It’s hard to know what story to tell; the late-night evacuation as access roads closed – the anxious wait for days before the flood peaked – returning to the house to face the devastation –the overwhelming generosity of helpers – or the long road ahead to regain some sense of normality. This is not my story – it belongs to my son Keiran and daughter-in-law Susanna and the thousands of others affected by the Brisbane floods. I can’t fully comprehend their situation, or that of others who’ve faced natural disasters, but I’ll tell it the only way I can.
It had rained all summer – the wettest in thirty-five years. The ground was saturated and drains were full. There was nowhere for the torrents to go but onto the roads – into the creeks – and eventually into the swollen river. As I drove along the river to work on Tuesday, I could see it had almost topped its banks. I arrived at work and tried to settle, but was unable to concentrate as the intensity of the downpour increased. We’d heard the previous night’s news of horrendous flooding with walls of water cascading into Toowoomba and the valley to the west of Brisbane. There was a palpable sense of unease amongst those of us who had experienced the devastating 1974 flood where entire suburbs had disappeared under water. We knew that would never happen again because of the flood mitigation schemes and the massive dam that held water back to protect Brisbane.
My son and his very pregnant wife live on the edge of a flood prone area. Their purchase was carefully considered – it was one of the few houses within their price range. Because the extent of the 74 flood would never be repeated, and the house one of the last that would flood in the suburb, not being able to obtain flood insurance seemed a reasonable risk. I had talked with Keiran the previous night. He wasn’t concerned. Elderly neighbours who had lived through the previous flood were not alarmed – the creek was no higher than it usually was during the rainy season.
By midday, when warnings began to be issued on radio and websites, we were ‘alert but not alarmed’. People went home from work as the rain intensified and roads becoming dangerous. Calls made during the day confirmed the situation, tense but not catastrophic; most people would sit the night out, watching the creek levels through the evening. A call came later that night. The full extent of the disaster had become clear to the authorities. The local creek was rising suddenly and access roads were becoming impassable. As we raced over in a hastily acquired ute, the roads closed with water behind us. In a frenzy of packing (shoving odd shoes and nik naks into spaces in the cars around larger items), we were able to get their most precious belongings out by midnight on Tuesday.
Then we waited – a long agonising wait. Throughout Wednesday we hovered under the spell of the unfolding drama, delivered through the air to our computer, radio and television. News about the house filtered through to us on the phone via unconfirmed sightings; the water was only up to the floorboards – NO – the house was now completely submerged.
By Thursday afternoon the flood had peaked. Despite lack of sleep and the difficulty of reaching the other side of Brisbane because of submerged roads, Keiran and Susanna had to visit the house. They needed to understand what they were facing. We joined about 50 people there – all residents and friends. The relief that the flood was receding mixed with a shared plight produced a macabre party atmosphere. Surreal laughter and tears were linked through black humour. We could access the area via dry land, by walking along the train line (no trains), rolling under a wire fence (with Susanna’s seven month pregnant belly) and then from the edge of the water Keiran waded out to the house. The water reached one and a half metres above the floorboards (it had dropped by the time the photo was taken). We almost felt like celebrating that the ceiling was saved – how bizzare that you can get excited by a house only flooding to three quarters of the way up the walls.
It was Friday before we repeated the trip and could walk inside the house. Keiran and Susanna went in alone to face the devastation together. Furniture was upended and belongings strewn in muddy heaps: the fridge had floated up and lay across the kitchen, cupboards were a pulpy mess, the bath a fetid pool, jewellery was tangled in curtains, outdoor gear on neighbours roofs, and the precious piano looked strangely untouched until the opened lid revealed the swollen misplaced keys.
The loss and devastation was profound, but has been somewhat balanced by the overwhelming goodness and generosity of people who have helped in the clean up – from shovelling mud, washing walls, carting ruined goods, taking clothes and shoes to clean (everyone seems to have single shoes – we are hoping to get some matched up) – to donating money and gear, bringing food and drink, and providing good cheer (the running joke is that the house did need a good clean before the baby came).
The place will be uninhabitable for a long period. Not only does rebuilding need to happen, but the smell and damp need to be eliminated before a baby could live there. We’re trying to create some order whilst sending out endless bags of smelly clothes and shoes to be cleaned by willing helpers. Their finances are grim, and of course they need to keep working to pay the mortgage on their uninhabitable house. However, progress is being made through donations of time, money and skills, their relationship is strong, and they are surrounded with love. They know they are luckier than many. Their ongoing situation is no worse – or better – than all the others who were affected. The love and generosity has been as overwhelming as the flood losses.
Now, a week later, Keiran and Susanna are struggling with work, bills, antenatal appointments and life, with their gear either destroyed or distributed between 5 houses. They’re not sure whether everyday items are ruined or just misplaced – documents, underwear, tablets and jewellery. The impact that anxiety and loss as well as generosity and love has had on all our lives recently is profound. But it’s still a long slog ahead. I leave the final word with my son, with a poem he posted on his Facebook page with a thank-you for helpers.
I didn’t cry when the rains came
And I didn’t cry when they didn’t stop
I didn’t cry when the waters rose or when they swallowed my house with muck
And I didn’t cry when the people came, and worked to clean it all up
But when the people had left I sat in the shed and I cried cause I knew I was loved