Queensand floods – day nineteen

I awaken at 5.30am Queensland time – again. How come when I am at home I struggle to wake up at 6.45am Melbourne time, but when activated my brain kicks in at the same time every morning without an alarm?

My hotel rooms smells damp. No wonder: we had over 40mm of rain locally only a few days ago, and the Brisbane River peaked at just under 4.5m early this morning. Half the city is still cut off, either by floodwaters or by power cuts. I fire up the laptop and check a few emails while I am getting ready. Today I don the mantle of Acting National Manager Emergency Services and see what that means.

Over breakfast at 7am, the formal meetings begin. Our outgoing National Logistics Officer, Chris, has so many thoughts and feedback on how we are doing and how we could improve, that I am sorry she is leaving us for her days off. How anybody can still have those levels of energy and positivity after two weeks of this is beyond me.

Back at our alternative HQ (we evacuated along with the rest of Brisbane on Wednesday) the day unfolds.  The town of Grantham has had a bad night. The state-wide death toll has risen to 15. We don’t have enough office space to fit the Red Cross response team. The Red Cross National Coordination Centre is doubling in size this morning and we have a lot of bedding-down to do. Our incoming National Incident Coordinator, Anna, looks fresh. Our outgoing guy, Martin, is beginning to look tired. The offers of help from the public and corporates are inspirational, but we need a system to manage them. My coffee order gets lost and I resort to a Lipton’s Tea in a red mug with the caption”Keep Calm and Carry On”. A few phone calls later and it is lunchtime. Is that six hours gone already?

Downstairs in the garage space at lunchtime, Jody the EOC Manager kicks off a celebratory holler for Team Red Cross. We momentarily pause in the lunch queue to throw our hands in the air and cheer. Anna and I sit cross-legged on the concrete floor amongst boxes and pallets, devouring pasta and salad from flimsy paper plates.  There is talk of moving back to our old HQ: the state government has given the Red Cross offices the same priority as government buildings, and there is a chance they will hook us up to a generator to help us get back to work in our real home near the river. Maybe even before the weekend.

Back upstairs, I am reminded of the Victorian bushfires as I spend most of my day hurrying down corridors with phone in one hand and clipboard in the other. No time for emails or sitting down – it’s an episode of West Wing all over again, without the clever and witty Aaron Sorkin dialogue. When I have a moment I quickly hop onto the internet to watch another disaster unfold on the other side of the world. Whilst Australia struggles with its own history-making flood event, Brazil is confronted with over 500 dead in their own horrific floods and mudslides. Where will it all end?

Red Cross Commander is relieved of duty, and a new Commander takes over for a four-day stint. It’s important to all of us to know that somebody competent will come and take over our role for a couple of days when it is time for rest. That’s why I am acting as National Manager right now. Fatigue management is important and we don’t do it perfectly. We all struggle on the days when our only job is to rest and recuperate. But if we don’t at least try, we will never keep up this pace.

The news in a quick team meeting at 5pm is that we will move back “home” tonight to our Queensland HQ. We pack our stuff away in boxes so the removalists can do their magic overnight. A few more conversations and I escape the building just before 7.30pm. Just under twelve hours today (officially): not bad.

Dinner with a colleague and a bit of an interim debrief. It’s good to talk. On the way out of the hotel restaurant we stop and chat to a few Red Crossers – mostly Australians and some New Zealanders who flew over just to help. They are tired but still fired up and ready to go. What amazing people.

At just before 11pm I get a text message to say that flooding is now widespread across Victoria, with at least one evacuation centre opening overnight in the north-west of the state near Charlton. So far, heavy rain has resulted in major flooding not only in most of Queensland, but in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania too. That’s an area the same as 3/4 of the whole of the EU, or twice the size of Alaska. Just when we think we are getting on top of things, the universe throws us another curve ball.

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