Back from the Brink (Brisbane News, September 25-October 1 2013)
Looking at the calm Brisbane River today, it seems a lifetime ago since floods swept along its winding course in January 2011.
As the swollen river peaked and broke its banks, stormwater drains unable to cope with torrential rain overflowed. The destruction, as many will remember, was heartbreaking.
When the water subsided, volunteers came out in force to help clear the mud and debris and the long recovery process began for the worst- hit suburbs, from Auchenflower to Rocklea.
While residents faced the daunting prospect of rebuilding their homes, many business owners had to make the difficult decision of re-opening their doors or calling it a day.
Here, three business owners share their stories of getting back on their feet, one day at a time.
• Rosalie Endota Spa manager
Some of the most familiar images of the floods show a submerged Rosalie village, barely recognisable except for a few business signs peeking out from the water.
Volunteers in dinghies paddle past empty shops, including Maggie’s day spa, on the corner of Nash and Elizabeth streets.
“When I went down and the water was already in the back of the spa, I remember feeling like I couldn’t breathe. It was unbelievable,” she says.
“I had recently been through a separation after a long marriage … this was my new start, and it was gone. It was 4am and all I could do was ring my friend and say, ‘I’ve lost everything now, it’s gone’.”
Maggie is open in her account of the painful days that followed. There were times, she says, when she just wanted to stay in a darkened room. Her three teenage children were the reason she put one foot in front of the other and “got on with the job” of re-opening her spa.
“I had some amazing help,” she says. “I was blessed. Without the help of my neighbours I absolutely wouldn’t have made it.
“In the clean-up, so many people came here to help, including this group of young people who owned a bathroom renovations business. They lifted my beautiful wood floor, saying if it wasn’t done properly it would wreck the rest of the building. I can’t ever thank them enough.”
Their generosity, she says, was the inspiration for Rosalie Rising, a street party Maggie organised to thank the countless volunteers, many of them strangers, who arrived when the water retreated with mops and buckets and food, working alongside residents and business owners during the massive clean-up.
“I thought, ‘We have to thank these people’, and we also needed to celebrate,” she says. “It was a huge day, but it was great. The party gave us a reason to keep going, and it was part of healing and a way of saying goodbye.”
Today, business is looking good for Maggie, who says many of her “beautiful clients” have returned to the spa, as well as new customers in search of a little R and R.
She’s quick to admit that although she got through it once, she would not be able to return if it flooded again. Her eighth-floor residential apartment in Toowong, however, brings her comfort. The floods, she says, sparked a “burning desire” to live in a place where she could keep an eye on the river.
“I know now that it was something in me saying ‘You need to be in control of the river, not the river in control of you,’” she says. “And if I get flooded there, it doesn’t matter, because we’ll all be in Noah’s Ark.”
• EnviroTrend founder
Janina had just returned from a family holiday and was going through Customs at Brisbane Airport when the floods hit her warehouse at Sumner Park. The light industrial area resembled a lake by the time she made it out of the airport, and there was little she could do except wait for the water to subside.
Wading through the warehouse a few days later, Janina knew that most of her stock of eco-friendly shopping bags had been destroyed or damaged.
“We lost pretty much everything and at the time I did consider closing, just selling off what stock I had and calling it a day,” she says.
“Even in the lead-up to the floods, it was a topsy-turvy period because I had just gone my separate way (from) my business partner, so I was kind of alone in the big wide world. But I had just signed up an American distributor, and the business was my baby. I didn’t want to let it go just yet.”
In the weeks that followed, family, friends and volunteers worked to clear out the mud and salvage any stock they could.
“It was horrible,” she says of the wastage. “We’re all about eco- friendly products and to be taking out cartloads of stuff on to the road to go into landfill, it was just heartbreaking.
“One of our products we just couldn’t do anything with, but the SAKitToMe bags are machine-washable, so between my neighbours and friends and family, we washed about 12,000 of them.
It took us a good six months after the flood to get everything cleaned up, to get new stock in, and to start again.”
For Janina, seeing the “amazing community spirit” and keeping a positive attitude helped buoy her through the two-year recovery period, during which she launched two new products – and retained a sense of humour.
“We’d put out a couple of different collections of fold-up backpacks, and then I thought about raincoats, because of the constant rain,” she says.
“I just looked at the positive side of things and said, ‘Well, you know there are people who lost their lives’.
Nobody was hurt here and at the end of the day it’s just stuff – yes, financially not ideal, but there are a lot of people a lot worse off than me.”
Kathryn and Derek Nicholls • Antique Print Club owners
For some, the floods led them to taking their businesses in an unexpected direction. After 36 years of selling antique maps and prints in Brisbane, Kathryn and Derek decided to close their gallery in Milton’s Camford Square to focus on expanding their online business.
“Out of adversities come opportunities,” Derek says.
Just before the floods, the Nicholls had been exhibiting at the Gold Coast Antiques Fair, returning to their property at Neranwood each night. Two days before the flood peaked, they drove to their Milton gallery to return stock, and after hearing of possible flooding, packed up what they could.
“We only managed two loads each day, and the last time we were loading the van we had water up to our knees,” Kathryn says.
“There was water halfway up the walls and we lost about $50,000 worth of stock. We forgot, in the panic, the storage area underneath the stairs, and lost hundreds of prints.
“We had to get our old bookcase and a few tables restored – you just do it a bit at a time because it gets overwhelming. It was traumatic at the time and it’s still quite raw.”
The Nicholls’ gallery was closed for three months while the entire building was gutted to clean out the sludge.
“The thing that amazed me at the time was that people came out of the woodwork to help,” Derek says.
“We had customers come round with tea and sandwiches, not just for us but for people in the area. One of our customers of 30 years came in and said to us, ‘What can I do?’ and I joked that he could help me strip the walls. He went away and came back with all his building tools and helped me rip them down.”
When they reopened at Camford Square, the customers didn’t follow. “It was a struggle for many in the area. When the post office didn’t reopen, people just never came back. They used to make it their lunchtime trip to go to the post office and call in to the shops … so that business disappeared completely.”
After a year, the Nicholls decided to leave the inner-city and expand their online business, previously run for international clients.
At the Neranwood property, customers can view original maps and prints in the Antique Print Club-house, by appointment.
They also show their prints at the Brisbane Antique Centre, Loganholme, and have a special exhibition at the Brisbane Antique Emporium in Clayfield until the end of this month.
“Everything happens for a reason, and as Derek says, out of adversities come opportunities.”