Trust the bride to choose a groom from a family who live in the most perfect New England town ever. Essex, on the deep estuary of the Connecticut River, is picturesque most of the year, but comes into its own during the snow-covered days of winter.
With cold weather taking hold a few weeks earlier than normal, the Connecticut River towns are knee-deep in perfect snow as we make our way to Centerbrook to decorate the wedding hall. Helen and Mike are getting married on Friday 13 December in a beautiful old meetinghouse, originally built in 1722 and recently renovated by two private benefactors.
In the run-up to Christmas, the townspeople of Essex and its near neighbours take pride in the decoration of their homes. Venerable weatherboard houses of respectable dimensions light up at dusk with fairy-lit door wreaths, identical candles in every window, perfectly measured spruce garlands on picket fences. There is not a cheesy inflatable Santa or electric penguin in sight.
There is no hint of grey slush here: all is pure white. The gazebo on the village green is decorated with garlands and a Christmas tree, all festooned with white fairy lights sparkling through the darkness of a December afternoon. One family has carved out a skating rink on the village pond. I stroll down the main drag as a few flurries of snow fall, and can’t decide which home is the most flawlessly decorated. I am simply enthralled by the Christmassiness of it all.
We meet up with Mike’s two moms (Real Mom Peggy and Step-Mom Sue) at Peggy’s sprawling New England home on the water’s edge in Essex itself. Like the rest of the village, the house and garden are picture-perfect under at least a foot of snow. The charming but often out of place American Christmas decorations I have seen in many European houses seem perfect in this home: a huge tree in the living room is the centrepiece and every wall and table surface has a wreath or a ribbon attached. The kitchen is well stocked with every sandwich filling known to man (handy for those of us who are feeling a little worse for wear after the school reunion of the night before), and Peggy does a good line in chilled non-alcoholic drinks to help with rehydration. Needless to say, every plate, cup and glass is Christmas-themed without being vulgar. The red-and-green “Christmas in Essex” napkins seem appealing in this house, whilst I know at home they would just look ironic. I still want some, and Sue quietly tells me the name of the shop in town where I can stock up.
Down at the Meeting House, we join forces with the (thin-lipped and grim-faced) wedding planner and her (much friendlier) associate to deck the halls for the wedding feast. The reception room looks bare with just a few wooden trestle tables strewn about, but a few hours’ hard work from willing workers transform the space into a green, silver and white spectacle replete with Christmas baubles, acres of tulle, fancy folded linen napkins, polished silverware and more Christmas cheer than you can shake a stick at.
The bride takes a few minutes to regroup in the picture-perfect chapel area while the rest of us try to even out the number of votive candles per table of twelve. All must be perfect for the big day.
A last-minute visit to Ikea (more votive candles are required) and before long we are back at home base, avoiding the mere mention of alcohol and inhaling vast quantities of vegetables from the Chinese takeaway in the vain hope that our culinary choices will negate the over-indulgence of the night before. It’s going to be a big couple of days and we need our wits about us.
Americans aren’t rude: it just seems that way to the uninitiated. They can be polite but very direct, as are the Customs Hall officials at LAX where I land like a stunned bird after a fourteen-hour trans-Pacific flight. “Ma’am, move up the line please. Aisles fifteen and sixteen for US citizens only. Have your passports ready.” Their tone is peremptory at times, but their smiles are genuine and there is no attitude served up with the instructions.
I “stand in line” (rather than queue) for just under an hour before my passport is stamped and my fingerprints taken by a solemn young man. Finally, I am in. Just enough time to navigate the baggage hall, a quick walk to Terminal 4 and a rigorous airport security checkpoint before my next plane takes off. The airline staff at the gate invite serving US military personnel to board alongside their premium frequent flyers. From faraway countries it’s easy to forget that the USA is a country at war.
The culture shock continues: wifi available on board the aircraft. How lovely. I am served a decent cup of tea and settle down to watch the view. Desert comes first, then mountains. Icing-sugar-coated ridges give way in time to meandering textbook-perfect rivers lined with perfectly oblong green fields.
Four hours later we descend slowly through the whiteness, the horizon disappearing only to re-emerge as a thin blue line framing a more prosaic brown landscape. Lower down, white clouds spill over into a shallow valley and I can make out individual farm buildings, horse-training circuits and patches of woodland. Soon, the outer suburbs take over, the Potomac River comes into view and the golf courses proliferate. It all looks like a game of Sim City. We must be near the capital.
The shuttle bus drops me off at my hotel and Manny the porter sweeps me and my luggage to my room. In my effort to get the tipping right, I fear I over-do it, but over the course of my stay Manny proves to be a good ally. Maybe I didn’t get it wrong after all. I drop everything and head back out, anxious to get some fresh air and see my new neighbourhood. The air is fresh, alright: within minutes I know I will need a much thicker coat and a hat that covers my ears properly. I stroll the streets of the George Washington University precinct, locate a convenience store, the Metro station, the closest bar, the Red Cross offices. The monuments and memorials of the National Mall are nearby but the cold is too much. I retreat to my hotel and the anonymity of the basement restaurant.
Next day after a couple of meetings I take the train to Pentagon City. A businessman stops to chat with me as we wait on the platform. He’s spent some time in Ireland and speaks fondly of West Cork. We pass the time pleasantly enough until the train appears, then he excuses himself, saying he never travels in the last carriage. It’s my first experience of the phenomenon of the Random Friendly American. But I’m left wondering mostly if there’s something about the last carriage I should know about.
Some say that the enormous Pentagon building is just a hologram, but the nearby shopping mall is real alright. Searching for food, I make a circuit of the food court twice before realising there is little choice beyond deep-fried everything. Then in the corner, I spy a quiet salad bar. I order the smallest, simplest chicken salad my jetlagged brain can describe and prop myself at a plastic table. The salad is enormous. I plough my way through about a quarter of it, then pick out as much of the chicken as I can before giving up.
Full, I make a beeline to Macy’s where a nice young man helps me choose a padded overcoat to keep the DC winter at bay. Later that evening I take a stroll down to the White House just a few blocks from the hotel, my new purchase keeping me warm while I navigate the other tourists along the railings of the South Lawn. Past the impressive Treasury Building, I make my way to the Circulator bus stop and pay my one dollar for the ride to historical Georgetown.
It’s not quite as busy as I expect, perhaps due to the bitter winds coming in ahead of the snowstorm they have forecast for the north-east states. I peer through the windows of the M Street shops, taking notes for later. The side streets remind me a little of parts of Dublin with their higgledy-piggledy houses and colourful front doors. I take a table at the Peacock Cafe and partake of a doorstop of meatloaf and decent glass or two of Argentinean Malbec.
Back at the hotel, culture shock of a slightly more alarming nature reveals itself. I have a kitchen attached to my room, but no kettle to be found. There is a coffee percolator and I try that, but it simply doesn’t heat the water to boiling point. How does one make a cup of tea in this town?
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.
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.
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.
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.