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EXCLUSIVE: Kinchant Dam operators to face inquiry

Michael Cousen said he was at his Sarina-Homebush Rd property when he saw
Michael Cousen said he was at his Sarina-Homebush Rd property when he saw "a wall of water” coming towards him. Emily Smith

EXCLUSIVE: THE role Kinchant Dam's operators played in flooding that devastated the Eton region will be scrutinised by the state's chief scientist.

The Daily Mercury can reveal that State Water Minister Mark Bailey has called on Queensland Chief Scientist Professor Suzanne Miller to launch an independent assessment into the operation of Kinchant Dam and warning systems for communities downstream, following a visit to the decimated community this week.

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Last Wednesday, residents had to be rescued by helicopter and homes were wrecked in the biggest flooding many had seen in the Eton region.

When Tropical Cyclone Debbie hit Tuesday, the upstream dam sat at 103% of its maximum operating level, prompting many to place part of the blame for the extent of the flooding on dam operators SunWater.

Although it started releasing water Monday, on Wednesday more than 1126 Olympic swimming pools worth of water started spilling.

That water only added to the massive deluge already heading down Sandy Creek following record rainfall.

 

The roads of Eton were totally submerged.
The roads of Eton were totally submerged. Mitchell Cole

And as phone lines and internet were down, no warning got through to many of the downstream residents.

"It is crucial for communities living and working downstream of the dams to receive timely and clear notifications of any spills," Mr Bailey said.

"Queenslanders have shown great resilience in dealing with extreme weather, but it's important for communities to be informed and prepared and to have confidence and understanding of the operations of the dams."

The assessment would be finalised by June 30, 2017.

Yet SunWater executive general manager operations Colin Bendall thought the company had done all it needed to, to warn downstream residents.

He believed it should have been the role of emergency services and the local disaster management groups to ensure the warnings were heard, once they were told SunWater's text messages were not getting through.

"It's not SunWater's role to go out into a cyclone and knock on doors. That's the local disaster management group and emergency services would perform that role. And we wouldn't send our staff out into the cyclone until it is safe to do so," he said.

"Flood warnings statewide sit with BOM and the local disaster management groups. And SunWater feeds information into these groups as part of the bigger picture, not just the isolated section that relates to the dams."

 

Cyclone coverage Alan and Beverley Creber at their home thtas Flooding in North Eton near Mackay. Pic Annette Dew
Cyclone coverage Alan and Beverley Creber at their home thtas Flooding in North Eton near Mackay. Pic Annette Dew Annette Dew

He also wanted to point out there are three branches of Sandy Creek that flow to the Eton area and Kinchant Dam is only on one of these, and that it only made up a small portion of the creek's total catchment area.

He highlighted that when the dam is at 100% of its 'operating capacity', it is still 1m below the spillway, so can still take on a large amount of water before spilling.

Mr Bendall is in the region to hear from Eton residents about where improvements could be made and to help them understand how the dam is operated.

 

Eton region residents Albert and Rhonda Schmidtke.
Eton region residents Albert and Rhonda Schmidtke. Emily Smith

Everything lost

Eton region residents Albert and Rhonda Schmidtke, who lost a couple of hundred thousand dollars worth of machinery that day, believed SunWater's decisions "definitely" made things a lot worse.

"Probably Kinchant just tipped everyone over the edge, it just made it that much worse," Mrs Schmidtke said.

"That water should have been dumped a lot earlier."

They also believed the company should have had a backup warning system in place for when technology failed.

"If I had warning, I only had to take (my machinery) half a k up the road and I'd be high and dry. (I'd have saved) a couple of hundred thousand worth of machinery, a lot of heartache and a lot of hard work," Mr Schmidke said.

"They should have gone the old fashioned way and got a car with a horn."

When the circus came to town about 10 years ago, he said, it had no problem spreading the word by driving around the region in a car with a loud speaker.

 

State government rescue helicopter Rescue 500 from Brisbane lands at Walkerston, after bringing residents from Eton.
State government rescue helicopter Rescue 500 from Brisbane lands at Walkerston, after bringing residents from Eton. Emily Smith

Michael Cousen was at his Sarina-Homebush Rd property that Wednesday, when he saw "a wall of water" coming towards him.

"There was water coming from two different directions which was really strange. We saw the creek was rising definitely from rainwater. But all the Kinchant water came from a different direction," he said.

"We were told we'd have warnings and I'm a customer of SunWater and I get them by text, and there's not one text."

 

Haydn McNichol spent the night in a boat, with his wife and three dogs after 2m of water flooded his Eton home.
Haydn McNichol spent the night in a boat, with his wife and three dogs after 2m of water flooded his Eton home. Emily Smith

While he didn't blame the dam operators for the flood, he was frustrated by the poor communication. He also would have given anything to have that crucial window of time to prepare.

Water went all through his house, and he spent Wednesday night sitting at the kitchen table with flood water swirling around his knees.

His parents, Pat and Ron Cousen, spent the night sitting in the back of the ute in the garage, with the dog.

"We talked about it and said 'we hope this isn't it'," Mrs Cousen said.

"When we came back in the house we just couldn't believe what we found. And what we didn't find, things floated out the back door."

On Tuesday, Mrs Cousen was spending her 64th wedding anniversary watching as the tiles and walls were pulled out of her Homebush home. But she noted at least the upside was "everything would be cleaned out when it's all done".

 

Homebush residents face starting from scratch in the wake of the unprecedented flood.
Homebush residents face starting from scratch in the wake of the unprecedented flood. Emily Smith

Across the road, Heather Brady was teary as ruined furniture was thrown out of the home she'd lived in for 38 years, a former Catholic church.

As her friend Elizabeth Camilleri explained, they were throwing away "a lifetime of memories".

She said 000 hadn't worked and the couple hadn't been able to call for help, forcing them to climb into their loft and hope the water would recede. They were eventually picked up by the swift water rescue team, who dropped them at the General Gordon Hotel.

"I was terrified, I'd been through floods as a kid, so I knew what was coming," Mrs Brady said.

 

Eton Rural Fire Fighters Andrew Vassallo, John Muscat, Paul Vassallo and Adrian Vassallo.
Eton Rural Fire Fighters Andrew Vassallo, John Muscat, Paul Vassallo and Adrian Vassallo. Emily Smith

But she was touched by support shown to her by the community; a stranger came and fixed her generator and water pump, a friend bought around a caravan for family to stay in and community members flocked to help clean up.

Around the corner, Candice Curran even practised climbing onto the roof with her husband, six-year-old and three-year-old, as the flood water raced around her home.

 

Cyclone coverage Felicity Allen , Ashley and Kristy Bourke evacuating their home , Flooding in North Eton near Mackay. Pic Annette Dew
Cyclone coverage Felicity Allen , Ashley and Kristy Bourke evacuating their home , Flooding in North Eton near Mackay. Pic Annette Dew Annette Dew

A friend had managed to call who'd received the text from SunWater, which had recommend they "self evacuate".

But water was at the back step and they couldn't.

Ms Curran called 000, and the operator advised she prepare herself to get on the roof. "I was freaking out I was not in a good state," she said.

 

A home in Eton that was luckily raised, saving it from flood waters.
A home in Eton that was luckily raised, saving it from flood waters. Mitchell Cole

While her husband tried to get to the shed for a ladder, the water was waist deep and current was too strong.

"He said "I'm going to have to work out how to hoist you onto the roof," she said. "I stood on his knee and then his shoulder and he lifted me onto the roof. Then he would give me the kids and the backpack and then he was going to come up himself."

Luckily, the swift water rescue team arrived at about 9.30 that night, and took them to safety in their boat.

"I'm happy to get out with our lives really," she said.

Topics:  editors picks kinchant dam mackay weather mark bailey state government sunwater weather


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