Tuesday, 25 January 2011

rising waters

My last blog post was about getting a close look at Australia's propensity for natural disaster, and specifically flooding. At the end of that post, I commented that I hadn't been directly affected. That remains true, I guess, but in the last couple of weeks I've come closer.

Two weeks ago today, I was at my second day back at work. The previous day we had been confronted by quite dramatic images of flash-flooding at Toowoomba, which claimed a number of lives (2, I believe) and produced youtube videos of cars being tossed like so many rubber ducks down the erstwhile main street, now raging torrent, of Toowoomba's commercial district. The spectacular images were followed by images that were less spectacular, but to me more troubling, of a great inland sea that had descended down into the Lockyer valley, sweeping homes off their stumps and destroying entire towns. In the week that followed, the death count in that area has risen to, I think, 15 or so. The stories are horrible.

So, on Tuesday, the Bremer River (which flows through Ipswich) and the Brisbane River (which, strangely enough, flows through Brisbane) began to rise. By lunchtime, some low-lying suburbs like Rocklea and West End had begun to be evacuated. Fearing that the bus would cease to run to New Farm, I headed home. As the afternoon progressed, the predictions escalated, until by the end of the afternoon, Anna Bligh announced that waters were predicted to reach levels comparable and even beyond those of the 1974 flood (which stands as "the" Brisbane flood).

My apartment was and is at no risk of flooding, as became increasingly apparent in the subsequent days. Parts of Newstead, the suburb in which I live, are low-lying - Teneriffe Ferry had flooded from king tides in the days leading up to Christmas, though - so I was concerned that I would lose electricity, so I stocked up on bread, grabbed some supplies (batteries, tinned food, UHT milk), and bunkered in. At the behest of my mother/brewer, I also filled my freezer with ice and my fridge with beer. I'm telling people the reason was because a full fridge keeps cold longer, but to be honest, who needs a reason to fill their fridge with beer, right?

I followed the flood news assiduously, through the 2-hourly press conferences with Anna Bligh, the deputy police commissioner and the rotating cast of related higher-ups, through the excellent QPS updates over facebook, and through the dramatic images posted by people on twitter under #qldfloods. In the meantime, I sat at home, alternately transfixed by the news, and bored, unable to focus on work or reading. Although I never lost power, and I was never physically isolated, after a few days sitting in my apartment essentially doing nothing, I was feeling a bit socially isolated, and welcomed the weekend and the opportunity to get out of the apartment and help clean up.

On Saturday I joined my friends Ted & Meg on a trek over to Fairfield to help clean the house of one of Meg's colleagues. The volunteer effort following the flood has been quite spectacular and very moving, with many tens of thousands of people venturing out into the streets with whatever gear they could muster, as well as others wandering the streets giving food and cold drinks to anyone affected or working. As for me, I spent most of the first Saturday after the flood shovelling silty, sloppy mud out of the garden at Fairfield. On Monday I caught a bus out to St Lucia, where I spent the morning moving huge piles of mud-soaked kerbside garbage into trucks. In the afternoon, as it became increasingly a job for bobcats rather than willing hands, a group of us moved to Milton. There we helped with the Sisyphean task of sweeping out the bottom floor of a house that had been flooding every day at high tide (and that would be swept again 12 hours later). We also helped clean the house of a guy who had been evacuated with dysentry after his house had flooded a metre deep on the upper floor. The stories told by residents and second-hand by other volunteers were just amazing.

In the interim, when not volunteering, I was working from home. Our office building in the city had had its power shut off on the Wednesday morning, and the basement had flooded. We are now told that it won't be accessible for another month, and we are in temporary offices on the main university campus. We were allowed into the building for an hour on Friday, without power, during which time we climbed the 12 storeys up the lamplit fire stairs, and retrieved what we could (mostly laptops) from the foetid air of our office.

We live in interesting times.

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