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Recent Natural Disasters - the Worst Floods

Updated on June 5, 2016

Brisbane in Flood: 12 Jan 2011



Flooding is where an overflow of water temporarily covers land. This overflow can be attributed to a deluge of rain, a tsunami, an overflowing river, watercourse or body of water, melting ice-flows, or freak storm event. Floods are part of the earth's geological, ecological and even Biblical history.

The Recent Natural Disaster Series

'Floods' is a follow on from "Recent Natural Disasters - the Worst Earthquakes", part of the 'Recent Natural Disaster' series discussing a common perception that natural disasters are occurring more frequently as well as becoming more intense in recent times. I address seven types of natural disasters (Earthquakes, Fires, Floods, Avalanches, Cyclones/Hurricanes/Tornadoes, Tsunamis and Volcanoes) in this series. I describe how Pickrell (cited below) argues that scientists state that this is not actually so. Pickrell goes on to put that natural disasters are worsening in their capacity to cause damage because populations and development are increasing, particularly in coastal areas. The reason behind the perception that natural disasters are getting more frequent appears to be increased media coverage. The other side of the story is captured in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (cited below) stating that 2010 was the second worst year for natural disasters since 1980 with 950 recorded disasters, 295,000 people dead and a disaster cost of $130 billion. This series will look at those propositions in the light of the worst recent disasters.

The "Inland Tsunami"

Man Rescues Kangaroo in Qld Flood


Queensland Floods 2010/2011

Affecting three quarters of the state, the Queensland Floods started in December 2010 with Central Queensland the first part of the state to go under.

Queensland is the second largest state in Australia at 1,852,642 square kilometres (Texas is 696,200 km2). 35 people died, 9 people are still missing and over 200,000 people were affected. The coal industry, a major Queensland employer, was heavily damaged. The damage bill is estimated to be about 1 billion dollars while the Australian Gross Domestic Product is said to have been reduced by 30 billion dollars due to the flood events.

After the Central Queensland inundation, the waters continued to rise in the more southern parts of Queensland. Most places were given adequate warning and most of the 70 affected towns/cities were able to be evacuated well in time. The exception to this is the Toowoomba/Lockyer Valley inland flash flood, where most of the lives were lost. The locals referred to the flash floods as an 'inland tsunami' and tell of a "wall of water" descending on them with no warning at all. Toowoomba is a town several hundred metres above sea level, on the top of the Great Diving Range. No one anticipated a flood like this in a place so high.

Anecdotes from the Toowoomba/Lockyer Valley region include stories of people seeing water at their feet inside their homes suddenly, then turning around to call out to a wife or husband in warning only to have the water rise to their chests before they had finished calling out. Entire houses were swept away within moments in the raging waters.

Other stories include people clinging to tree tops praying to be seen by passing helicopters. These people often shared the tree tops with local wildlife. People and animals were just trying to survive. Helicopter crews reported that the people they tried to pull our of the trees often had snakes wrapped around them (the snakes were not biting the people apparently, but did cling to them for warmth and out of fear).

Cars, homes, fences, tanks, anything not fixed to the ground and much that was got swept away in the fast-flowing turbulence. In one tragic story a woman clutching onto her young son was assisted by a rescue officer, who took her child to help her but then lost hold of the child. The woman survived, but her little son died.

Shortly after the Toowoomba/Lockyer Valley devastation came the flooding of Ipswich and Brisbane. The Brisbane Floods did not rise as high as those in 1974 and 1893 but did exponentially greater damage. This is due to the city being vastly more populated and developed than it was in 1974 and 1893. Issues faced by state and local government include the development of flood prone areas, both why this has been allowed to happen and what to do about it.

The Queensland Floods could not be classified as the worst in terms of loss of life, but the sheer size of the catastrophe and the magnitude of the damage had been unseen by Australia up to that point and must rank as one of the most widespread flood events this century.

Toowoomba Flood Footage

Brisbane Flood Jan 2011

Flooding on Ipswich Rd, Rocklea from
Flooding on Ipswich Rd, Rocklea from | Source

The Prime Minister and the Army in the Brisbane Flood Cleanup


Floods are Common Events

Flooding is far more common than many other types of natural disasters, volcanic eruptions for instance. There have been far too many floods in recent history to list, but here are some of the major floods and facts related to them from the last 100 years:

  • 2011 - Southern Africa - 141 dead
  • 2011 - China - 355 dead
  • 2011 - South America, Columbia - more than 200 dead
  • 2011 - Pakistan, Kohistan - 63 dead
  • 2011 - United States, Mississippi Flood - around 383 people killed in the preceding storms
  • 2011 - Brazil - 700 dead
  • 2010 - Poland
  • 2010 - Columbia - 138 dead
  • 2010 - Pakistan - 2000 dead
  • 1975 - China - Failure of the Bangqiao Dam - 231,00 dead
  • 1971 - North Vietnam - the Hanoi and Red Delta River Flood - 100,000 dead
  • 1953 - Netherlands, Belgium, England - North Sea Surge - 2,400 dead
  • 1938 - China - Yellow River Flood - 700,000 dead
  • 1935 - China - Yangtze River Flood - 145,000 dead
  • 1911 - China - Yangtze River Flood - 100,000 dead

Flood History at Amazon

Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America
There is one heroic man in this book: the engineer James Buchanan Eads who understood the Mississippi River better than any living man. He had spent the first part of his career salvaging wrecks from the bottom of the river, and was bitterly opposed to the policies of the Army Corps of Engineers.

1931 China Floods

The inundation that killed up to 3.7 million people in China in July-August 1931 is arguably the worst ever natural disaster in recorded history.  China experienced a very severe drought from 1928 onwards. Then in a complete weather reversal China was continually deluged with rain from July-August 1931.  The Yangtze, Yellow and Huai Rivers all flooded.  Over 51 million people (a quarter of the population of China at the time) was affected.  The nation's rice crop was devastated resulting in gross famine.  People were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive in some instances. Diseases such as typhoid and dysentery were rampant.  It is hard to imagine a more widespread catastrophe.  If such a thing occurred today the death toll would be far greater than 3.7 million.  

1931 China Floods

Are Floods Getting Worse?

Floods have always been a prominent natural disaster, including in the Bible, and like earthquakes (but unlike avalanches) it is really hard to support the proposition that they are getting worse in intensity or frequency. The vast increases in population and development mean that when an area does flood, the damage and dead are going to be worse than in the past. Increased media coverage is apparent in the amount of source material available about recent events.


  • Wikipedia
  • John Pickrell, The Worst natural Disasters in Recent History", ABC Environment, 27 April 2011:
  • 1931 China Floods, Cultural China -
  • Natural Disasters killed 295,000 in 2010Sydney Morning Herald, January 4 2011,


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