Wednesday, 30 January 2013

My Flood Story

Yet again, Brisbane has been flooded with an unprecedented amount of water. If you know statistics you can argue that, but the important fact is that a lot of people have lost a lot of things, including other people in this latest disaster.
One ex-Tropical Cyclone “Oswald” swept across the East coast of Australia, causing rain and strong winds for days on end. This caused flooding and rapid-flowing water in many cities and low lying areas. I don’t have the ability to get all the details, because some of them are still unfolding at time of writing. However, this is not the first time we have been flooded thanks to a cyclone. In 2011, we also suffered at the hands of Cyclone “Tasha”. In that instance, Australia was already suffering from flooding, and the cyclone merely exacerbated it, with increased rainfall. The storm itself was quite weak, but the rains came down by the truckloads. Many places, including Brisbane CBD, were flushed with water. Throughout both of these situations, I was in a relatively privileged condition. My family and I have always had the luxury of living at the top of a hill or in the very least in places higher than the surrounding areas. We never will suffer from flooding except in the event of an apocalyptic flood. But I have seen the events of this flood. Although I have never been in the centre of this mess, I have stood at the very edge and seen the destruction this has wrought. The Word of the Day is ‘INUNDATED’.
Inundate /’inundayt/ v.t., To overspread with, or as with a flood; flood; deluge; overwhelm: To inundate surrounding country; to be inundated with work.

 It’s always been sort of a joke. Admittedly, a harsh joke. Gallows humour, you’d call it. That bastard, Thesaurus, doesn’t have many synonyms for ‘flood’, so for both of these cases of flooding in Brisbane, the news is peppered with the only word that sounds intelligent, ‘inundated’:
  “Aldershot houses inundated as areas isolated by floodwaters
  “Homes in South Grafton inundated with flood waters
  “Inundated mines out of action for weeks
  “Western suburbs inundated by rain
And in countless spoken reports, it’s the only verb used to describe how towns have been affected. But I don’t like them using that word.   “But wait,” I hear you say, “The Absurd Word Nerd doesn’t like a word? How can this be?!” No, it’s the word I don’t like. It’s the context. Certainly, the news needs to have some level of authority. They are often the ones providing emergency numbers and vital information for those in these at-risk or low-lying areas. People need to believe in these sources of information, so they aren’t doing the wrong thing. They need to take the emotion away and give clear, truthful information.
But I am here to put it back. Because what I saw in 2011 wasn’t Brisbane being ‘inundated’. It was Brisbane drowning.
It was early morning, and I’d just left Kelvin Grove to go to the city. I was living with some schoolmates in a share house deal, and we didn’t watch much television because it was loud, and six young men couldn’t always agree on what to watch, so I hadn’t seen the news. Anyway, I was headed to the city to go to the doctor. At the time I was suffering from Depression, and I was due for a new prescription. I headed to the city at, I think about nine o’clock or ten. I took the bus. Things seemed normal at the time, even if it was raining a little, but I had just woken up and was under-medicated so I didn’t really care what was happening around me. I got to the doctor’s office and waited in their room there for about an hour and a half. It wasn’t too eventful. But I remember as I waited there I kept overhearing people talk about being ‘stuck’. One of the others waiting was on the phone, convincing his boss that he could work at home. Some of the nurses were saying that not everyone came in because roads were blocked. Some people were calling family, but I didn’t eavesdrop on their personal conversations, I didn’t pay much heed because I didn’t much care. I eventually got to see the doctor, and got my prescription pretty quick. I didn’t think about it at the time, but the doctor didn’t really chat to me. He usually asked how the family was and all of that small talk nonsense. This time was very clinical, very clear and I walked out in less than ten minutes with a new script. I’d like to think (for dramatic purposes) that he was worried about the flood. But truth be told, I think it’s because I wasn’t in a talkative mood. I left the doctor’s office, and the first thing that struck me was the Chinese place next door. It was closed, and there was a sign on the door. It said something along the lines of ‘Closed due to flood’. I remember snickering at the sign. I imagined some poor sod, wading through chest-high water to get some Chinese food. Then he’d see the sign and only then realize he’d walked all this way for nothing. Anyway, I thought the Chinese place was just an anomaly. One paranoid soul trying to get a day off work. But a few stores down the line, I saw sandbags. And I crossed the street to see more stores which were closed and had sandbags piled up either outside or just inside the doors. I started to wonder how serious this flood thing was. It was around about then that I got the phone call. At the time I was sort-of going out with this girl. [It’s a long story, much longer than this one. Suffice to say that it ended. So for her sake I won’t mention her name.] She called and asked me how I was doing. I said that I was wet and confused. She asked where I was, so I told her I had just gotten to the CBD. That’s when she got worried. She explained to me that the city was flooding, and that the best thing to do was to get out. I disagreed, explaining that my parents lived in an apartment at the time, and we’d be fine up there on the fourth floor.
All these people around me, struggling to get to safety. And yet me, in the warning zone, was walking calmly home.
I spent the night there, watching the news, and the next day I went home. back at the Kelvin Grove house, we watched a lot more news. It felt so odd because everyone around me was, essentially, unaffected. But the news kept showing these horror stories. Thirty-five or so people had died, countless others had lost everything.

But one story caught our eye. I think it was a week later or so, when some of the leaders in this crisis were asking for helpers. Volunteers, to aid in the clean-up effort. One of my housemates suggested we help.
Feeling guilty for being so comfortable during the crisis, I agreed with him. And we ended up organizing for a few of us to travel out and help. We went there in my roommate's mother's car.

The road was the cleanest spot. Either the rain had come down drains, or cars had cleared it as they drove through. But it was still gritty, like badly made sandpaper.
All of the lawns squelched underfoot. If you could call them lawns. They were all brown, and so soaked that every step turned a small patch of wet, brown grass into a foot-print shaped chocolate pudding. Then the houses. They didn’t look too bad, just a little dirty, where the dirty water had dried. But they just looked okay, almost every houses had a pile out the front. This stuff had once been belongings. But every wooden chest of drawers, bookshelf, table or desk had swollen, cracked and gutted open like a fallen tree. Some chipboard pieces of furniture had been reduced to a thousand splinters, barely kept together by soggy plastic faux-wood. There were couches that were soaked through and mouldy. In each pile there were televisions and computers, some looking like a novelty aquariums with water in the screens, but most were cracked. Not from the floods, but from the manner in which the owners had discarded it on the lawn in disgust.
Every pile was taller than me, a sick monument to the lives that had been destroyed. Like some cruel god had lifted the houses shaken them up and poured their belongings by the street. And the smell was like shit and tears. A salty mix of mud, sea-water and torn-up plantlife.
I couldn’t help that first day. There were so many volunteers that there was a mix-up. The organizers told us to wait aside as others helped, for fear that too many people would get in the way. These were people’s homes after all they’d been through. A thousand strangers walking through, throwing your once-cherished birthday presents, belongings and memories onto the lawn . . . you could see some of the owners struggling to keep their composure.
And like everyone else, their building looked just a little dirty on the outside. But (I fear, also like everyone else) the inside was another matter entirely. The whole place smelt like mould and wood. Others helped to remove dead carpets, caked in with crud. We shifted out wooden furniture including some ruined billiards tables, throwing it out the back in a pile to be collected as rubbish. Some of the windows were cracked, but most had been washed a filthy brown. The ceiling was also swollen from the water, and we helped them to remove most of it so that it wouldn’t rot and fall on people.
I just spent most of my time sweeping. People would wet the floor with hoses, buckets or mops, and I helped sweep the muck out the door. It wasn’t easy, and the dirt was in pretty good, but we managed to clear most, if not every, concrete surface.
We didn’t fix the whole place. We couldn’t, a lot could not be salvaged. But by the end of the day we had washed the windows, and someone was helping to hose some of the crap out of the lawn, so it was a step in the right direction. For our help, the owners gave us a simple lunch and a lot of words in thanks. I can’t remember what they fed us, but I was more than grateful that they bothered to give us anything, given they had lost so much and probably had to count every cent.
I left that day feeling like I had done something. Not a great deal, but something to help those in need. They had gone through a trial, and managed to come out with a smile.

In the end I got two certificates, one for each day I helped out, but I only kept the second one. Partially because I didn't do anything on the first day, but mostly because they spelled my name Mattjer, which isn't even a word. It was all over, and I never thought I'd see it again.

That is, until a week ago.

I heard about it on the news, and then for a full week, it seemed, there were heavy winds and rains; not only on the news but outside my window every night as I tried to sleep. But for that full week, the only downside for me was that the sound of running water meant I had to pee more than usual. But again, I am left unaffected.
Perhaps I am lucky, but more likely it is my parents being forward thinkers in their real estate purchases, that has kept me not only safe, but comfortable during both of these tragedies.
And this time, I am just thinking that even with all these news stories about the floods, and the rising number of deaths (five, last I heard), the one thing missing is that emotion.
These people have lost everything, and yet the newsreaders seem to tell us nothing but numbers. So that is how I plan to help this time. This was my story of how I saw the floods, and I have tried to express in my words how I feel about the whole mess. If you have a flood story, I ask that you share it.
The news is there to tell us the facts. But I want to hear the stories. The emotions, the devastation and the truth. Because I am still unaffected. I mean, a tree fell down in our front yard, but it hit no one, never hit anything and broke nothing but itself. I feel nothing this time around but surprise. Hell, I barely felt anything the last time, except guilt.

So for those like me who see nothing but numbers, I want to hear your words . . . What is your Flood Story?
These people have lost everything, and yet the newsreaders seem to tell us nothing but numbers. So that is how I plan to help this time. This was my story of how I saw the floods, and I have tried to express in my words how I feel about the whole mess. If you have a flood story, I ask that you share it.
The news is there to tell us the facts. But I want to hear the stories. The emotions, the devastation and the truth. Because I am still unaffected. I mean, a tree fell down in our front yard, but it hit no one, never hit anything and broke nothing but itself. I feel nothing this time around but surprise. Hell, I barely felt anything the last time, except guilt.
So for those like me who see nothing but numbers, I want to hear your words . . . What is your Flood Story?

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I would love to read your words.