this will only make sense to AIIMS-trained people – part 4

Dedicated to Julie Groome and all those who work with spontaneous volunteers…

It hurts when there’s nothing but a slow growing queue
And your fear seems to say you won’t get them all trained
All alone I have cried; “Get HR on our side!”
We need more volunteers for the field…..

Well I run the training, run the police checks, see them learning
Run around, sign them up for the cause….

VOLUNTEERING, bein’s believin’
You can have it all, volunteering all your life
Take your passion and make it happen
Dreams can come alive, volunteering at Red Cross!

gong hei fat choi

We should have known it was going to be a difficult day. We stood in the early morning heat at the hotel before seven, while taxis came and went. None of them were ours. We had to re-book several times before somebody would take us.

A second day of computer problems plagued us all day, making the simplest of operational processes a huge ordeal. The clever idea of the Queensland state government to centrally coordinate all emergency response travel to the cyclone-affected areas was a good one, but it meant we were one step further away from controlling the travel of our own people. Things moved so fast – and then so slowly – many people’s heads were spinning before noon.

We continued to struggle to keep our head in the various games we were presented with. Queensland is hurting from wave after wave (pardon the pun) of flooding and cyclone activity. Despite the urgency of response required along the Far North Queensland coast, we could not forget the previous weeks of activity and the recovery process people are struggling through in Brisbane, Ipswich, Toowoomba, Rockhampton, Emerald and so many other places. As well the ongoing threat to inland towns by the ex-cyclone as it winds down in intensity. Not to mention the Red Crossers in Victoria and other states staffing the National Inquiry Centre, answering calls from people registering as flood or cyclone affected, or taking calls from others seeking their loved ones.

What else could possibly happen?

By mid-afternoon more news started to reach us of wild weather in Victoria. The scenic town of Hall’s Gap in the Grampians has been evacuated this evening due to an imminent major landslide (rain-related, of course). As I write, Red Cross people are working in a relief centre now open in nearby Stawell. Local emergency services have already pre-positioned search-and-rescue teams, which is never an encouraging sign.

People in Mildura, in the far north-west of Victoria, have found themselves suddenly congregating in the high street, waist-deep in water from rain that fell over no more than an hour. Two relief centres have just been set up, with Red Cross in attendance.
A lot of western Victoria and central Melbourne is seriously flooding. They are predicting around 200mm of rain this evening across western and central Victoria, and Melbourne itself, but anything more than 100mm will bring most river systems back up to major flood level. The water is less than three houses away from some colleagues who live by the bay very close to central Melbourne. Motorists on the St. Kilda Road were over their wheel arches in floodwaters this evening.
Meanwhile in Queensland, not forty-eight hours after the height of Cyclone Yasi, the Red Cross deployments continued along the coast today. We are also watching Alice Springs in NT very closely: it is under a severe weather warning as ex-cyclone Yasi continues inland.

Oh, yes, and Adelaide Red Cross were only stood down from a heatwave response on Monday, and WA are still working on long-term recovery outreach operations following the floods in Carnarvon in December.

So a few colleagues and I went out for a quick bite to eat on the way home. We ended up in a Chinese place across the road from the Red Cross offices. Halfway through our meal, the noise began. What else could possibly go wrong tonight? Suddenly, the crashing and banging made sense, as two huge Chinese dragons entered the restaurant. Gong Hei Fat Choi, everybody! It’s Chinese New Year! We just hadn’t realised. The packed restaurant clapped and cheered as the dragons came in and terrorised us, dancing and prancing and chasing little children (much to their delight) and gobbling up red-and-gold envelopes with coins in, in payment for prosperity for the year to come.

The Red Crossers at my table took photos, clapped and cheered, and for about five minutes forgot the litany of emergencies and situations swimming around our heads. As the red dragon approached our table, we snapped away on iPhones and cameras, laughed out loud and waved madly (alright, that last one was just me). The banging and crashing of cymbals and drums reached a crescendo as the dragons produced a Chinese sign which (presumably) said they had been bribed enough, and would leave us alone for another year of prosperity.

As we paid our bill and slipped away into the night, those few minutes of light and sound and levity stayed with us. It was a tough day, with more curve balls thrown at us than we cared to count. By bedtime the Red Cross emergency response across the country was even bigger than before, but we will handle it. It’s what we do.

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.

Queensland floods – day 22

Victoria has now been hit. ‎43 Victorian towns have now been flooded, affecting more than 1400 properties. These are the biggest floods in decades and in some areas are the largest ever recorded. My Victorian colleagues scramble to respond. Luckily their State EOC was already up and running, assisting with the Queensland floods by running the National Inquiry Centre, a call-centre for people trying to find their loved ones. It’s still hard to hit the ground running in the middle of the night.

First task in the morning is a pharmacy run. Half of us realise this morning that we are a bit dehydrated, so I stock up on Hydralyte and other girlie items for the rest of the ladies. I stand over a few of them to make sure they drink their electrolytes, and drink four glasses myself before noon.

The rest of Park Road is alive at last, and people cheer as they realise that “real” coffee is available for the first time in a week. Sally runs over to Mary Ryan’s bookshop all excited, only to find out they have nothing but soy milk for now. Undeterred, she runs back across the road to the Red Cross fridge and liberates a couple of litres of fresh milk. Last I see her, she is striding purposefully back to the shop, clutching her carton. Wonder what they charge when it’s BYO milk?

Monday morning in the office sees the full National Emergency Services gang back together for the first time in three weeks. Between holidays and illness, we’ve been down two people since Christmas. It’s a relief to feel back to full strength, and our first teleconference is full of ideas and strategies.

I slip into handover mode. Kirstie is running the National Coordination Centre like a dream, with Shin Yee making her National Logistics Officer role look easy, and Bev’s calmness making her perfect in the National Planning Officer role.  Sally and I have been a fantastic double-act in the National Manager role in the past weeks. As always I can see her looking at my progress on things through her lens, seeing issues and options I would never have thought of, and finding a path to build on what we have both contributed. We trust each other implicitly.

The last hours before handover, as always, are a bit frantic, as I remember things and forget things in the one breath. I realise how exhausted I am when I brief two separate people about exactly the same thing within an hour, and have no recollection of the first briefing. I lose my handbag three times in the building. I stop mid-sentence and have no idea what I was about to say. My shift log becomes even more important and I write everything down.

Knowing there are great people taking over from you should (and does) give you a great deal of comfort, but it’s the pace of things that raise the anxiety levels again. Things change right around the country almost every hour. It’s selfish, but I know that within two hours of me leaving the building, the situation will have changed so much that I will be completely out of the loop.  We train for this and we know this, and it’s why we have a tight incident control system in place. But personally it makes the separation anxiety a little worse, especially on the first of my days off.

Some familiar faces from my Emerald stint arrive back in from their second deployment. Many of them have been out working in some of the most devastated parts of the Lockyer Valley, where the destruction and deaths were are their highest. They look exhausted,and they will have seen and heard many dreadful things in past days, but every one of them cannot say enough about the spirit and determination of the people they have been assisting. These are the people we have been working to support, back here in our air-conditioned office. This is the reason I love my job.

Somehow I find time to take a breath and finish off the last of my handover bits. I pack up and wander around the building saying goodbye to a few people. Later, a rare and brief evening of relaxation with two colleagues sees us dining alfresco in Chinatown, lanterns swaying above us, alternating between work stuff and good conversation. Anna and I have made a good team: why wouldn’t we? We are both Scorpio Fire Horses, born three days apart. Almost twins, but very different personalities. Her calmness and ability to boil things right down to what can work quickly has been fantastic, and her fresh view on things has been so helpful.

This morning I awake at my usual 5.30 slot but happily snuggle back down and sleep for another hour and a half. Before I head for the airport I shall go out for a nice stroll around Roma Street Parklands across the road. It’s hard to get away from Red Cross in this town: this lovely city park is where our International shelter delegates do their practical exercises during training, using standard-issue tarpaulins and little else to build a temporary home for a family of five. I shall avoid that part of the park today, and go smell the flowers instead.

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.

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.

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.