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.

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the emerald city 3

The day starts at just after 6am. Our evacuation centre manager calls to say the Federal Police are crawling all over the place as the Governor-General may pay a visit today. The public sees maybe thirty seconds of footage of a dignitary’s visit on TV, and perhaps doesn’t even notice it has happened, but on the ground this visit entails security briefings, media briefings, protocol briefings, and sometimes an early-morning heads-up for people like us.

My incident management team and I do our morning huddle over breakfast at the motel, and we are at our desks before 7am. The ongoing floods mean constant travel problems, and we spend the day working with the State Emergency Operations Centre on plans for getting our Red Crossers in and out of Emerald.

The phone calls are endless. Somebody shoves a bottle of Powerade into my hands, which in retrospect I reckon saves me. I hop into the car and pay a visit to our amazingly hard-working evacuation centre manager Kelly, out at the local agricultural college. I sip a cup of tea, get an update from her, answer a few tough questions. Back in the State EOC or National Coordination Centre it’s relatively easy: it’s all about complying with protocols and communicating as effectively as we can. Here at the pointy end, Kelly’s issues are much more human-level. How much longer can we stay here? who can provide some structured activities for the evacuated kids? Is there somebody in town who can provide tenancy advice to some residents? Where do we get more nappies from? Who can help this 17-year-old girl in crisis when we cannot find her parents?

Back at base I find my lunch at a reasonable hour and wolf it down. A volunteer comes into help us do a stock-check of our equipment. The mental health Sector Commander pops in for a chat about possible outreach. Another urgent phone call: her Excellency Governor-General Quentin Bryce has finally arrived at the evacuation centre and is touring the facility.  A little later, she shows up at the recovery centre and another bunch of Red Crossers get to meet her.

Yet another phone call tells us the G-G is meeting some emergency workers at the town hall (another of our Red Cross evacuation centres) where the Salvos are putting on a sausage sizzle in her honour. I check the mirror for the first time in four days. Not a lick of makeup, hair scraped back into a careless ponytail, ink stains on my lovely new high-vis Red Cross vest, looking hot and bothered. Lessons for all the emergency services ladies out there: never leave home without a wand of mascara or some eyeliner. You will be invited somewhere important, or at least somewhere there will be media presence.

The time comes and I jog across to the town hall. Every minute counts in this job. I chat to our other evacuation centre manager Judith, who has had a smaller number of  people in her centre, but a lot more disruption. She looks tired, but the professional demeanour does not falter for a minute. Until, that is, when I tell her she should be the one who escorts her Excellency around, as the centre is her responsibility.

The excitement levels rise and there she is. Looking cool and relaxed in a crease-free pink linen dress and lime-green espadrilles, the flawless G-G arrives and starts chatting to the various emergency services workers waiting for her. After a few minutes her Excellency makes her way to the entrance of the centre. I welcome her and introduce Judith and some other team members. I ask her how she can possibly look so cool and fresh in all this heat. She reminds us that she is a Queenslander, and it is the cold Canberra climate that doesn’t suit her, not this tropical heat. Like all public figures, Ms Bryce has perfected the art of genuine small talk, and she immediately puts us at our ease whilst giving us her full attention. She graciously poses for photographs with us, as well as the ones taken by her official photographer.

Judith accompanies her on her tour of the centre, answering questions when needed. Her Excellency sits and eats with some Red Cross centre workers, chatting easily about their work and their lives. A short speech at the end of the visit really boosts the spirits of many tired-looking emergency response people in the building. And then, in a pink linen flash, she is gone.

For us, the night continues with ongoing travel changes, an unwell colleague to be looked after, random other phone calls, and hot debriefs to be conducted with the incident management team over a rushed bowl of pasta. I sit quietly in my room for a while before my final duty of the day: picking up the night shift workers for the town hall evacuation centre and dropping the outgoing workers to their motel rooms.

Once the last Red Crosser is safely home for the night, I swing the car round and head a short distance out of town. I turn into a quiet, dark cul-de-sac of houses. At 11.30pm the place is in darkness. Safely parked, I switch off all the car lights and look up at the sky. I daren’t get out of the car for fear of stray snakes and enormous hungry mosquitoes.

An infinity of stars blazes down at me from an ink-black canvas. The more I look, the more stars I can see. The Milky Way streaks its way above me, narrowly missing Orion and heading for the Southern Cross. It has been many years since I have seen a sky so spectacular and I sit there for quite a while gazing upwards. Every speck of light I can see is a star. Not a planet, but a star like the sun. The worries of the day melt away slowly as everything gradually slots back into perspective. There’s nothing can beat being debriefed by the universe itself.

the emerald city 2

Up at 5 o’clock in the morning: I didn’t mean to, but the sun shone in and woke me. An hour of work to get ahead of the posse, then showered, packed, in a cab to the airport to catch a couple of teleconferences before boarding.

By half past ten I feel as if I have already done a day’s work. In the airport I meet Rebekah on the escalator, both of us in our stone-coloured Red Cross uniforms, enough for each of us to say hello. We’ve not met before. She and a handful of others are off to Moura from Gate 2 while I fly to Emerald from Gate 3. We do the two-minute intro – what state are you from, where are you going, how many activations, how are you feeling – then it’s back into a wave of anonymity.

I sit beside Kevin from Queensland Health on the plane. We swap phone numbers: we’ll need to talk tomorrow once our respective handovers are done. Marguerite greets me as I disembark. These Red Cross uniforms are really great for recognising colleagues.

Straight out to the agricultural college where a dozen or more Red Cross people are looking after fifty or so displaced people. They have carved out a sort of routine here: set mealtimes courtesy of the Salvation Army, organised playtime for the kids, a trip into the town for the older people later in the day. The accommodation here is pretty good as it is private single, double and family accommodation rather than inflatable mattresses on a gym floor. The Red  Crossers look tired, a few of them, but all they want to talk about is how the people of Emerald are coping, and how they suggest things could be improved for them.

Later, Mohammed and I sit face to face for handover in the middle of an empty public library. Mohammed has been here for four days and it is time for him to fly home for some rest. His handover is concise and professional. It is weird being in a public building with nobody else around: I feel like we are trespassing. But what a dream to work surrounded by all the books you ever wanted.

Bev and Kim from Tasmania are doing a sterling job in the Red Cross Emergency Operations Centre. New volunteers arrive and get briefed, phones ring, whiteboards get updated, somebody kindly makes the newcomer a cup of tea. The Governor General, Quentin Bryce, is in town tomorrow for a barbecue and meet-and-greet at town hall – who attends? How many animals spent the night in the evacuation centres? (for the record, there was at least one turtle and one lizard, and a number of horses). We need to start thinking about outreach. Some of our mobile phones have run out of credit. I make a list of people to call tomorrow.

We spend a half-hour planning ahead for the coming weeks – me doing a crash course in incident management for Bev and Kim, as they check my adding-up in the columns of numbers we create. Although the river levels have really gone down here in Emerald in the past two days, there are weeks and weeks to come before anybody gets back to any semblance of normal. Red Cross will be there to help, so we need to keep the people coming.

Over dinner we are joined by Robyn, our Recovery Centre Manager. Surrounded by passionate, committed people, it is easy to focus on the difficulties and on what we wish could have gone better today. Mohammed tries to make us focus on the important: we have helped some people on their road to recovery today, and we will help some more tomorrow.

Heads full of more ideas and lists of things to do, we head for bed. Mohammed, as his last act as Operations Officer, pops over to the evacuation centre in the town hall to escort our evening shift people back to their motel. It’s the least we can do for them after a long shift.

Tomorrow he heads home and I take the reins completely. I hope I don’t need his advice when he is airborne.

you know you’re in queensland when….

… the two blokes behind you in the security queue at the airport are both over six feet tall, clad head to toe in worn but well-pressed Wrangler denim (one with a big set of bulls’ horns embroidered on the back of his shirt), accessorised by proper John Wayne boots with Cuban heels, and serious Stetson hats. Or maybe Akubras: I am really not au fait with cattle country fashions. Real, honest-t0-god cowboys.

On the other hand, I can hardly talk. I am dressed head to toe in khaki like Steve Irwin the crocodile hunter, with a huge backpack on my back, I have more red crosses on my clothing than you could shake a stick at, topped off by a wide-brimmed Red Cross hat in bright red. Wish I had a bit of lippy or a wand of mascara to hand so I could feel a bit more ladylike.

Main human-interest story on the news this morning was a home in flood-deluged Rockhampton which was literally surrounded by dozens of snakes. I ran for cover.

the emerald city

So. Emerald. What can Google, Wikipedia and the Red Cross situation reports tell me about my destination?

Emerald is a fairly large country town of around 11,000 people, that was established in 1879 as a base for the building of Queensland’s western railway. The town is named after ‘Emerald Downs Hill’, and not an emerald mine. This is a disappointment to me. However nearby are the Sapphire Gemfields, the largest, and one of the richest, sapphire fields in the southern hemisphere.

Emerald is at about 23 degrees south in latitude, which is just north of the Tropic of Capricorn. I love going to the tropics, but usually expect exotic cocktails with little umbrellas in, azure blue waters and palm trees to be part of the scene. Rio de Janeiro is at 23 degrees south. Havana in Cuba is at 23 degrees north. You get the idea.

To get to Emerald, I fly direct from Brisbane on a 90-minute flight by turbo-prop aircraft. It is about 1,000km north-west as the crow flies, about the same as flying from Zürich to London. If I was flying from Melbourne it would be a little further than flying from Malaga to London.

With over 12 metres of river water still flooding the town and several hundred people still evacuated from their homes, I am not sure what to expect from this trip. I am fairly sure it will not involve cocktails with little umbrellas in them though.

Queensland floods – day nine

Another early start – a meeting with Shanna, our Red Cross Commander, over breakfast. It’s the only time we can find for me to feed back some of my observations in my monitoring and evaluation role.
Back at the EOC, things are buzzing. After such a busy day yesterday, the tension is imperceptibly higher. Lots to do, lots changing in the flood-affected areas. Rockhampton river levels are at 9.15 metres: they are expected to peak at 9.4 metres tomorrow. Nevertheless, it will about a week for the water level to get back down below 8.5 metres, and yet another week to get below 7 metres. This is not going to be over any time soon.
Imagine having to leave your house and all your belongings behind with maybe two days’ warning. Imagine that your house is only one storey high, like many houses here in Queensland, and your other usual storage space is your garage. Imagine that you and your family can literally take no more than you can carry in your arms, maybe into a helicopter or small boat. Imagine trying to figure out what to do with the family dog, cat, hamster.
Imagine the water flooding in literally to the rafters of your home, leaving nothing visible but a roof. Imagine all the belongings you will lose – all the memories, the photos, the files, the documents, the clothes, the toys, the bedding, household goods like fridges, washing machines, laptops, stereos, iPods, X-Boxes. Imagine how the fabric of your house will be damaged by immersion in river water thick with mud and debris for up to three weeks. Imagine you live surrounded by fields of watermelons or other crops, and how your home and belongings will smell when these crops start to rot.
Imagine going back to your home every day to start the grim work of the clean-up, but having to go back to the local evacuation centre every night to sleep and get fed. Imagine your whole local town centre closed up because every single building has been similarly damaged. Imagine most of the roads into your town washed away, and there is no open supermarket, no fresh food, no fuel, no cleaning equipment, nowhere to buy new clothes, no takeaway food, sometimes no electricity.
This is reality for over 1,000 families in Queensland right now, across 22 towns.
Back in the EOC, we are visited by Dr. Rob Gordon, consultant to Red Cross and an expert in helping communities affected by emergencies. For many years Rob has worked with many Australian communities who have experienced disasters such as fires, floods and cyclones. Rob takes time to talk with the incident management team about how we can look after ourselves better when working under stress. It’s a useful hour spent reminding ourselves of the importance of looking after our own wellbeing.
Groups of volunteers arrive and leave again, back to the airport, or off in a convoy of four-wheel drives on an eight-hour journey to yet another flood-affected community. The aid worker’s mantra of “hurry up and wait” is often in evidence, as demands change, and people’s destinations change at the last minute. The volunteers sit in the kitchen chatting to each other, patient and good-natured despite the uncertainty.
Those still around at dinner sit down and share in some delicious Turkish food, whilst Commander wanders the office making sure that everybody is logging of for a (relatively) early finish. It is seven o’clock.
Tomorrow I head for Emerald and another perspective on this huge event. It is humbling to be involved, and able to assist in a small way. And so to bed.

another working day

Red Cross State Emergency Operations Centre – day nine

It is a long working day in the Red Cross State Emergency Operations Centre in Milton, on the outskirts of Brisbane. With over 140 people deployed all over Queensland, it is a full-time job every day for about 27 people just to keep the Red Cross operation going full-steam ahead.

Red Cross Commander Shanna Provost keeps a calm and steady hand on the tiller, as the planning, logistics and operations teams work steadily through the day, responding to ever-changing circumstances, reports of ebbing and flowing rivers, new information coming through, all somehow keeping a cheerful attitude and really caring about each other.

I sit in on meetings, chat one-to-one with a few people, and generally try to get a sense of how things are going in my real-time evaluation role. Evaluation asks not only if we are working in line with our plans, but also if the plans are appropriate and in line with broader agency policy. These people know what they are doing, they know the bigger picture, and even then they are anxious to do more.

At one point Jodi, the intrepid Emergency Operations Centre Manager, follows me around the office to satisfy herself that I am eating properly and getting enough water. Later in the afternoon, Commander is approached by both the State Planning Officer and the State Logistics Officer, both arguing the case for the other one to have a shorter working day tomorrow to have a rest. Where is the tension? Where are the short tempers? I see some tired faces but the power of humanity is alive in this team.

Duncan our IT guy, who flew from Perth a few days ago to be the on-site trouble-shooter, works hourly miracles on wayward computer files and generally makes technology problems go away. Like the rest of our support colleagues, their fulltime job is not emergency response, but it feels like he’s been around forever. He slots right into the gang.

Later in the evening towards the end of our shift, we chat over dinner. Most of the Emergency Operations Centre team eat three meals a day together at the moment, and there is a great atmosphere in the dining room as people leave their jobs (and tabards) at the door and relax for a few minutes. We start all over again at 8am tomorrow morning, to another set of challenges, another list of record-breaking river levels, another litany of changing demands and logistical problems. But we are Red Cross, and we can do it.