Reprieve

Ride the pink pony
A wistful last look at a once inseperable companion? The cleanup plays out like this many thousand times across Queensland.

Yesterday and today I saw a lot of faces that reflected something I couldn’t quite explain to myself. It wasn’t anxiety or relief, but something not far off either. The longer I thought about it, the more I wondered whether I had the same look on my face. And what would that look tell others?

I was never in danger. I lost most of my household goods, which were in storage that flooded, but I didn’t lose a house, car, or loved ones. In fact I had some adventures that might be described as downright irresponsible, wandering around perilously close to the river at night, but also rescuing a dog that had been left chained up in a place alarmingly deep in rising waters.

Like so many others, I helped where I could, which was never very much, and always as an almost unspoken matter-of-course. People carrying things at Southbank needing an extra pair of hands. Women corralling children needing help with prams and bags. An old man in West End piling rickety boxes of stuff that must have meant something to him onto a tray-top ute accepting help warily. A woman sobbing silently at Kangaroo Point accepting an impotent hug. Sharing a joke with an old ocker down from trashed Rockhampton, challenging me about my suntan, which he reckons means I’m a beach-bum. They all had that look in their faces.

I wonder whether it’s guilt at not having suffered as badly as others, relief that we would not, and the certainty of knowing that many days and weeks of recovery were coming. In the midst of all of this it is quite a small number of people who suffered disproportionate loss. An even smaller number acted heroically to save others, sometimes dying in the attempt, like the teenage brother who pushed his younger sibling to safety before being washed away in the car that became his coffin. Or the parents who were drowned as they pushed their children into the safety of the attic of their rapidly flooding house. The rest of us were spectators in the uncomfortably close cheap seats, but not much different from people half the world away watching it on TV. Like going to war and coming away without a scratch while others are killed and crippled.

It becomes possible to see even behind the opportunist media performance of the Premier a sense of impotent helplessness expressed in that infamous quivering lower lip and teary eyes. She was, after all, one of a handful who were intimately acquainted with all the painful details of other people’s suffering as they arose. Politician or not, if you’re the one calling the shots, the guilt of being able to do so little of any real use must be pretty overwhelming.

Later today I think I’ll venture forth: I need groceries. The first job will be to work out which roads are open. All the closest supermarkets are still closed due to flooding — three of them under ground level in the CBD and one at the river end of Boundary Street. There was panic buying two days ago and supply of everything is short.

Queensland may be in tatters, but spare a thought for 350 Brazilians who died yesterday in flash flooding and land-slides at Teresopolis, Petropolis and Novo Friburgo near Rio de Janeiro. hatever else happened here in Brisbane and regional Queensland, our death toll has been kept to a minimum because we have, after all, 20th century infrastructure without which flooding levels would have been higher and more extensive, and we’re going to get a good start on 21st century infrastructure as a consequence of the disaster.

If all this weren’t bad enough, we hear now that Victoria is getting a soaking. Aren’t we all blessed by 2011. January isn’t even half over yet. I hope the rest of the year will be a little bit more boring.

And, not to gloss over the fact that country Queensland lies in shattered ruins, Goondiwindi is this morning anxiously waiting to see whether its levee will be overwhelmed. Just because waters are receding in Brisbane doesn’t mean the flooding is over elsewhere in Queensland.

It seems almost profane to read the coldly clinical economic assessment of the New York Times this morning, and yet it’s probably right on the money (hur, hur).

There’s a trance track, ‘7 Colors’ by Lost Witness. Have a listen to it if you can; it seems particularly appropriate at this time.

04:08

Just as I was settling down to some rest before dawn and another day of calamities, the building fire alarm sounded and that horrid, tinny recorded voice blared: ‘Emergency, evacuate now. Emergency, evacuate now’ in the never ending cycle of sounds far too loud for this time of night.

I dutifully made my way downstairs, like about a dozen others. The balance of the residents must have decided it was better to be incinerated in a blaze than give a shit about the cacophony. It struck me briefly as ironic to contemplate being incinerated in a fire during the worst flooding disaster in Australia’s history.

My hat is off in salute to the emergency services. The fire crew was here in minutes, checked out the alarm panel and investigated an obvious false alarm thoroughly without any complaint. It is likely to have been a wet circuit on the ground floor of the building, which is uninhabited.

The fire fighters looked tired and drawn. There have been alarms going off all over the Brisbane CBD in the past couple of days as sophisticated independently powered systems kicked in every time the mains was cut or restored. And every alarm had to be dutifully checked out by emergency services and security companies. Another reason the cops are so grumpy, not that rudeness isn’t their default behaviour under normal circumstances anyway.

Mud

Spring Hill, Friday, 14 January 2011, 22:54

Rosalie debris
This Rosalie street scene might have been anywhere in Brisbane today.

It is hard to imagine that it could be worse after the waters that have washed away people’s livelihoods and possessions have receded. But it is. Everywhere the water had been is now covered in a foul-smelling mud. That swampy, rotting smell is amplified by the stench of soaked furniture and clothes steaming in what has turned out to be a mostly sunny day in Brisbane.

At least the weather is holding out, with mostly sunny skies and some breeze assisting with evaporation and runoff.

There are people everywhere cleaning out shops and houses. Everyone is caked in that ubiquitous mud — the topsoil washed off the land hundreds of kilometres inland, mixed with agricultural fertilisers, rubbish, animal carcasses, debris and the most extraordinary flotsam and jetsam. I saw a floating refrigerator, a bath tub, an old television set, parts of several car bodies, and the fibreglass shell of a swimming pool!

Every time my anger at political and bureaucratic bungling subsides, some other obvious idiocy reignites my temper. None more so than the news that the army was moving in to clean up — in West End, the Premier’s electorate! WTF? The worst metropolitan disasters are located in Ipswich, not Brisbane, and even in Brisbane, West End is not the worst affected, no matter how much I love the place. Bligh has no shame in milking the politics of this situation in a most despicable way.

A couple of days ago I bemoaned the absence of a central, accurate and up-to-date repository of essential information. That did come together later that very day, but has disintegrated again along bureaucratic demarcation lines. Worse, the responsible departments have no central internal coordination. For example, the public transport authority, TransLink, offers contradictory information on services in several different locations on its website, meaning that one particular bus service is listed as running normally, running to a Sunday timetable, and not running at all. Here’s a typical gem: ‘Bus services on the TransLink Network will resume normal operations from Friday, 14 January, with the exception of Brisbane Transport.’ So buses will run, but not in Brisbane? I guess we are supposed to know what this particular bureaucrat means when dividing generic ‘buses’ into TransLink and Brisbane Transport. Why would we know that? Why would the author assume that we know that? Telephone help lines are all but useless because of the volume of calls.

In that area of activity the news media are also conspicuously guilty of cleaving to the comfort zone of trivialising events with melodrama and reality TV rather than helping with gathering reliable, accurate information and disseminating it in a timely fashion.

Cleanup
Private heartache and elbow grease in 25,000 Brisbane homes.

That aside, today I saw a talking head on TV who actually made sense and had something useful to say: Defence Minister Stephen Smith detailing the engineering contribution that the ADF will make to Queensland’s reconstruction. Why isn’t this guy our Prime Minister? He’s more reassuring and articulate than ‘Mouse Pack’ nanny Gillard.

Attempts to venture forth on foot to find some groceries sidetracked me in emotionally satisfying but ultimately futile and undirected assistance to various groups of people I encountered who were engaged in the filthy, unglamorous work of cleaning away debris and mud. I looked like a five-year-old who’d been playing with mud cakes. The stuff is incredibly pervasive, getting into shoes, onto limbs and clothes, and once off the ground, drying quickly into a diarrhoea-coloured patina that cracks and crumbles into a powdery filth.

The work needs to be done, but much of it seems to be as pointless as that most aggravating of all suburban obsessions — leaf blowing; using an incredibly noisy tool to shift leaves from one location to another, while the breeze then randomises their position again, appears to me to be one of those tasks you might find in a Dantean circle surely reserved for bureaucrats because of its endless pointlessness. My perception is that the same cleanup tasks will have to be done two or three times because the people doing them are cleaning floors they then walk on with muddy boots, etc. I guess it’s a chaotic and uncoordinated approach, but a real can-do attitude prevails all the same.

One thing still missing from this equation is that for large numbers of people to work in a concerted fashion, you need food, water and amenities close to the work sites that just aren’t to be had for love or money at the moment. Nevertheless, I think the work will be done by locals regardless, though there’ll have to be large-scale debris collection and demolition by the authorities. That will take some time, as many council dumps are also inundated, and key roads are still closed.

West End debris
Once-prized possessions looking like all that in West End.

I don’t think I’m saying anything original when I venture the opinion that this flood, now receding from Brisbane but not yet from country Queensland, is worse than its analogues in 1893 and 1974 simply because of increased population density, but also less disastrous in terms of human privation because of much better drainage, emergency response and social infrastructure. We are not like the poor Brazilians, who probably died because in their towns there just wasn’t the degree of infrastructure and paraphernalia of civilization we’ve come to take for granted here.

The spirit of those I’ve met in the past few days, including some who have suffered considerable losses, is admirable, even if there is no point in it being anything else. The situation is what it is, no matter how we feel about it, and what kind of blame we’d like to attach to various targets.

In the midst of talk about scumbag looters, one other worrying trend may be merging. Profiteering. Artificially raising prices for goods that aren’t really in short supply just because many people simply can’t access what they need normally. One would hope that the authorities are as harsh on price gouging as they are on the more pedestrian kind of theft.