Two days before floodwaters threatened the Ipswich region, west of Brisbane, in January 2011, Darren and Brad Zanow knew they had to move their belongings to higher ground.
The brothers run a quarry business on the banks of the Brisbane River at Fernvale, 20 kilometres downstream from Wivenhoe Dam.
“I had a phone call from a guy coming down the Blackbutt Range and the whole range was falling in — it [the rain] was that heavy,” Brad Zanow said.
“Darren and I sat down and did some simple figures over the catchments — 17,000 square kilometres at 175 millimetres told us that water was on its way.
“It was going to be here in the next 24 to 36 hours and at that point in time we didn’t believe it was going to fit in the dam.”
The calculations saved their livelihoods.
On January 11 that year, 6 metres of water washed through their worksite, but most of their excavators, truck, fuels and office equipment was safe.
“It is a life-changing event, going through something like that flood,” Darren Zanow said.
“It was the emotion of the people you were around at the time, especially on the Tuesday night knowing what had happened the day before in Grantham and you were thinking how many people are going to die here tonight?”
Class action underway in NSW court
The Zanow brothers are two of more than 6,000 flood victims from Brisbane and Ipswich involved in a class action case against the state of Queensland and dam operators Seqwater and Sunwater, now underway in the New South Wales Supreme Court.
During the January 2011 floods, more than 2,000 homes in Brisbane and Ipswich were swamped and thousands more homes and businesses were affected.
The class action is alleging dam operators failed to follow their own manual and did not make enough room for heavy rainfall until it was too late, heightening flood levels and damaging more properties.
Barrister Julian Sexton QC said the dam engineers were forced to take “drastic action”, dumping about 7,400 cubic metres of water a second, worsening floodwaters already peaking downstream.
For Brad and Darren Zanow, involvement in the class action is made even more painful by the fact that they asked for Wivenhoe Dam to be purged in December 2010 — a month before the floods — to give Ipswich and Brisbane extra protection.
Downstream from the Zanows, resident and businessman Lubo Jonic still lives in the Goodna house at Ipswich that flooded in 2011.
The water came up to his second-storey window.
Seven years on, all the repairs are finished, but his livelihood has never been the same.
Mr Jonic owned a mix of nine residential and commercial properties in the area and his sons owned two homes — all were flooded.
“When the floods came, we lost the whole lot of them,” he said.
“My mother, she lived on the corner … we built a house for her … she walked out with her dress — everything she owned her whole life, she lost the lot.”
‘Struggling ever since’
Mr Jonic spent upwards of $2 million to fix the properties quickly and return to normality, but his tenants never came back.
“I’ve been struggling ever since — it’s really set me back, even now we’re struggling,” he said.
While remuneration would offer relief to flood victims, Darren Zanow said he believed the best compensation the class action could deliver was future flood preparedness.
“I really do think that seven to eight years on already some complacency has built up,” Darren Zanow said.
“People along the river have sold up and moved on because they feel unsafe and others have moved in … I worry that those people are green.
“Floods are going to happen because we live on a floodplain and we need to look at educating communities annually — led by council and government — and that’s where I feel that we are lacking at this point in time.”
Darren Zanow refuses to join the exodus from the region, instead throwing himself into campaigning for a new exhibition and flood evacuation centre at the Ipswich Showgrounds and heavy involvement in updating Seqwater’s flood operations manual.
Dam operators defend actions
Opening statements have now concluded in the NSW Supreme Court, with the matter adjourned until next year when witnesses will be called.
The operators of Wivenhoe and Somerset dams are defending their actions during the weather event.
“We have never wavered from our belief that our flood engineers did an extraordinary job in the most difficult and demanding circumstances,” a spokesperson for the operators said.
“Our operation of the dams and the release strategies adopted by our engineers significantly mitigated the flood.”
Seqwater barrister Brian O’Donnell QC told the court it would have been an “extreme” method to pre-release water before the rain had even fallen, arguing the Bureau of Meteorology had itself warned of the reliability of its predictions.
The court also heard victims of the 2011 south-east Queensland floods should have done more to protect their properties.
The trial will return to court in February.