the emerald city 3

The day starts at just after 6am. Our evacuation centre manager calls to say the Federal Police are crawling all over the place as the Governor-General may pay a visit today. The public sees maybe thirty seconds of footage of a dignitary’s visit on TV, and perhaps doesn’t even notice it has happened, but on the ground this visit entails security briefings, media briefings, protocol briefings, and sometimes an early-morning heads-up for people like us.

My incident management team and I do our morning huddle over breakfast at the motel, and we are at our desks before 7am. The ongoing floods mean constant travel problems, and we spend the day working with the State Emergency Operations Centre on plans for getting our Red Crossers in and out of Emerald.

The phone calls are endless. Somebody shoves a bottle of Powerade into my hands, which in retrospect I reckon saves me. I hop into the car and pay a visit to our amazingly hard-working evacuation centre manager Kelly, out at the local agricultural college. I sip a cup of tea, get an update from her, answer a few tough questions. Back in the State EOC or National Coordination Centre it’s relatively easy: it’s all about complying with protocols and communicating as effectively as we can. Here at the pointy end, Kelly’s issues are much more human-level. How much longer can we stay here? who can provide some structured activities for the evacuated kids? Is there somebody in town who can provide tenancy advice to some residents? Where do we get more nappies from? Who can help this 17-year-old girl in crisis when we cannot find her parents?

Back at base I find my lunch at a reasonable hour and wolf it down. A volunteer comes into help us do a stock-check of our equipment. The mental health Sector Commander pops in for a chat about possible outreach. Another urgent phone call: her Excellency Governor-General Quentin Bryce has finally arrived at the evacuation centre and is touring the facility.  A little later, she shows up at the recovery centre and another bunch of Red Crossers get to meet her.

Yet another phone call tells us the G-G is meeting some emergency workers at the town hall (another of our Red Cross evacuation centres) where the Salvos are putting on a sausage sizzle in her honour. I check the mirror for the first time in four days. Not a lick of makeup, hair scraped back into a careless ponytail, ink stains on my lovely new high-vis Red Cross vest, looking hot and bothered. Lessons for all the emergency services ladies out there: never leave home without a wand of mascara or some eyeliner. You will be invited somewhere important, or at least somewhere there will be media presence.

The time comes and I jog across to the town hall. Every minute counts in this job. I chat to our other evacuation centre manager Judith, who has had a smaller number of  people in her centre, but a lot more disruption. She looks tired, but the professional demeanour does not falter for a minute. Until, that is, when I tell her she should be the one who escorts her Excellency around, as the centre is her responsibility.

The excitement levels rise and there she is. Looking cool and relaxed in a crease-free pink linen dress and lime-green espadrilles, the flawless G-G arrives and starts chatting to the various emergency services workers waiting for her. After a few minutes her Excellency makes her way to the entrance of the centre. I welcome her and introduce Judith and some other team members. I ask her how she can possibly look so cool and fresh in all this heat. She reminds us that she is a Queenslander, and it is the cold Canberra climate that doesn’t suit her, not this tropical heat. Like all public figures, Ms Bryce has perfected the art of genuine small talk, and she immediately puts us at our ease whilst giving us her full attention. She graciously poses for photographs with us, as well as the ones taken by her official photographer.

Judith accompanies her on her tour of the centre, answering questions when needed. Her Excellency sits and eats with some Red Cross centre workers, chatting easily about their work and their lives. A short speech at the end of the visit really boosts the spirits of many tired-looking emergency response people in the building. And then, in a pink linen flash, she is gone.

For us, the night continues with ongoing travel changes, an unwell colleague to be looked after, random other phone calls, and hot debriefs to be conducted with the incident management team over a rushed bowl of pasta. I sit quietly in my room for a while before my final duty of the day: picking up the night shift workers for the town hall evacuation centre and dropping the outgoing workers to their motel rooms.

Once the last Red Crosser is safely home for the night, I swing the car round and head a short distance out of town. I turn into a quiet, dark cul-de-sac of houses. At 11.30pm the place is in darkness. Safely parked, I switch off all the car lights and look up at the sky. I daren’t get out of the car for fear of stray snakes and enormous hungry mosquitoes.

An infinity of stars blazes down at me from an ink-black canvas. The more I look, the more stars I can see. The Milky Way streaks its way above me, narrowly missing Orion and heading for the Southern Cross. It has been many years since I have seen a sky so spectacular and I sit there for quite a while gazing upwards. Every speck of light I can see is a star. Not a planet, but a star like the sun. The worries of the day melt away slowly as everything gradually slots back into perspective. There’s nothing can beat being debriefed by the universe itself.

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