had to tie down our Marquee structure — a tent with poles that we use for wedding ceremonies — and remove railings since they would collect debris from the rising water. Anything that was going to float away or cause damage was the first thing that we attended to.

We moved approximately 4,000 bottled drinks, many other food items, as well as computers, office equipment, audio/visual equipment and flat screen televisions, lockers, tables, chairs, kitchen equipment, adventure equipment such as bikes rollerblades, ropes and harnesses and more than 100 safety helmets. We just let the kayaks and life jackets float inside downstairs.

We obviously couldn’t lift the cold rooms, the refrigerators or the freezers. They would have to be replaced and repaired.

We started to move, eat and sleep around the high tide times. Once the tide peaked we would relax a little, but the water never seemed to recede. We got what we could upstairs and stacked the rest on tables and just hoped the water would not rise above that point. By then, the water had reached the front doors downstairs.

With access in and out of our property cut off, we decided to stop for the night, sit by the rising river, drink a beer and watch in amazement as people’s lives literally drifted past. The feeling was surreal, I had Clint, one of the Riverlife instructors with me, and we decided to go to sleep at high tide. We were exhausted from the day of preparation, sandbagging and moving equipment.

The things floating by were mostly in the center of the river. A lot of them were big, carried along by the power of the swollen river. We saw rain water tanks go by, entire boats, parts of houses, logs, whole trees, pontoons, refrigerators and tables. But there were also small things such as children’s toys, teddy bears, babies’ bottles and the like that drifted over to an area in front of the building that was normally raised  but was now underwater. 

Thankfully, the power to our building was fed from the roadway on a cliff approximately 60 feet above the building, so we had electricity throughout the flood. However, I was careful to turn off power to the areas of the building as they began to be filled with water.

After the final peak, the water started to recede rapidly, and we turned on the fire hoses and started to hose down in preparation for the staff to return to work and help with the massive cleanup. Amazingly, people started to arrive to assist within 24 hours. People came from everywhere: people we didn’t know, our friends, our bank manager and staff, even our opposition businesses. More than 100 people in total helped us afterward. They even had to break through safety barriers set up along the riverbank to get to us. It was an incredible coming together of the people of Brisbane. 

We suffered great loss as a result of the flood, however this event spurred us into action, and we are now stronger and better than ever before. This past November and December our business was up 70 percent from last year — we have put on more sales and marketing staff, and our general staff levels are up approximately 40 percent. We have had the best year on record and the customers are back and supporting us.

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