A shovel in every hand
From Griffith REVIEW Postscripts
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Saturday, January 15
IT SMELLED SWEETER, but was that a good thing?
The receding waters swept the chemical odours of agriculture and industry downstream; what the consequences may be there, I don’t know – it can’t be good. The sludge had a more natural smell, perhaps not altogether pleasant but at least recognisable: sewage, earthy nutrients and the microbial processes of decay.
Just after dawn the streets filled with fluoro-vested volunteers and motley-coloured locals arriving on foot, by bicycle, bus and car. They carried shovels and brooms in place of cameras. Utes drove in and unloaded generators and high-pressure hoses. In West End – as apparently elsewhere – there were moments when workers outnumbered the tasks at hand.
The crews self-organised like ants. At one level of the superorganism, defence forces, police and council workers manoeuvred heavy machinery and directed traffic; another level comprised electricians, telecom technicians and engineers who checked the integrity of surrounding infrastructure; and finally the volunteer corps dragged rubbish to the street, sluiced mud and hosed down one property before moving to the next.
By late morning, as fresh volunteers took up the work of the early risers and others passed out morning tea or set up sausage sizzles, the most severely damaged streets of West End were already substantially transformed. It wasn’t magical – the effort was visible and the extent of the recovery loomed large – but the spirit of generosity and comradery was uplifting.
Along West End’s beloved Orleigh Park, tradies worked side by side with hipsters, shovelling and bulldozing inches of sludge off the flattened grass and our from the playgrounds and roots of the old fig trees.
We helped remove the mud and junk from one home’s garage, then walked around the river’s bend to offer a hand to the employees of a garment warehouse on Ferry Street, helping to toss out ruined shelving and using giant squeegees and power hoses to sluice down the floor.
Later in the day we returned our neighbour Klaus’s printing presses, anatomical models and vast library to his house, which had only suffered a half inch of water in the lower level. His wife Nora, recognising us from earlier in the week, confessed that she had been fine until driving away on Wednesday night when she suddenly broke into tears as the uncertainty and fear fully sank in.
Out of nowhere, what looked to be the All Blacks rugby team showed up and moved everyone’s white goods, which had been stored under a neighbour’s house. With the job done, they drove off in search of the next heavy lifting job.
In every direction, volunteers from up the street or the outer suburbs were pitching in, and an even larger turnout is expected tomorrow.
Inevitably, the enthusiasm will wane, the work will become harder and more complicated, and volunteers will need to return to their own jobs, families, homes and responsibilities. But the overwhelming initial response to the Brisbane flood of 2011 has indelibly shaped the collective memory of the city.
Sunday, January 16
BACK AT A friend’s house in the northern suburbs, enjoying power and an internet connection, the news reminds us of the health dangers of the mud, debris and damage left behind in the flood’s wake. Infectious diseases, unstable buildings and electrical dangers are just a few of the worries.
Disaster and the long process of recovery can also take a toll on mental health. In Queensland, afflicted by drought one day and floods the next, many are already under stress from loss of income or livelihood, in addition to loss of property and possessions. Professor Sandy McFarlane, an expert in traumatic stress and disaster and head of the Centre for Military and Veteran’s Health at the University of Adelaide, reminds us that at any given time, 20 per cent of the population suffers from some sort of depression, anxiety or substance abuse issue, and are therefore already more vulnerable to the trauma of a stressful event like a flood. More worrying, there’s evidence suggesting that depression often affects victims two to three years after the traumatic event.
Brisbanites are luckier than many others: few of us make a living from the land; it’s easy to access mental health services and indeed, to reach out to neighbours, friends or family who are likely to be scattered throughout the city, some on high ground who are eager to help in any way they can. We live in a modern city within a wealthy nation, where legal and ethical standards guarantee – for the most part – security, stability and transparency throughout the disaster and recovery process.
Today, my husband and I took a ‘mental health’ day, resting up and unplugging from the news, enjoying the sound of suburban lawnmowers instead of generators and heavy machinery. It’s a strange day, mixed with relief and guilt, as we remind each other that preserving our own health is the greatest contribution we can make to the recovery, before we head back to West End tomorrow, and in the following weeks and months, to help our neighbours and neighbourhood.
LIFELINE REMINDS US that all across Queensland, there’s a rapid increase in demand for mental health services. If you’d like, you can make a tax deductable donation to Lifeline’s Community Recovery Project HERE.
And good news for book lovers: Lifeline’s semi-annual Brisbane Bookfest, has been rescheduled to start on Saturday, January 22 at the Brisbane City Convention Centre. Buy some books and help those in need!
Click HERE for Ryan Taft's images from the days the cleanup began.