disasters in the future tense

I am an Australian. Naturalised, naturally. Born in Ireland, and having spent over twenty of my adult years in England, I am a child of a cool temperate maritime climate, a post-war Britain, a post-Independence Republic of Ireland.

Nowhere in my personal or national psyche has prepared me for the enormity of experiencing a disaster in the future tense.

What were the biggest national events in Ireland in my formative years? The daily onslaught of the IRA, the INLA, the UVF, the UDA on the national news, reporting day after day of terrorist activity, often no more than a hundred kilometres from my home. These news reports were always in the past tense, often only reported many hours after happening.

One year, 1982, we had “the big snow” in Ireland, with record snowfall over January and February, which reduced Dublin and much of Ireland to Alpine conditions for almost two months – a little like the events of this past northern-hemisphere winter. My father never acknowledged “the big snow”. He was in hospital recovering from a heart bypass, and didn’t see many snowdrifts from his city centre hospital bed. Ergo, it didn’t really happen.

As an adult living in the UK, my life was peppered with tragedies happening all around me. The Kegworth air disaster happened about eight weeks after I moved to England. I was living less than thirty kilometres away at the time. I drove past the scorch marks on the side of the motorway for months after: the visible evidence of a mangled aircraft and almost fifty deaths.

Those days, with my accent, I was seen as a potential terrorist myself. My landlady in Leicester warned my neighbours about me. Travelling weekly to Northern Ireland, the UK’s Prevention of Terrorism Act made air travel deeply inconvenient even then. I was bombarded with paperwork, patted down by a female PC and asked to operate scientific calculators and pagers every time I tried to board a plane. I travelled so much even then, I knew some of the airport police by first name.

Then, through the eighties and nineties: the Grand Hotel bombing in Brighton, an attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher. The Harrods bomb. The Lockerbie disaster. Manchester. Warrington. The Baltic Exchange, then Bishopsgate, both in London.

Years later, I lived and worked through the aftermath of the July 2005 bombings in London. Over fifteen minutes one Thursday morning, our lives were changed forever. We were not afraid. The Londoners’ Blitz mentality kicked in, and defiance was the natural response.

But living in Australia is different. Here, as we were told before we moved here, everything is trying to kill you. Sun, sea, sharks, jellyfish, spiders, snakes, you name it. We were not long here when Cyclone Larry hit, but I was not working in emergency management then. All I remember was that bananas went up to more than $30 a kilo for a year. Fires in Victoria also loomed large in our early years, culminating in the dreadful events of February 2009. Like others, I was personally involved in the emergency response and recovery phases of this natural disaster, but even then those events unfolded so quickly, we just reacted as the situation emerged.

Now, I sit in a hotel room in Brisbane, aware that right now the far north of Queensland is being hit by the beginnings of the worst cyclone to hit Australia in over a century: Cyclone Yasi, twice as big as Hurricane Katrina and happening right now. Almost exactly 1,000 miles north of here, 60,000 homes are without power and more than 10,000 people are already sheltering in evacuation centres. Down here in Brisbane, in the Red Cross National Coordination Centre and Queensland Emergency Operations Centre, all day we have been watching the TV footage and doing what we can to assist or prepare to assist.

For me, this unfolding of a guaranteed catastrophic event in the very near future is unnatural. I have reacted to quite a few serious emergencies after the fact, but I cannot remember a time when I sat at my desk and watched such a severe event about to happen. Looking at a disaster in the future tense, I am fortunate in that I don’t feel powerless to act, but I do feel powerless to stop what is happening.

Tomorrow morning I will wake up and check the cable TV stations. I will have a quick breakfast briefing with colleagues, and we will hit the office before 7.30am and keep going with the emergency response work of Red Cross. There are things I know I can contribute to this, but only tomorrow.

Tonight, I sit alone in my hotel room. The weather outside is ominously quiet. I will resist the temptation to switch on the TV and watch the storm of the century unfold. It is time to sleep.

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