NO-man’s-land encrusted with cattle carcasses and graziers hovering in helicopters, unable to reach their bogged, starved and diseased animals, tells the tale of heartache felt across the rural areas of Townsville diocese.
An estimated 500,000 cattle perished in the floods, a direct economic loss of about $300 million.
Townsville Bishop Tim Harris said he was troubled by the crushing debt falling on people out in the rural areas.
“I was talking to one fellow who lost 400 bulls at $4000 a pop, now that’s $1.6 million,” Bishop Harris said.
“This is the message well and truly – it’s more than devastation, in some cases people have been wiped out. ‘Lost the lot’ is how one person described it to me.”
Bishop Harris said he had spoken to many people who not only suffered financial loss but also a great emotional toll too.
“What’s devastating, and this is graphic and gruesome, the water has been to such an extent that the cattle are drowning, or getting pneumonia, or fever, or all the above,” he said.
“They’re caught in the bog.”
Bishop Harris said some of the graziers described their livestock’s hide peeling off from rot and sickness, and then “the sun burns the flesh”.
He said the graziers described to him some cases where, surveying their property in a helicopter, they could only see the heads of their cattle poking out of the water “just blinking”.
“In one case, the dingos have been attacking the animals when they’re bogged,” he said.
“Now you think about that.
“That’s why I’m being quite strong about it, because, ladies and gentlemen, this is not a walk in a park.”
The bishop said what was upsetting the farmers was “they want to put their animals out of their misery, they want to shoot them but they can’t get to them”.
“They’ve got to hover over them in a helicopter and shoot them from the air,” he said.
Another problem described to Bishop Harris was the silt.
“The land is not recognisable anymore because the water has gouged out the country, and now there’s a silt that’s formed on the soil,” he said.
“And there’s a belief that the silt is going to stop the grass from growing.
“We’ve got this absolutely vicious cycle that’s one thing after another that, to me, is devastation like we’ve never seen before.”
Even once the cattle have died, they still require disposal, typically by burial to stop the spread of disease.
But Bishop Harris told all those suffering from the flood to “hang in there”.
“We need to, as fellow human beings, be attentive to the needs of others,” he said.
“That is being very Christ-like.
“It’s up to us all to rally around these people and be the face of Christ to them, however imperfect that face might be.”
But far from the rural areas, back in the suburb of Annandale, flanking Ross River, Vinnies Townsville region retail operations manager Matthew Griffin said some landlords had exorbitantly raised prices on their rentals.
“It’s just sad at this time that people are profiteering off people’s sadness,” Mr Griffin said.
“I just think it’s awful that they can actually do that,” he said.
He said houses usually rented for $575 per week had their price raised upward of $1100 per week.
Mr Griffin said there were a lot of people “left high and dry”.
“Where are they going to live?” he asked.
The father-of-three said his house had been inundated and almost everything had to be replaced.
“I’ve got twin daughters that are 12, and a nine-year-old boy,” Mr Griffin said.
“One of my twins and my nine-year-old think the whole thing is a bit of a party, but one of my other twin girls is very sensitive and she’s upset all the time that she lost her house and her belongings,” he said. “(I) just have to reassure her.
“It’s not nice when you put all your belongings on the front lawn and you watch the army pick it up and put it in the back of the truck and take it to the dump.
“It’s pretty tough – pretty heart-wrenching – that you work for it your whole life.”
Bishop Harris said fixing his own house had become a waiting game.
“A lot of houses have to be restored and there’s only so many tradespeople in Townsville,” he said.
“It’s this waiting, waiting, waiting which I think I’ll have to do a lot of. But as I say that, there’s a lot of people worse off.”
Bishop Harris had the chance to survey parts of the Townsville City suburbs.
Wherever he went, he said, the destruction was visible.
An estimated 20,000 homes had flood damage or were evacuated.
“It’s like a war zone as you visit other people in Idalia,” Bishop Harris said.
“Everywhere you drive there’s these huge piles of stuff from people’s houses – mattresses, carpet, white goods,” he said.
“So the army are coming through and taking all the stuff away. This will go on and on and on for some months.”
But even “in the mess”, he said, God’s work shone through the stories of kindness and humanity.
“People are essentially good,” he said.
“When they see another person hurting, they will reach out and help.
“I think that’s innately part of who we are as human beings.”
Charities, including the St Vincent de Paul Society and the Brisbane archdiocese’s Catholic Foundation have begun providing assistance to those affected through appeals.
Mr Griffin said the flood appeal had been “absolutely amazing”.
“Not only in monetary donations but just people banding together all up and down the coast,” he said.
“I had a 50-cubic-metre truck arrive today with furniture from a place in Cairns.
“We’ve had vans and buses arrive here just with donations full of them.
“We didn’t know these things were coming; they just keep coming and keep coming.
“The support’s been pretty amazing, people are banding together.”
Mr Griffin, who oversees the diocese’s 20 Vinnies stores, said he felt lucky because he got to help people.
He said he saw people enter the stores in need of money, essentials, clothing, and “walk out of here with happy faces”.
Bishop Harris said he addressed the flood in his Sunday homily. He read Pope Francis’ condolence message to the parishioners.
The telegram, penned to Bishop Harris from the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said the Holy Father was praying for the people of Townsville.
“Having learned of the loss of life and destruction of property caused by the heavy flooding in Townsville, the Holy Father assures you of his heartfelt solidarity and prayers for all those affected by this disaster,” the telegram read.
“His Holiness prays especially for the repose of the deceased, the healing of those injured, and for the important work of reconstruction.
“Upon all Pope Francis willingly invokes abundant blessings of consolation and hope.”
Bishop Harris said it was a “wonderful message from the Pope”.
He said he was appealing for prayers to the people of the west, underlining the devastation and the aftermath of the floods.
“It’s just horrendous, horrendous,” he said.
“Towns and individuals are going to be destroyed by this.
“The economies of these towns are going to take a tremendous hit and people’s lives are at stake here, literally.”
Gifts for the Townsville Flood Relief Appeal can be made online on the catholicfoundation.org.au/how-we-help/flood-relief-appeal or by calling the Catholic Foundation office on (07) 3324 3200.