The Brisbane River is usually a placid body of water that flows through Australia's third largest city and expels into Moreton Bay without incident. But on Wednesday, Brisbane was swamped. Weeks of heavy rainfall, combined with discharge from a swollen dam, transformed the river into a raging torrent, forcing thousands to evacuate their homes in the worst flooding the region has seen in 36 years.
By the afternoon, the surge was racing toward the bay, dragging boats and sections of jetties with it. It tore a floating walkway from the edge of the riverbank in the trendy central neighborhood of New Farm, and along the river, a boat was seen crashing into a bridge's pier. Drift Café, an iconic riverside restaurant, all but sank.
Nevertheless, Brisbane's residents were calm when the river peaked at just over 14 ft. (4.3 m). "It's not as bad as it was in '74," says Alan Woodrow, a local resident. "Then we were completely caught off-guard." He adds, "Now we know what's coming," referring to the numerous forecasts from earlier this week predicting that the water will reach 17 ft. (5.2 m) by Thursday morning slightly below the 17.9-ft. (5.45 m) mark achieved by the infamous floods of 1974.
City dwellers lining the safe parts of the river seemed more curious than concerned. Many took in the view from higher ground, photographing the water as it submerged cafés, parks, ferry terminals, stop signs and phone booths. Suncorp Stadium, which seats 52,500, resembled an oversize puddle: murky liquid crept 10 rows up, drowning the best seats in the venue. Downtown, Margaret Street filled up with water by the evening, and surrounding traffic lights were turned off.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh was quick to warn residents that the flood should be taken seriously. "This incident is not a tourist event this is a deeply serious natural disaster," she told reporters on Wednesday. "Stay in your homes. Do not travel unless it is absolutely necessary."
The warnings came a day after 12 people died in flash floods in the Toowoomba-Lockyer Valley, west of Brisbane, bringing the total death toll to 22, since the floods began three weeks ago. Forty-three people are still missing; Wednesday's break from the downpour will likely help authorities spot more bodies. One of the missing is James Perry, the former chief steward of harness racing in New South Wales, who was last pictured with his family clinging to the roof of their car in the nearby town of Grantham. Perry's wife and son have been rescued, but his whereabouts are unknown.
Martin Warburton, a Grantham resident, told Australia's Seven network about the gruesome events he witnessed: "You saw arms, hands, gray hair, and that was it. By the time you knelt down, you realize they're not swimming; they are already gone." Warburton spent Tuesday night on a roof, awaiting rescue. Authorities, anticipating more bodies to move downstream in the coming days, have set up at least one temporary morgue in the Brisbane region.
For survivors, the water that has inundated southeastern Queensland could still have serious repercussions. Queensland's Department of Health has warned that the floods may increase the risk of disease, including leptospirosis, melioidosis, dengue fever and diarrheal diseases. It has advised residents against walking through, swimming in and, more obviously, drinking from floodwaters. Those returning home for the cleanup have been told to wear gloves while cleaning, and to disinfect surfaces and wear insect repellent.
But for many, a homecoming is still far away. Across the state, 3,585 people have been forced to evacuate and stay in temporary shelters, and in Brisbane, the worst flooding is yet to come. Chinchilla, a town northeast of Brisbane that was flooded 10 days ago, could be re-evacuated on Wednesday night as floodwaters there are expected to reach over 25 ft. (7.8 m).
In Brisbane, the RNA, one of several evacuation centers in the city, gradually filled up on Wednesday afternoon. "We have around 350 people here now, and that's expected to rise to 1,000 tonight," says Kate Brady, the center's manager. As the city prepared for the flooding of 20,000 homes, inflatable mattresses were carried to accommodate those who were likely to spend the next few days at the showground. A makeshift crèche was filled with noisy children and toys, while a mother changed a diaper on an adjoining table.
Anouska Marius, who moved to Brisbane a month ago from western Australia, arrived at the center in the late afternoon. "There were seven of us in the one-bedroom place," she says, sitting with a suitcase and a pile of stuffed toys. "It had flooded in '74, and I didn't want to take the risk." Marius' sister, a nephew and his girlfriend decided to stay put. "I think they were worried about the television, which is absolutely ridiculous," she says.
Marius is quick to admit that her story isn't the most dramatic tale of the evening. Many sitting quietly at surrounding tables are not willing to talk. An elderly woman approached by TIME firmly declined to tell her story. "I've got nothing to say," she says. "I'm just sitting here until my home dries up."