Risking crocs and snakes to rescue Lola the kitten from floods in Queensland
Tom Foley from Co Limerick went out in a canoe as flood waters rose around his home in Townsville
Tom Foley and his friend Luke Colebrook heading out in their canoe.
An Irishman and an Englishman got into a blue canoe…
What sounds like the beginning of a bad joke was actually the start of a mission embarked upon by Limerick man Tom Foley and his English friend Luke Colebrook, to rescue a 15-week-old kitten Lola from rising flood water around his home in Townsville in north Queensland last weekend.
After record-breaking high temperatures hit Australia last month, unprecedented flooding is wreaking destruction in north Queensland this week. Thousands of homes have been submerged, roads and bridges have disappeared, and sightings have been reported of crocodiles and snakes swimming in the floods. While water levels have receded somewhat in the past 48 hours, it is still raining, with drier conditions not forecast to arrive until Saturday at least.
Railway Estate, the Townsville suburb where Foley lives with his Australian partner Emma Perry, is one of the areas worst affected by the floods. The army and police began knocking on doors last Thursday advising people to evacuate.
As their home is located on slightly higher ground and built in the typical “Queenslander style”, with the living quarters on the first floor, the couple thought they would be safe from the floods.
But as the water continued to rise, and evacuation warnings intensified, they packed up their 4x4 on Saturday morning, along with their two dogs, and drove through the flooded streets to Perry’s mother’s house, on higher land close by.
Once the dogs were safe they returned to get their 15-week-old kitten Lola, but the water was rising too fast, and she went into hiding.
“I have never seen flooding like it. It was beyond belief,” Perry says.
“Streets had become rivers with rapids running through them. People’s cars were being taken, fences were being knocked down. There has been widespread devastation. In some suburbs, water is up to the roof line and people have lost everything. We have been fortunate compared to those people.”
North Queensland is a tropical region which often experiences heavy rainfall at this time of year. But Perry, who grew up in Townsville, says she has never seen flooding like this before.
“In 1998, when I was 12, we had the ‘Night of Noah’. We got 500ml of rain in one night which caused a flash flood, and the whole of Townsville went under. But it receded really quickly,” she says.
“The difference this time with The Big Wet, as they are calling this flood, is that we had heavy rain for five days before the dam was released. Everything was waterlogged, and the big open parks” - designed to fill up with water during heavy rainfall - “were already full.”
The dam over the Ross River filled up to almost 250 per cent capacity before the floodgates were opened on Sunday. The highest it had ever been previously was 170 per cent. After the gates were opened, about 1,900 cubic metres of water a second gushed into the Ross River and ultimately into low-lying Townsville suburbs, causing the flood waters to rise even further.
“This was unchartered territory,” Perry says. “In 2012 there was a damn failure 200km away. They had an inland tsunami which wiped out entire towns; a lot of people were killed. That was on everybody’s minds.”
There were reports of looting in abandoned estates around Townsville, which concerned Foley and Perry, as they had left their home unlocked in the rush to leave. They also worried about their kitten Lola, so Foley decided to go back to the house with his English friend Luke Colebrook, who had a canoe.
“We probably picked the worst time to go out; the tide was going out and the streets facing the ocean had turned into rivers. We canoed down the stream down the main road, and had to paddle fast at the crossroads to get through the rip, because if we got caught we could have been swept out to sea,” says the 31-year-old, a heavy machine driver originally from Limerick who has lived in Australia for eight years.
Arriving at the house, Foley waded through the waist-high water to rescue the kitten. He put Lola in a black plastic bag and locked up before returning to the canoe for the return journey to Perry’s mother’s house.
“The current was too strong so we had to jump out and wade through the water with the canoe, which took hours,” he says. After delivering Lola to safety, Foley and Colebrook went out again in the canoe to assist others in need.
“The army got a bit annoyed at us, saying we shouldn’t be out. But we felt we had to when other people needed help,” he says.
“At no stage did we feel our lives were at risk, we are pretty strong swimmers, but we were afraid of the crocs. We knew they were there. Just as we got out there was one spotted about 200m from our house. We had to just try to not think about it; I was pretending I was in the river back home in Ireland! ”
As the flood waters receded, the couple were able to return to their house on Monday.
“Downstairs is destroyed. We’ll be cleaning for days. It is full of mud. It stinks and there are creatures everywhere,” Foley says.
“We have two snakes up on the side of our house at the moment, looking to get up off the ground. They are only pythons and aren’t poisonous; compared to what you can get here, they are ok.”
Tom Foley and Emma Perry own a small consulting and coaching business called Run it Pro. They are offering discounted services to anyone trying to rebuild their business after these devastating floods. See www.runitpro.com.au.