It’s a bit like having your mum in charge of the State. Not necessarily your mum, but the mum who ran the tuckshop and put band-aids on everyone’s knees and made brownies and let you stay up late. The kind of mum who was organised, and calm, and knew exactly how to bandage your leg when you twisted your ankle. The kind of mum who used fabric softener, even on the spare towels, just in case you came off your bike and fell in a puddle and needed a fluffy hug. When a disaster strikes, most politicians have the compassion of a damp tea towel. If a bloke was in charge you know it would be a pile of antiseptic rhetoric. Anna Bligh makes Julia Gillard look like Primeminsteratron.
I was really worried about my house last night. I live on the water in New Farm. The Brisbane City Council flood maps all had my block shaded in blue – which is more than slightly ironic for anyone who’s ever seen the Brisbane River. My apartment is 5.3m above the water level on a normal day and there’s a 20cm step at my front door. The predictions were for the river to peak at 5.6m. I’m not very good at maths, but I could tell that, at the very least, my carpet was about to get a bath.
My parents lost their business in the Toowoomba flash flood a couple of days earlier, so I knew all too well how unpredictable gigantic walls of moving river and mud could be. Sense told me that officials were probably giving us the worse-case scenario so residents didn’t get complacent and that I’d probably just scrape through. The visions of the carnage in Mum and Dad’s framing business, as featured on Channel 7 the night before, told me to start sandbagging the crap out of everything in sight. The only sandbagging stations listed on the Internet were miles away and the roads were already well and truly flooded, so I’d resorted to trying to seal my front and back doors with some sticky tape. If the flood hit it would have been like Moses trying to hold back the Red Sea with a hairdryer.
I jammed some old, non-fluffy towels in the cracks of the doors and then taped them up again. And then put coffee tables in front of them and jammed some more items of spare clothing in between the coffee tables and the doors. And then put the Yellow Pages on top of the clothes to weigh them down some more, grateful I’d finally found a use for the paper version of the phonebook. I was trying to find more spare clothes to jam in the cracks when I remembered the 1,000 calico bags with my band’s logo printed on them we’d had made to sell at our last show. They’d been beer-damaged at a gig at The Zoo and kind of smelt, so they weren’t much good for anything else. I started piling them up by the doors when it occurred to me they looked rather like sandbags.
I didn’t have any sand, but I had a garden, so I started shovelling dirt and mulch into them and stacked them up on the outside of the doors. A friend from up the road dropped by with her fiancé, who had just returned from serving in Afghanistan. He knew a thing or two about sandbags so I proudly showed them my handiwork. He looked at me as if I’d bought a water pistol and announced I was off to fight the Taliban. He frowned a bit, gave them a poke, at which point a few bags toppled over, and then set about re-arranging them in a more Army-like fashion. There were a few gaps, so I filled up some more bags and we stood back to admire our efforts.
“What do you think?” I said. “Reckon they’ll hold?”
He poked them again.
“Mmm.” He said, frowning some more. “Ah, yep, should be right … You might get a bit of seepage.”
I think by ‘bit of seepage’ he meant, ‘that pile of mulch wouldn’t hold back a cup of tea’, but I felt better about things so we decamped to a merry Merthyr Bowls Club for a late lunch with a few dozen excited locals and had a couple of beers, drinking every time a pontoon floated past. Two drinks if there was a boat on one of them. We lost count at about 20. Then the river started to creep over the street and the power cut out so we decided to head home, which was only across the road, but set quite high and up four flights of steps. This was about 2pm, about an hour before the first predicted tidal high.
We were feeling quite confident about things at that point. We had a dry house to stay in, a couple of eskies, some bottled water, a mountain of basil I’d picked from my garden, some chicken, four kilos of pasta we’d scrounged from our collective cupboards (the local shops had sold out of anything else useful because of the panic buying the day before), three tins of diced tomatoes, lots of snacks, flour, sugar, yeast, four beers, two bottles of wine and a gas-powered lantern. It was like camping. But with a way better tent.
We sat down outside and waited for something to happen. Nothing happened, so we went for a walk to take some photos and see if the Powerhouse (an arts venue and bar over by New Farm Park) was under water yet. It wasn’t. So we came back and sat down and waited for something to happen again. We had no TV, no Internet and no radio so we were cut off from the world, but were feeling in high spirits because the river had only just started covering the street outside and we were a good four or five metres above that.
It started getting darker and that’s when the phone calls began.
“You can’t drink the tap water anymore, I have a friend who lives with a guy whose sister works for Brisbane Water and she said they haven’t treated it for five days and there’s raw sewage in it now. They’re even talking about a cholera outbreak in Milton. And they’re going to cut off the water soon anyway, so fill up your sinks, the SES are telling people to do that.” someone relayed, looking worried.
That was OK, the kitchen stovetop was gas-powered, so we could boil the water. We filled up every saucepan we could find and sat down again.
Then someone got a text message.
“They’ve upgraded the river peak to 7 metres! They’re evacuating New Farm.” It said.
This was a little alarming for us. If the river hit 7 metres we’d still be fine where we were, but my place would have been up to the roof. The evacuation sounded a bit far-fetched though. On our walk to the Powerhouse an hour or so ago the Police there had looked pretty casual. They certainly weren’t telling us to get out. They didn’t even bat an eyelid when a largish, unmanned yacht, which had been moored outside the Bowls club, hurriedly drifted by on an uncharted course through the rapids.
We decided to stay and planned dinner. There was talk of rations. 150g of chicken each. We weren’t physically cut off from the world – there were still streets open – but it was fun to pretend for a bit. It was hot.
Then the third phone call came. It was our friend Brad. We put him on speaker phone.
Brad: Hey guys what are you doing?
Us: Nothing much. The power is out. We’re kind of bored.
Brad: Ah. That sucks. How’s the river?
Us: It’s getting higher. We heard it was going to be seven metres though. We’re a bit worried. Have you heard that?
Brad: No. Today Tonight have this stupid promo where they’re showing a model of the flood if the dam breaks and what would happen. They’re saying it would be seven metres or something like that.
Us: So it’s not going to be seven metres?
Us: And what about the tap water, is it safe to drink?
Brad: Hey, I’m home alone and I have two spare bedrooms because my flatmates are away and I have air conditioning and a fridge full of beer and TV and some DVDs I was going to watch. Do you guys want to come over and stay here instead?
Us: *five millisecond pause* Yes
And that was the end of the story. We spent the night in air-conditioned comfort. We watched the news. We yelled at Today Tonight for being alarmist pricks when Kylie Gilles flew over Wivenhoe Dam in a helicopter and talked about the catastrophe that would happen if it collapsed and loosely implied that because the dam was at 190% it might soon collapse. The Bureau of Meteorology downgraded the expected peak. Then downgraded it again. I did some calculations and figured that the water would probably reach the gutter on the street outside my house.
I went back to my house this morning and the water had reached the gutter outside the house next door to my house. And my sandbags had fallen over.
I am lucky. Tens of thousands are not. Please donate whatever you can to them. If you know them, hug them and tell them you love them. They, like my parents, are going to need all the money and help they can get. Next time I see Anna Bligh I’m going to give her a hug too. I might give her a Black Market Rhythm Co. bag as well. I still have 983 left.