Queensland floods – day twenty

The plan was to have a lie-in till 7am, pop down for breakfast, then stay in my hotel room for a couple of hours to catch up on some phone calls. By 7.30am the plan has changed, and I am in the taxi with the others as per usual.

The roads are clear for the most part, as the taxi drives along the swollen Brisbane River down Coronation Drive. This major thoroughfare has been underwater until the early hours of this morning. Now a few cars crawl along, trying to figure what few side roads are open, peering across the river to see the debris still floating past. On the bridges I can see the high tide mark, four or more metres above the river now. Thrown along the riverbanks there are upturned boats, pieces of pontoon, and what looks like a mangled white van. Park Road is closed off by a traffic management worker, who waves us through once he sees the Red Cross uniforms.

Outside our offices a huge Energex generator chugs away. The rest of the normally bustling street is quiet. No coffee shops, no restaurants, no bookstores are open. Our normal digs, the Cosmo across the road, is in darkness too. Ours is the only building with power, thanks to state government adding the Red Cross HQ onto a list of priority buildings. It’s good to be home, and we settle into our desks like we’ve never been away.

The day’s routine kicks off and I finally get a quiet hour to make those phone calls. I sit at a desk with a view of the street. Suddenly out of nowhere vehicles start driving past: they must have opened the road at last. Two by two, volunteer clean-up workers stroll by. Mops, brushes and shovels in hand, most are spattered head to toe with mud and striding along in gumboots and sun hats. Without exception they look cheerful and relaxed, happy to be able to help in any way they can.

After what feels like twenty minutes, my watch shows noon. Where is the day going? We stop for lunch, the caterers setting up shop in the first aid training room. It’s vegie pasta and chicken breast and salad today. The EOC Manager is still doing a great job of keeping us fuelled with healthy food.

Mid-afternoon my feedback loop starts to falter. Tiredness kicks in and I have to listen twice as hard and choose my words twice as carefully to be understood. Still, with all the frustrations and misunderstandings, I am struck by how courteous and understanding everybody still is.

Meanwhile news continues to come in about the night our Victorian colleagues have had. More than a summer’s worth of rain has fallen in less than a week, and five major river systems are heavily hit by floods. Even Melbourne has not been spared, and our own local Maribyrnong River came very close to bursting its banks overnight. Red Crossers got to work at midnight, heading out in buses to the flood-impacted areas to staff evacuation centres, feed displaced people and provide personal support to those in crisis. Even by Australian standards, this year’s weather is staggering.

I go for a walk round the block to clear my head. Down by the river the footpath is far under water. The muddy brown water swirls past, still flowing fast and deep. Oxley’s restaurant looks intact but the debris piling up outside shows the real extent of the damage. A traffic management lady strides towards me, high-vis jacket shining in the evening sunshine. “You need to go back, dear”, she said. ” The footpath is closed. This is the section that is going to collapse into the river.”

By seven o’clock on a Saturday night, I should be getting ready to go out, perhaps to dinner or a movie. I sigh, and wish I had the need for a wand of mascara. Instead, we are still sitting at our desks trying to tie up a few loose ends so we can get out before we hit the twelve-hour mark. Finally we emerge into the night, the darkness of the street surprising us after our well-lit air-conditioned surroundings. We’d forgotten ours was the only building with power. It immediately reminds me of Goa – wandering around in a pretty built-up street with no street lighting. We look back, and Humanity Place shines like a beacon in the darkness.

An hour later I am back at my hotel room, glass of wine in hand, the earliest night so far. Despite the hotel’s apologies that they can’t service our rooms daily, they have been in and spruced the place up. Marvellous. I sit back and relax: not exactly a crazy night in BrisVegas.

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