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Looking back at the start of Queensland's storm from hell

BUNDY BATTLES: People make their way through floodwater in East Bundaberg. About 1200 people stayed in evacuation centres after 2000 homes succumbed to raging floodwater.
BUNDY BATTLES: People make their way through floodwater in East Bundaberg. About 1200 people stayed in evacuation centres after 2000 homes succumbed to raging floodwater. Sabrina Lauriston

JANUARY 18 was a fairly typical day at the Tropical Cyclone Warning Centre in Darwin.

The outside temperature gauge registered a balmy 29 degrees - cool by Darwin standards - but the air conditioner chugged along nicely and the water gurgler in the corner was still doing brisk business.

All eyes were on the tangle of state-of-the-art equipment, the first line of defence.

An area of low pressure over the Gulf of Carpentaria caught the attention. Given the region of low wind shear and high sea surface temperatures, it seemed likely to develop into a system worthy of mention.

Early the next day the system made landfall near Borroloola but looped around and returned to the Gulf of Carpentaria. There it reorganised and gathered strength and by January 21, it was a tropical cyclone

. It was called Oswald.

Some 12 hours after it was named, Oswald hit land just north of Kowanyama with winds over 65kmh. As cyclones go, it was a fairly weak example and was expected to peter out.

But Oswald had other ideas and thanks to strong monsoonal flows and the MJO - a band of low pressure that originates off the east coast of central Africa - the tropical depression became a storm with frightening power.

ROCKY REELS: An aerial view of the swollen Fitzroy River in flood-hit Rockhampton.
ROCKY REELS: An aerial view of the swollen Fitzroy River in flood-hit Rockhampton. STEPHEN JOHNSON

Oswald was unique in its make-up and in its ability to gain strength and even though there was warning of its arrival, this type of system was unprecedented in recorded Australian weather history - meaning even those in the know had little idea of the fury it would unleash.

In retrospect, when Weipa copped 329mm in a matter of hours and Tully received 1000mm (632mm in 48 hours), this should have raised the alarm.

Ingham was cut off as the Herbert River rose and in Cairns, winds of 90kmh downed powerlines and whipped up the sea.

Oswald's march was relentless, leaving behind disasters in Townsville, Bowen, Mackay, Yeppoon, Rockhampton, Gladstone, Baffle Creek and Agnes Water.

With him, Oswald brought a series of tornadoes and spectacular water spouts.

The two that slammed into Bargara and Burnett Heads just after lunch on Australia Day injured 17 people and left no one in any doubt that this weather system would not be forgotten.

With the Burnett River expected to peak at nine metres the following day, police and SES workers started to evacuate North Bundaberg.

The water sped through the city at 70kmh, tearing at bridges, flooding businesses and rising to the rooftops, and lifting up homes with ease.

More than 2000 homes and 200 businesses were hit and 8000 people displaced.

Before the waters reached Brisbane, a few days later, they brought millions of dollars in damage to Hervey Bay and Maryborough, Laidley (in the Lockyer Valley), Gympie (where the river peaked at 21m) and the Sunshine Coast where foaming seas spilled on to roads and hundreds of trees were felled by roaring winds.

Communities further west, including Eidsvold, Mundubbera and Gayndah, were forced to deal with disasters of their own, waiting for help that took days to come.

Ipswich and Brisbane had braced themselves for the worst, but thankfully were, for the most part, spared the heartache of 2011.

Oswald announced its arrival in NSW with 90kmh winds ripping the heart out of Grafton before moving on to Bellingen and Port Macquarie.

It finally ran out of puff on January 29 with the Opera House in sight, slinking quietly into the Tasman Sea. Its 3000km rampage that claimed six lives will never be forgotten.

>> Related: Looking back at the Oswald flooding aftermath

A nation's shock and awe

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Topics:  big wet, bom, editors picks, flooding, oswald




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