Looking back – 20 years
Two decades have passed since the big wet but for some the memories are very fresh, writes Madison Williams
Crocs on the loose, cows out at Low Isles and a pig nestled into a luxury lodge, such was the chaos of the 1996 floods that traumatised the Daintree and left many people out of home and out of pocket
On March 3, 1996 the heavens opened, let down an almighty downpour and didn't stop for six days.
“It happened almost instantly. Just bang! One day it started to pour and then on the 8th, bang! It stopped just as suddenly,” said local man Peter Ponzo.
Residents say it was like something out of the bible.
The heavy and unrelenting downpour caused the waters to rise fast; faster than they ever had before, some people said.
Residents had been given little warning and almost no time to prepare.
In the midst of the deluge of water Crocodile Express Dain- tree River Cruises owner Dean Clapp, with the help of his son, was releasing animals from his Daintree Butterfly Farm.
Birds, butterflies, emus, kangaroos and a pig were released to prevent them from drowning in the raging waters.
Reportedly an eight-foot crocodile also escaped from its cage.
“Most of the animals were tame. We put them on the boat where they spent the majority of the time, except our pet pig, who ended up sleeping at the luxury eco lodge,” he said.
“We were tying up the boats higher and higher and as it got later it became obvious that we would have to abandon the boats and go to higher ground at the Daintree Eco Lodge.
“After a while my son and I went out with a torch and realised the water had come up 10 metres.
“Some units of the lodge were underwater.
“One of the owners said, ‘I think there’s someone in unit 13’.
“We went through the entrance of the unit, walked through shoulder height water, pushed the door open and I was sure I was going to see bodies floating around.
“Instead these people were floating around eating Mars Bars.”
After the rains let up and the floods receded Mr Clapp and his family were able to survey the mess.
The family had suffered a devastating loss, their businesses, the Big Croc Cafe and the Daintree Butterfly Farm, were destroyed. The Daintree Butterfly Farm never reopened.
The only business still salvageable was Crocodile Express.
“These days the business is doing really well, it’s gone from strength to strength and it’s survived the financial crisis, pilot strikes and a fire,” said Mr Clapp
When a business can survive floods of near biblical proportion the GFC seems infinitesimal.
“There’s not much you can do when you get extreme rainfall, it’s going to go where it wants to go. You just have to learn to move on with life; I definitely wouldn’t want to go through it again though.”
Mr Clapp and his family weren’t the only ones to feel the wrath of the floods.
The area north of Mossman was cut off by floodwaters over Foxton Bridge, while the Dain- tree and Bloomfield areas lost power.
Long-time shire residents described the flooding as some of the worst to ever hit the shire. There were reports that the Daintree River was up to four kilometres wide in some parts.
Families were evacuated from homes and frantic efforts were made to get essential food supplies to needy residents in the northern part of the shire. The tourist industry was brought almost to a complete halt.
But Mr Clapp said the community came together in the aftermath of the floods.
“When the daylight came around everyone went out on their boats to rescue people,” he said.
“We had to manoeuvre our way through trees and debris, we didn’t know if the powerlines were still live.
“It was quite surreal going underneath powerlines on your boat, really quite amazing.”
And 20 years after such a harrowing ordeal Mr Clapp still says the same thing now as he did back then.
“At the end of the day no one was killed, so it was no big deal.”
Daintree Village in the ‘96 floods