days off

Back from Queensland late Saturday night, I spend a lazy Sunday out for brunch, then at a family 21st birthday celebration with some good friends. It’s a long relaxing day surrounded by good food and good conversation, and although everybody is interested in the Queensland situation, I feel myself physically and mentally relaxing.

Monday at work is rushed, and with a few non-flood-related meetings, passes in a flurry. It’s supposed to be a half-day for me, so I have sensibly arranged to meet Eileen for coffee at three o’clock, to make sure I get out of the building. Eileen arrives bearing a huge bouquet for me, and feeds me coffee and sticky buns whilst chatting to me about everything unimportant in life. The perfect circuit-breaker, especially when combined with a browse around Borders on the way home.

Tuesday is my first full day off for nine days, but it doesn’t start well. I wake around eight to a handful of frantic missed calls on the work mobile, and the horrific news that Toowoomba, a Queensland town built in an extinct volcano crater about 700 metres above sea level, has been hit by a tsunami-like wall of water which has killed seven and flattened parts of the town. Disbelief kicks in as all over Queensland the situation gets worse instead of the slight improvement we were hoping for. I feel helpless sitting in Melbourne, although logically I know I need these days off to be relaxed and ready to kick back in later in the week.

I take a couple of phone calls from colleagues who need to talk. Even on days off, it is important to be available as peer supporters for others who need a hot debrief or just a listening ear. Facebook is even dangerous: many of my colleagues are online at some point in the day, and I can get as many updates from there as by email. I spend a few hours doing shopping and chores, post office and the like, but every minute I am fretting about what is going on, what I am missing, how I could help if I was there. All the classic warning signs that I have not been able to disengage.

By three o’clock I’ve had the call: it’s back to Queensland for me on Thursday morning, to take over from the National Manager Emergency Services over the weekend. To add further complication, the Brisbane River just down the street from our State Emergency Operations Centre has burst its banks. As well as opening a number of evacuation centres across Brisbane city (a mammoth task in itself), we will also – somehow – have to move lock, stock and barrel out of our Brisbane Red Cross offices to higher ground.

Back at home, I do the ironing and watch some TV. The phone doesn’t ring and I don’t check Facebook or emails for a few hours. Out for some good Vietnamese food in the evening and it’s good to be here in the moment. But at bedtime I find it hard to sleep.

This morning I awake to 11 confirmed dead, and another 90 or so missing across Queensland. Brisbane central business district has had the electricity cut off for safety reasons, and panic buying is happening everywhere. I take a call just before 8.30 from our National Manager, who got three hours’ sleep last night. They were up past midnight organising evacuation centres, opening the National Inquiry Centre to assist Queensland Police with missing persons calls, and starting to pack up the EOC. I can tell from here that my friends are exhausted already, and I am desperate to get up there and help.

News sites report that Wivenhoe Dam, built to flood-proof Brisbane after the last flood disaster in 1974, is now so full it may no longer protect the city. A volume of water equivalent to two Sydney Harbours is pouring over the vast dam’s spillway into the river every 24 hours. With a big high tide backing up floodwaters, the Brisbane River will reach 4.5m by 3pm today, before exceeding the devastating 1974 mark of 5.45m tomorrow.

Outside here in Melbourne, the rain continues to fall. We are expecting flash flooding down here as well today, and NSW Red Crossers are already active in the north of the state as the vast floodwaters reach their doorsteps. It’s going to be a long hard road, with no end in sight for now.

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