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The Flood of 2011-01-12 I spent yesterday packing up my mother in laws life. My husband and I had discussed the possibility of packing her home because of the growing concern of flooding, and now it was about to come true. We agree that he‘ll bring home a removal truck to pack furniture into, but as it turns out, it will all be too late. We need to move now, and hurry! My elderly mother in law is at her beach house safe, but stuck; unable to drive as rising floodwaters have cut off the highway between the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane. She's helpless, and has been told to stay put, there's nothing she can do, leave it to us kids. Nevertheless, she frets all day about her home where she raised five children. She wrings her hands and listens to the radio. It's all she can do. I drive over at 8am to check out her home on the river at Indooroopilly and note the flood measurements. The water was almost up to the eaves of a small backyard shed. I took a photo on my phone and emailed it straight to my husband, who was anxiously battling his own rising waters in Caboolture, at the car Dealership. The radio is on; voices tell me calmly that the Bremer River will peak at 19 metres. Later this is updated to 22 metres. During the day various reports come through. The flood will be 1.5metres lower than ‘74. The flood will be as bad as ‘74. The flood will be worse than ‘74. We adjust and note each change. My sister in law‘s partner phones, panicked. He rings me at home. ―I‘m standing outside Gwen‘s house right now. I‘ll knock the front door down!‖ he exclaims. ‗No need, I have the key‖ I tell him. ―I‘ll be there soon. Go to a newsagent and grab some newspapers for wrapping stuff.‖ I‘ve already sourced newspapers from my own suburb and bought extra food to make lasagnes for dinner tonight. We still have to eat, and after today we‘ll be ravenous, and exhausted. In my mind I begin to make a plan of action. Batteries charged, extra toilet paper, cat food, and washing done. At 10am I drive through pouring rain to begin the melancholy chore of packing, wrapping, sorting, rescuing. My mother in law‘s home sits on the Brisbane River, normally a tame piece of water. She loves to watch the rowers and ferries as they pass her backyard deck. She‘s not a home maker, my mother in law, she‘s a traveller. A world traveller. She‘s been to more countries than I‘ve had hot dinners, and only last month returned from a solo road trip to Lake Ayre and beyond. Slipping off the road twice in her small 4wd, the roads were methodically closed behind her by Police, as the Big Wet began. She‘s gutzy! And although 1


not a home maker, she loves her house. It‘s her own design, and has already been under the 1974 floods. I thought it came up to the mid-wall line, but my sis in law tells me it came over the flat roof. Ouch! I begin to pack with more authority and in earnest. This is serious! Already I can see the waterline has crept up past the garage shed eaves, it‘s now half way up. Two tyres swirl in a backwash eddy, spinning lazy circles. A bush turkey looks confused, standing on the waters edge, peering in. I wonder if he had a nest nearby?

When I arrived to her home I had to disarm the alarm. Looking at her code, I punch in the numbers, but the alarm goes off. Security ring, and it‘s impossible to hear him. I walk back to my car in belting rain so I can hear what he is saying to me. Again and again I punch in the numbers, until we realise that she has given me 5 digits instead of 4. Ahh…Finally the screaming stops, and we can both breathe in peace. Handing my camera to my brother in law, I ask him to walk around and photograph the house before we begin. We two in-laws begin to pack mum in laws life and family history. Starting in the dining room, I rescued her beloved mother‘s china and dinner set, wrapping each beautiful plate in Qld Country Life newspaper – ironically with headlines of the flood – and placing them in old packing cartons I had stored in my garage. I knew one day they‘d come in handy! After a solid two hours of wrapping and packing, my brother in law tells me he has ‗put the jug on‘ to make me a cuppa. He‘s very considerate like that. We are both children of Anglican priests and we laugh and joke about our parents‘ unusual trade. ―I don‘t really do tea at this hour of the day, any wine in her fridge?‖ Cheekily we open a chilled red wine, and toast to her house and contents and family. (Only my mother in law would keep a red wine in the fridge!) I‘m sure she wouldn‘t mind. I‘ll say one thing about my mother in law, boy can she hoard! She‘s kept every piece of china (three broken cup handles in the cupboard) and every thing she‘s ever bought. Music sheets, old videos covered in gecko poo, empty bottles of cocktail mixers and so on. Her own mother‘s china is carefully wrapped and placed into proper moving cartons. I make executive decisions not to take certain glassware, these can easily be replaced and we have to prioritise. 2


Brother in law moves around quietly rescuing the photographs and pictures from the walls, carefully stacking them in order to easily move them. My mother in law is also a photographer, and we open cupboard and cupboard, drawer after drawer, and find in dismay more photo albums, more slides, more negatives, more, more, more! In frustration I crossly open one album, only to find myself staring back, my sons grinning at the camera. I‘ve never seen these images! I‘m dressed in white, my own camera firmly strapped to my side, we are sailing the Bay of Islands in New Zealand. My husband is skippering the yacht, we all look so happy.

My Youngest on the winch.

My Youngest is grim faced, ready to winch the sails, to prove to his older brother and his father that he can do it. His jaw is set in the same way my jaw sets when I ‗get stubborn‘; when I refuse to be beaten, and submit. My other son smiles, his blonde hair tossed in the wind, carefree. At the moment he has been sent home from his bank, and is walking back to his Auchenflower home. He waited for a bus for a while, and tells me: ‖I‘m a scout mum, I know how to walk, I‘m strong.‖ There‘s a lot to be said for scouts, and all of it about empowering the individual to dig deep within himself, to be strong, to grow that spine. The phone rings in a constant stream of concern from Tony, my young brother in law who now lives in Cairns. He tells us to talk to a local man up the hill, who knows everything about floods and water. We seek him out and are pleased he will be able to meet us in an hour‘s time. The next day my husband tells me this man - a physicist - married a nun, and had eight children! Meanwhile, we start on packing her bedroom and bathroom, TV, DVD player, cd‘s and so forth.

Her daughter arrives, and then we move like a team, more boxes, more packing tape, more 3


newspapers. She grabs insurance papers and filing cabinet stuff. Yes, there is flood insurance. Whew. We relax but only for a moment. When her sister and her American husband arrive soon after, I insist we stop and take a photograph of us all, and the home which will never be the same again. Chairs are hurriedly pulled together, the timer is set. Smile!

A yacht drifts down the river - as sailors we all feel helpless

More wrapping, more photographs. Strangers arrive with a shy smile. ―Can we help?‖ ―Do you have any storage room please? A garage? ― As we speak I glance out the window, to see a pontoon floating past, unmanned. It‘s shocking, but we are to see far worse than that as the day unfolds. The swimming pool looks so enticing, and three frangipannis sit quietly in the same position all day. I watch them during the day; they give me peace, calming wild thoughts.

More neighbours arrive, no doubt summoned by the high pitched alarms going off earlier. No, we are not looting, yes; we would love you to help. A woman called Marge runs home in the rain to change into daggy clothes. Two strapping lads – all height and muscles – arrive to begin to lift the furniture. Lists are made: furniture to someone‘s garage, boxes to this person‘s home, storage gone to this one‘s house. We have to keep track of it all. 4


My husband rings on the mobile. The Caboolture River is rising fast, areas are evacuated, most of the staff have left to save their own homes. We have no flood insurance. Really, it‘s only water, and stuff, and cars. The important thing is we are all safe. I begin to sing. Raindrops keep falling on my head… and my American brother in law rushes into the room, singing with me, and twirls me around. We waltz and spin, laughing and singing. ―Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!‖ he says grinning. Er…yes. I was thinking Johnny Farnham. A quick hug and it‘s back to work. Family work, work with strangers, whose kindness we embrace and hold onto. I update Twitter in between cartons, noting my fingers are black with printer‘s ink. Ironically I used to work for The Land and Qld Country Life newspapers, and I wrap each rose patterned china cup in headline news of the floods. “Soaked! Big cotton crop drenched” the headlines shout. Memories of my time as a young advertising representative, living at Murphy‘s Creek, working in Toowoomba, flood back. No pun intended. Towels are spread at the front door, not to keep out the water, but to keep us from slipping. I am wearing my old ladies shoes, red leather (like the Popes) as I cannot afford to fall and hurt myself. We all walk deliberately slower than we normally would. It‘s like a bad dream, everything is happening in slow motion. Old school friends ring me, full of concern. Ann, in Nambour. Julie, herself stuck at Five Rocks. We chat and speak at the horror in Toowoomba. In the childhood room of my sister in laws I open a huge drawer under the bed. It‘s full of wrapped newspaper parcels.

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"Mandy! What do you want done with these?‖ I yell. It seems they are a salt and pepper collection from a great aunt; they must be saved, even though they‘ve never been viewed since her passing 20 years ago. We aren‘t rescuing stuff, we are rescuing memories. In other cupboards, two dolls fall out, one dressed in pink with a creepy blue eye staring at me; one naked. She‘s kept everything, good or not, useful or not, worthless, worthy, it‘s all kept. Another pontoon breaks loose with a very expensive speedboat on it, perched gaily sailing down the river, spinning slowly. There are rips and eddies out there, the river is an untamed child, kicking her heels in defiance. I won‘t do it, I won‘t go, I must, I must, I must!

A speedboat perched high and dry spins it crewless way to the river mouth

There are two sets of Children‘s encyclopaedias. To leave, or to take. They are probably worth money, collectables. They are probably worthless, redundant. A family discussion; they are saved. If we have time, and if we have boxes, things are saved. I pack her bathroom, taking only the fuller shampoos, lotions, toilet paper. A man, a stranger to me, stands beside me, gazing out to the river. His hair is grey, classic gold glasses perch, spotted with raindrops. I resist the urge to take them off and wipe them. ―What do you do Peter?‖ I ask him. ―I‘m a doctor. I live up the street.‖ We stand and stare to the river.

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My head begins to fill with figures and statistics. Wivenhoe Dam is at 195%. Bremmer River to peak at 19 metres, no, 22 metres. It will be as worse, it will be worse, The Caboolture River will peak at 3.3 metres. Below me the water laps the roof of the garden shed. It‘s almost covered. Someone places a chocolate biscuit in my mouth. I don‘t even look to see who it was, I eat it greedily. Most of the stuff, and all of the furniture has been packed, wrapped and moved. I‘m spent, exhausted, and sit on the remaining seat to send a message to my husband and son. My eldest boy is mopping out my own home, rainwater floods into a bedroom downstairs, and I forgot to roll up the rugs when I left this morning. My hair is sticking to my head, I stink, and my feet are red, discoloured from the Pope‘s colouring coming off on my damp feet. In a final push to the kitchen I note with dismay mother in law has also kept every piece of plastic, every baking tin, every recipe book. I pack her books, she loves to cook. There‘s nothing much to save in the fridge, but I take out some meat from the freezer.

My own home has flooded, but this is rainfall, not flood water

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Her daughter hands me a bottle of sweet chilli sauce. ―Here Patty, take this!‖ and we both laugh, knowing how much mother in law loves her sauce. In time I beg to go home, but my car is missing. Men have been using it all day, for the 4wd capacity, and the tow ball; hauling trailer after trailer to stranger‘s homes. ―I‘m done, I‘ve got nothing left,‖ I yawn, and I wonder how I can leave with some dignity, leaving them here to continue to pack. I feel such a coward, a chicken, a useless, worthless piece of gutless wasteof-space, but I can do no more. There‘s no energy in my tank, and I must go home. When I get into the car, someone has changed my clock. Why would they do that? For goodness sakes! It says it‘s 5.55pm, and it‘s clearly only just after lunch. The 6pm news comes on the radio, We expect the water to completely cover the roofline and I‘m shocked. Shocked at the whole day gone, shocked at the nightmare of packing, and mess of lives, and secretly delighted it‘s so late.

That explains why I‘m tired. Drive home James, and don‘t spare the horses. Thoughts on the Brisbane Flood of 2011. What I‘ll remember of the Brisbane floods, are two things. The way Brisbane came together to help each other; the neighbours and the kindness of strangers not only willing but able to help each other, and the marvellous way Twitter and social networking proved itself, not to be a ‗waste of time‘ but an invaluable tool for reaching out to act; immediately, intelligently, helpfully. That, and the smell of the mud and the noise of the river rushing past, with people lives, memories and dreams as flotsam.

Hold ya nose, we're going under!

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Packing up our memories, and watching the waters rise. The white sycamore bed was made for her wedding day; in fact, the whole suite of bedroom furniture was handmade by her father, who owned a joinery shop in Ipswich. Her five children were conceived there, and it is where her husband passed away, sleeping peacefully on the left-hand side. For more than 44 years it has overlooked the Brisbane River, and now I watch with sadness as the muddy waters lap relentlessly at the bedroom door. We can‘t move it. There‘s not enough of us, and nowhere to store it. We have no tools. We have to make executive decisions on what to take, what to leave. I spent an entire day packing up my mother-in-law‘s life. I drove through pouring rain to begin the melancholy chore of packing, wrapping, sorting, and rescuing her home. It has endured the 1974 floods and already I can see the waterline has crept up past the eaves of the garage shed. Two tyres swirl in a backwash eddy, spinning lazy circles. A bush turkey looks confused, standing on the water‘s edge, peering in. Handing my camera to my brother-in-law, I ask him to walk around and photograph the house before we begin. Starting in the dining room, I rescued a beloved china dinner set, wrapping each plate in Qld Country Life newspaper — ironically with headlines of the flood — and placing them in old packing cartons. I decide not to take certain glassware, as these can easily be replaced and we have to prioritise. Photographs and pictures from the walls are rescued and stacked carefully. My mother-in-law is an enthusiastic photographer. We open cupboard upon cupboard, drawer after drawer, to find with dismay more photo albums, more slides, more negatives, more, more, more! In frustration I crossly opened one album, only to find myself staring back at my family, grinning into the camera. I‘ve never seen these photos before! I am dressed in white and 15 years younger, sailing the Bay of Islands in New Zealand. My husband is skippering the yacht. We all look so happy. My sister-in-law arrives and we move as a team, packing more boxes, cushioning the contents with newspapers and care, securing them with love. She grabs insurance papers and filing cabinet stuff. Yes, there is flood insurance. My other little sister-in-law and her American

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husband arrive soon after. I insist we stop and take a photograph of us all, and the home that will never be the same again. Chairs are hurriedly pulled together, the timer is set. Smile! Strangers arrive with a shy smile. ―Can we help?‖ ―Do you have any storage room, please? A garage?‖ As we speak, I glance out the window to see a pontoon floating past, unmanned. It‘s shocking, but we were to see far worse, as the day unfolded. More neighbours arrived. No, we are not looting. Yes, we would love you to help. Lists are made: furniture, boxes, storage. We have to keep track of it all. I update Twitter in between cartons, noting how my fingers are black with printer‘s ink. Towels are spread across the front door, not to keep out the water, but to keep us from slipping. I wear my old lady‘s shoes; red leather (like the Pope‘s) as I cannot afford to fall and hurt myself. We all walk deliberately slower than we normally would. It‘s like a bad dream; everything happens in slow motion. I open a huge drawer under the bed. It‘s full of wrapped newspaper parcels. We weren‘t rescuing stuff, we were rescuing memories. Mother-in-law kept everything, good or not, useful or not, worthless, worthy. It was all sentimentally kept. Another pontoon breaks loose. A very expensive speedboat is perched on it, gaily sailing down the river; sightseeing, spinning slowly. There are rips and eddies out there. The river is an untamed child, kicking her heels in defiance. I won‘t do it, I won‘t go, I must, I must, I must! There are two sets of children‘s encyclopedias. To leave, or to take? They are probably worth money, collectables. They are probably worthless, redundant. A family discussion: they are saved. The following day my son and I arrived just in time to see the water swirl around the house, and as we watch, water laps onto the cream carpet. Our timing is superb. We nearly cry, but don‘t; it‘s pointless. You can‘t change Mother Nature, and it‘s only a house. The home has all been packed away, for now. My son - my hero For the third time this week my Eldest son has become my hero. On my birthday earlier this week he tidied my garden and blew the huge lump of wet leaves in the courtyard; saying to me in his quiet, deep voice: ―That‘s what I‘m here for, mum,‖ and a little piece of my heart breaks. I don‘t want him to just be here to serve me, but boy am I grateful that he is. He places his arm around my shoulders, and when they rise and fall with a gentle sob he holds me until the noise subsides. 10


Earlier this week he climbed onto the roof of the kitchen, in the belting rain and pitch black night to replace a broken roof tile. Our kitchen ceiling was in huge danger of collapsing under the weight of rainwater and to cut a long story short, he saved us, he saved me, and he saved the house. My hero! Today he came with me to see his grandmother‘s house, and how it had fared in the flood. We gingerly step here, and there; picking our delicate way through the mud, careful not to slip, careful not to step on some unknown broken thing hidden within the brown. He takes photos for me. Holding my camera he grabs images, noting a straight horizon, and focusing in on the subject, as I have taught him. It‘s almost funny to see my mother-in-laws house now. ―Is that a tree in the kitchen?‖ ―Yes, why yes! That IS a tree!‖ I mock, and at any moment I expect someone to wake me with a pinch and a hearty: ―KIDDING!!‖ yelled in my ear. But that friendly, silly yell never comes, only the shocked silence of us both trying to comprehend the enormous force of the flood waters. How the hell am I going to get a tree out? Perhaps it will float out, as it floated in, on the rising tide. In the distance, through the unbroken window panes and past the bending, yielding mangroves, you hear it. The roar of the water. The Brisbane River gallops past us like an unbroken stallion, a monster of a beast, it‘s back hunched with fury and a wild, untamed mane of foam and flotsam. It‘s sheer madness to watch! Once home, my son wordlessly empties the dishwasher for me. He has lived in his own flat for the past 4 years, and I am too tired and grateful to fight him. To my delight, he then goes to my front deck and begins to remove the last of the Christmas decorations. I had taken down 80% of them but then we had the drama of the flooding kitchen, and the great flood of 2011 to deal with. Thank you for helping me today son. I loved watching you become the man I always knew you were. My hero! ~~ At home my cat sleeps behind me, dreaming in the soft way that cats do, as I work on the computer. Suddenly he starts awake with a loud hiss and his eyes bolt open, craws dug in deeply to the sofa. Even he is having bad dreams. He‘s shaken and unsettled, and I peer 11


around my kitchen for ghosts or spirits. Perhaps my father-in-law is back, angry we left his bed to the flooding waters. I am so sorry Dennis, we did our best. We did our best. We saved so much, we simply couldn‘t get it all. I stroke my cat back to sleep, until I too, am settled. ~~ When mothers age, we speak to them less. We still talk, of course, but we tell them less real information, as it only worries them. My voice is still cheery; really you wouldn‘t know that in my lounge room a step ladder has taken up semi-permanent residence. That my blue sofa is now green with mould. That I‘ll have to throw away my husband‘s favourite cushion. That my back garden is ruined, my young son‘s bedroom is ruined, the kitchen ceiling is stuffed, whole interior walls will need replacing from water damage and mould; really you wouldn‘t pick it at all. ―Hi mum, yes, we‘re all fine,‖ I lie, but really, we are all fine. I just have to remember that. What day is it? A perfect day for a flood. It‘s been such a long day I keep forgetting which day it is I‘ve forgotten. Is it Tuesday? Did we do Tuesday already? Perhaps it‘s Friday? Apparently, I‘m told with authority, it‘s Thursday. Wednesday has slipped away, unnoticed. At the front door of my home sits my birthday present from my sister. I already know what it is; she‘s recycled the toasting grill I gave her daughter for Christmas. Families, eh? I haven‘t had time to unwrap it yet, all heck broke loose this week, it‘s been…well… you know what it‘s been like, right? I unwrap it today for our lunch and try to look surprised. My son uses it to makes me ham sandwiches with English mustard (it reminds me of my dad, short bursts of fiery passion that takes your breath away!) I had almost forgotten that it was only this morning that I stood in a long queue to pay for my petrol. Half the pumps were out of order, but I was happy to wait, what was the alternative? A young man in front of me turns around and with a sneer says to me: ‖ Ya wouldn‘t wanna be in a hurry, hey?‖ He snorts his contempt and swaggers in the line in front of me. I simply smiled at him as I didn‘t have a quick retort, my mind was elsewhere. I stood there stewing over his remarks, trying to drum up a witty, snappy response, but nothing came to me at that hour.

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As he went to pay for his fuel, he said to the operator: ―I‘m expecting my pay in the bank by 6am. What time is it now?‖ 5.35am. ―Oh no! What am I gonna do now, hey?‖ From an over confidant bloke to a snivelling mess in 0.2 seconds. Hilarious! His face crumples in embarrassment. He scratches his head, he‘s obviously a disorganised person and now he‘s in real trouble. No money, and ironically; a huge queue waiting for him to finish his business. He scoots out the door after a quick chat, in order to get his identification for the service station. ―How much does he owe you?‖ I ask the bloke behind the counter, who has seen it all too often. ―Fifteen dollars‖ he said. ―I‘ll pay, put it on my bill‖ I tell him. ―Are you sure? No, he‘ll get his identification, and we‘ll sort it out later, you don‘t have to pay.‖ ―I want to. Put his petrol on my bill please.‖ I waggle my card. Sure enough, the young man in his twenties rushes back, apologetic, sweating, harassed, embarrassed. I pat him on the back and tell him in a motherly way: ―I‘ve got this.‖ I wish I had my camera with me; there are some moments in life when you just want to take the shot so you can look at it later and have a good belly laugh. ―Are you sure? Oh man, this has never happened to me before, oh man, are you sure?‖ He is gob smacked, and I happily pay his account (thank goodness it was only $15!) As I leave I smile at him again. ―Some times it really pays to be patient.‖ What a great lesson for him in life, and a bargain price too! ~~ This morning began at 4.15am for me, stumbling still deep with sleep; I fall out of bed to begin my day. Hurriedly dress, no shower, no cuppa tea, a comb roughly pulled through my hair and I‘m driving through the dark suburbs, watching the night release her hold on the dawn. I‘m on the way to my mother-in-laws house, the car practically knows its own way by now. I imagine the water to be up to the roof, up to the ceiling. Up, anyway, way up! When I arrive, my lights are on high beam. What‘s this? Where‘s the water? Yes, there‘s a muddy line just below the window sill, but what happened to all the water I was expecting? Already I can see the tide is going out. I take photographs, and note the grass to my right seems to be moving and tickling. I realize that the floodwaters are indeed retreating; I can 13


almost see it for myself. My mobile rings just on 5am, it‘s the producer of the Sydney 2 Day FM Radio station ready to interview me on my flood experience. I go live to air for a few minutes, making sure I get across a few points. • We are all pulling together and helping each other, strangers, families, neighbours. • We are in serious trouble in Queensland but have strong hearts. • Premier Anna Bligh should be painted in gold, for her dignified, intelligent and common sense approach to the flood. ―How do you keep such a great sense of humour‖ he asks. ―What else do I do, I can‘t change anything. My mother-in-law‘s house is muddy and ruined, but her home is safe. I have her home packed in boxes, safe and ready when she is. ~~ After the interview, I make a note to drive to photograph the FM Radio producer‘s parent‘s home. He‘s stressed out and feeling helpless in Sydney, it‘s the very least I can do. On the way I can hear Spencer Howson from 612 Brisbane ABC Radio with a live report. He‘s speaking from the Indooroopilly Bridge, just as I am crossing it to Chelmer. I hold my camera up and snap him in his bright red shirt, and continue on my way, finding the parents house. They‘ve copped a lot of water; clearly it‘s flooded in the lower section of the home. Dazed and exhausted neighbours stand in the street, chatting, swapping stories. I take a few images and reverse out of there; I feel intrusive. Later, I email him the pictures, and am delighted I took the trouble to do so. ―Jeez! That's pretty bloody flooded!!! Thank you so much for those pics!‖ ~~ On the drive home I bump into Spencer Howson again. He leans into my car. ―Are you going to give me fifty dollars again Patty? ― I used to be Spencer‘s Roving Reporter and we worked together for a while at ABC 612 Brisbane. I‘m a bit taken aback, it wasn‘t the expected greeting. ―Fifty dollars? What do you mean?‖ 14


―The last time we met, you donated fifty dollars to {charity name} (I didn‘t catch it, sorry) I just look at him blankly, like an idiot. I have no memory of that at all. I offer to retake his photo on the bridge, but he‘s good, he‘s tired and wants to keep moving. Me too. Later, at home, I tell my husband the fifty dollar story. I love that I don‘t remember it. I love that I don‘t look at Spencer and think ―I gave you fifty dollars.‖ ~~ And so dear reader to bed. It‘s been a long day, a good day; with my flood photo going viral on twitpic, also being shown on the BBC site, 2 radio interviews (2UE as well) an article in Crikey.com, photographing Grant Denyer in the suburbs as he went live to air on Sunrise.

And always above; the soft scream of sirens, the dull murmur of helicopters. The Clean up. Banana bread is baking in the oven, my cat sits beside contently purring, outside the birds are singing an opera, and all is well with the world. Uh, wait, there‘s the flood, and the mess to clean up. Yesterday I drove over to begin a most horrific task, cleaning out the mud whilst it was still wet and pliable in my mother-in-laws home at Indooroopilly. It‘s impossible to know where to start, so I begin by photographing everything. For me, for the insurers, for my mother-in-law (who is staying at the beach house) and to share with anyone who is interested. Someone has already been here; small footprints lead into the lounge, turn around, and come out. I don‘t blame them! I feel like doing the same. In the 2 inch thick mud, small crabs have spun in circles, birds have left their imprints, and over here, in the family room, a cricket swims for his life to higher ground on the tree which floated into the family room. Walking as carefully as I can so I don‘t slip, I tread carefully though my husbands childhood home. I wonder what they did on Saturday afternoons? How they spent their time, as a family? There‘s no doubt they were loved, and cherished. Childhood blackboards still hang outside, ready for a chalk drawing. They say it‘s the smell of the mud that gets to everyone. The stench of it all. For me, I am delighted, as the smell reminds me of my own childhood, happily exploring the muddy creeks of Pumpkin Creek at Keppel Sands, up to my knees in the thick sludge, laughing at a crab 15


tickling my toes. The smell embraces me and protects me from the unfolding horror of cleaning the sludge off, before it dried like concrete. I upload a few images to Twitter, I am a sharer, and have always been an open book in the cyber world. I am doing nothing different than I do every other day, it‘s such a part of me the routine gives me comfort. I begin to hose a walkway around the house; as we‘ll need to access certain areas, and we don‘t want to break our necks. By ―we‖, I really mean me, although I keep turning around hopefully imagining someone walking down the long driveway. After two hours of solid hosing, I can see the house emerging, from under it‘s new skin. On Twitter, offers of help come via my Blackberry, and I organise for someone's assistance tomorrow, (thanks Darryl King aka @ireckon!) but the reality is the mud must come off today. And then it happened. Two ladies walk down my driveway, introducing themselves as my neighbours, and asking if I needed help. ―That would be great!‖ I stammer, ―Yes please!‖ The thing you need to know about me is that I am a Capricorn, a no nonsense girl who just gets along with it. On my profile I say I am a do-it-now gal, and I am. It's not really for me the tetanus shots: (Dr didn't answer) or the trendy gumboots: (mine are in Maleny) - I just prefer to roll up my sleeves and get on with the task at hand. Perhaps it's my Rockhampton upbringing, but I have common sense in abundance; what a blessing. They tell me how much of practical help my sister-in-laws were to them, helping them pack solidly for 4 hours after we had cleaned out their own house. It‘s time to return the favour. As their house was slightly higher up, the water damage to them is minimal; in fact, they were hoping to move back into the downstairs family room that afternoon. I‘m shocked but happy for them. This house is going to take months of work. Months! They leave, smiling. I continue to hose. Within three minutes, a band of eight yellow-vested men walk down my driveway, grinning. They may as well have had 8-foot white angel wings attached, and walked in slow motion. I am having a small weep even typing this, I cannot begin to tell you how grateful I was to see them. I begin to sing in my head the Abba hit, "I believe in Angels" and it becomes my earworm for the day. They are part of the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons, the ones we mock and hide from when they come knocking on our doors. I‘m ashamed of my previous attitude to them, especially for me, as the youngest daughter of an Anglican priest. No one in my own family, 16


my sons; or my husband has rung. No one from my in-laws has phoned me. To see these happy, strong able-bodies was such a joy. Things have to be done before the mud dries. Carpets need to come out (so heavy, so full of mud), rubbish needs to be moved to the footpath (so far away, argh!) and mud needs to be shoved, swept, hosed, gurneyed. They arrive already filming on video, (my camera is with my sister-in-law) and bring 200 metre power cords for the two water gurneys they have brought. Soon there is the sound of hard work, and I begin to relax, just a little bit. Two women, June and a younger girl, begin to hose out the kitchen and hallway. Now this is housework on steroids, and I love it. I start with another hose on the bathroom; built only last year, it‘s spanking new and the reality is, we‘ll need to pee at some time! By the time I finish the two rooms, I‘m happily shocked to see some rooms already stripped bare: nothing remains. Carpets and underlay are crumpled wetly around the garden like a war zone, to be dragged up the hill, inch by painful heaving inch, and dumped on the footpath. At lunch they leave with an invitation for me to join them, but I keep working, giving them some peace. Within minutes another yellow-vested man walks towards me grinning; holding a pizza box and a full, unopened packet of TimTam biscuits. ―Here‘s your lunch Patty. Make sure you wash your hands really well.‖ In the afternoon, Telstra arrives to transfer and divert the phone to a mobile number, and the work continues. My husband sends down a larger gurney which doesn‘t need power, and this makes short work of the carpet samples we have to keep for the insurance bloke. Later, I drive home, a little shell-shocked, but delighted at our progress. Today we must do the pool area, remove green rubbish and tree branches, and pull out some built-in cupboards which haven‘t‘ survived. There‘s banana bread in the oven, our morning tea. It‘s the least I can do to say thankyou to my yellow angels.

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Clean up - Day 2 The Brisbane River twists and turns its way through our city; doubling back and kinking its ancient river beds into a shape only a contortionist would recognise.

In front of my mother-in-laws home, it becomes a bay; a quiet inlet of tiny mud crabs and mangroves. It‘s a beautiful chocolate brown river at the best of times; my sons have rowed on it, we have crossed its many bridges admiring the strength of her water and the elegance of hidden curves within the suburbs. Today the river sits in my mother-in-laws kitchen, and lounge room, and her children‘s bedrooms. A mud crab peaks out from behind what were once placemats and serviettes; and scuttles off within the swollen cupboards again, hiding from the volunteers who have emerged to help. When I drove to my mother-in-law's home yesterday morning, the second day of cleaning, my heart sank. I was the only car there. ‗Never mind, buckle up, and get on with it‖ I roused on myself. Again I walked around and took images, noting each stage of de-construction and repair. It‘s difficult to know where to start. I need the pool area mud shovelled and then gurneyed off, and eye off the monster water gurney my husband has brought home from his work. I have no idea how to operate it. I can barely wheel it, let alone start the petrol engine. Soon, Steve the builder arrives, and we walk around the house inspecting each room for structural damage. Call me Blisters, he tells me. Blisters? Yeah, I always turn up after all the hard work is done. We stand together, arms folded, just looking. He points to a crack in the wall. Was that here before? No. I photographed all of this area, and I don‘t remember seeing that.

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This is bad, Patty, he tells me. Yeah, I know. I‘m still uploading some images to Twitter when the first sound came. ―Yoo hooo‖ a cheery voice called out. ―Good morning!‖ and there they are again; my marvellous Mormon Angels. There‘s one or two familiar faces and the rest are new, eager young men with American accents, fresh faced stunning blonde women who should be still coming home from a nightclub.

They have brought an army of supplies today. Huge 10 litre spray bottles of disinfectant, new hoses, cleaning wipes, brooms, and stuff I can‘t even recall. My brain simply cannot take it all in. We hug, and I burst into tears in their arms. ―Thankyou for coming again, thankyou, thankyou‖ and my voice becomes strangled and tight, I can barely speak. ―It‘s our pleasure to be here and to serve you‖ they say, again. Wiping my tears away, it‘s time to get serious. First, the pool area; and the gorgeous blonde and the young man take new shovels and begin the disgusting task of shovelling the thick mud, which is now drying at an alarming rate. It‘s heavy, thankless, back-breaking work. Wave after wave of smiling faces come into the house; some of the men organise themselves into teams, others come to me for direction. I begin to pack away dry food from the cupboard. Like most of our own pantries, some food has weevils and is clearly out of date, and other foodstuffs are new, recently purchased. I place them into two separate piles, but somewhere along the line both piles are tossed out. Oh well. We all meant well. It‘s time to clean out the fridge. This is soon hauled up the driveway, and the mud that is left is disheartening. Teams of women remove all that is left of the girls rooms. Mud and water have obviously damaged so much, but they find small things that may be salvageable. Another pile is created in the driveway, for mother-in-law to sift through. An older woman comes to me: ―Would your mother-in-law like this kept?‖ she asks, holding 19


up an ancient, broken clock radio. ―I‘m sure she would like that kept, but we are going to throw it out‖ I say, and we both burst out laughing. During the morning Blisters comes to me. "You shouldn‘t be cleaning Patty, you need to be organising the people." Yes, I know, but what more can I do? I already have three people cleaning out the laundry area, the pool area is beginning to look more reasonable, and the fridge has been moved, along with the washing machine and dryer.

Unknown to me, others are quietly moving the green waste from the side of the house, restoring the pathway that will give us access to the front of the house. I‘m taking as many images as I can, for myself, for my mother-in-law and the insurers. Teams of two take out rubbish piles. I have no idea what it is. I stop them and try to photograph it, but it‘s just a pile of bloody muddy mess. Unrecognisable. Standing at the doorway of the girl‘s bedroom, I hear a woman – on her hands and knees deep in 2 inches of mud and soggy chipboard – say to her colleague: ―Its so good to be here working with you, this is such fun.‖ ―Are you serious?‖ I ask her, incredulously. ―Yes, we don‘t get the chance to work together often, I‘m really enjoying myself.‖ The attitude of my Mormon Angels astounds me, I am so grateful, and touched. Blisters and his friend, Ian, tackle the curtains. They need a ladder to access them but it must be done. ―Come on dearie, we‘re on the curtains‖ Blisters mocks, and soon I have two piles. One to be thrown and one of each curtain, for insurance. My husband has asked one of his employees, Wayne, to come and lend a hand. He turns up 20


with his family of two young sons, and his wife. They all pitch in, mucking out the storage shed downstairs, until we all decide it‘s just too dangerous in the slippery, stinking mud.

At lunchtime, the leader of the Mormon group comes to me. ―Would you like to join us for lunch, Patty?‖ I hesitate, but only for a moment, the truth is I haven‘t had breakfast, so together we walk up the driveway, away from the hive of activity, but closer to the shocking pile of what was my mother-in-laws house. There is a cardboard box full of beautifully wrapped food. Fresh sandwiches, in at least 6 different fillings; fresh fruit, apples, bananas, muesli bars and so on. A large plastic container is full of tasty chocolate cupcakes with white icing. It‘s obvious that much love and care has been placed into each lunch. Volunteers sit on the roadway, exhausted. I bite into my cheese and Vegemite sandwich, only to my embarrassment, hear the leader begin to say Grace. I swallow quickly and close my eyes, hands clasped. His Grace is long and eloquent, and I squeeze my eyes as he also blesses me and my motherin-laws home. After we have eaten, finally, my mother-in-law arrives with her daughter. She‘s naturally shocked, and quietly; slowly, walks around the house she designed and raised her five children in. She‘s one of the lucky ones, really. I can‘t imagine what it must be like to lose so much, but she has also been saved so much. We have all of her furniture, all of her photographs, all of her precious belongings and clothes. We have her home in cardboard boxes. Others in Brisbane have had water up to their ceiling, lost their possessions, lost their loved ones. We are all so blessed in comparison. 21


She comes to us, still standing outside, taking a moment to relax. ―I don‘t know what to say. Thankyou. Thankyou all.‖ Her bed, the white sycamore bed, is going to be taken away to be restored, it should come up ok, and she‘s so grateful. I leave them to it; tag off with her daughter, and head for home.

Everything I am I owe to Art and Simon. I have always sung; I am a singer. There is a song in my head for every occasion, and for this I am eternally grateful. Blame long church services, and me; restless with youth and the itch to run and do and play, I would gladly burst into hearty hymns led by the booming voice of my father, an Anglican Priest in Rockhampton. In our small street, there were three churches. The Methodists, who always looked so sad; the Seventh Day Adventists; who had recorded bell chimes, and us, the small, rowdy and dirt poor community of St Barnabas. I‘d swing off the single church bell at 6.30 am, after a quick shake awake from dad. That man had so much energy; it exhausts me to recall it, even now. Thirty-three rings Patty; no more, no less, remember? Yes dad, you tell me every Sunday morning, and off I‘d go; getting a good hard pull, enough to raise my skinny brown legs off the ground to my own hilarity. I am a clown, and together our black cocker spaniel and I would bay and howl together, totally forgetting to count the pulls and chimes. As I became older, visiting the teenage years of sulk and flounce, my weight kept me grounded. The bells simply rang, and our dear old cocker would lay on the dirt nearby, one eye open to watch me yank the cord crossly in exasperation. 22


The singing, however continued; and I discovered the amazing world of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. In the stinking heat of Rockhampton, where the gasping sparrows found refuge under the eaves of the old Rectory, I would listen to each word, noting every guitar chord and sweet, melancholy utterance. They became my dearest friends, teaching me so much about the world, and making sense of the insensible. They sang me of love, (Kathy's Song) sex (Cecilia) crime, (Somewhere They Can't Find Me) self belief (I am a rock) death (Richard Cory) architecture (So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright) light-heartedness (Feeling Groovy) graffiti (A Poem on the Underground Wall) and so on. I will always be eternally grateful to their music. And so today I drive down from the coast, listening to their album in my car, singing with each, sweet note. I vibrate energy inside, in my heart. It‘s my gift to myself, leaning on the old familiar strains and chords, lifting my voice to swell with delight to a favourite song. Driving back towards the steadying horror, which seems to have peaked and is now ebbing each day fading the Brisbane floods from my memory. Today the engineers arrive to inspect the house. Their report will decide the future of my mother-in-law. To bulldoze and rebuild? To buy an apartment? To sell the land? In the silence between the music tracks, I am reminded of the Mormons Helping Hands, and their familiar catch-cry: ―Good job!‖ Each thankless task, greeted with a cheery call. ―Good job Josh!‖ ―Good job Steven.‖ Good job Brisbane! We have shaken off the much lauded big city title, and have reverted back to a 'big country town', where neighbours help each other, and are involved in each others lives. Real people matter once again, and communities are re-born. Good job Brisbane. Love your work! Blinking moments. A quick snapshot of moments that pass in the blink of an eye, but emerge for me later, to fondle as I sleep. Watching the brown water swirl around my feet, as I stand open mouthed in the loungeroom, staring at the river that refuses to behave, knowing I can do nothing more. ~~ My husband taking me to dinner at the local Tavern, determined to feed me a steak. ‗You looks so tired‖ he says, with such a tenderness that my heart squeezes with love for him. 23


~~ A final prayer with my fifteen remaining Mormon Angels, standing on the street, heads bowed. The middle-aged woman bless us all, blesses my mother-in-laws home, and asks God to help them in their care and chores for the following house, who ever that may be. Such a selfless gift. ~~ Watching a silver-domed motorcyclist tap his feet and hand to an unheard rhythm as he rides the northern highway, snaking it‘s way out of the city. It reminded me that I always have my music. Thank you for the heads up. ~~ Bursting into tears of distress, and sitting hunched on the edge of my bed, whimpering like a beaten dog. I am a shell, and I can almost feel my soul retreating within me. ~~ Finding in the last pile of rubbish; two cheap water-stained Albert Namatjira prints of the outback; with its shocking reds and vivid blues, reminding me that the sun does indeed still shine in other places. I just have to remember that. My husband tells me they are part of a bank calendar, from the 1960‘s but I don‘t care, to me they are beautiful. Art is what makes us human, it‘s nourishes our soul. You don‘t see giraffes or dogs painting (although you do see cats and elephants!) and ever since mankind sheltered within a cave and painted bison, art is what defines us and shapes our world and records our history. These prints are worthless; but they remind me of my in-laws travels to the outback and beyond; and the other world of Australia, the aboriginal world of nature and the Land. Wednesday – Qld Flood hump day Soft, candle-smoke clouds snuggle into Mt Coot-tha‘s folds, hiding from the sun. A smudgy fog hangs over Brisbane; as though we need the filmy protection from the grim reality. The mud is back; the stench; the storms have come, gone, and will return again; and still the clean up continues. The other afternoon an engineer came to my mother-in-law‘s house. My husband and I met him, and then Blisters (I always turn up after all the hard work is done) drove down the long driveway.

24


The men all walked around the house; pointing here, photographing this crack, measuring with a bright yellow metal tape, the heights, the lines of the house. Basically, the flood broke her back; the slab has tilted and shifted and major damage has been done. There isn‘t a straight line in the building. A laser tripod is brought out; it‘s spinning laser beam giving proper levels, accurate readings of the structure. It‘s grim, but we knew that. Dried mud lies in permanent puddles of grim dirt where cream carpet once lay. Mud splatters the walls, and the pool is a stinking mess of brown. God knows what‘s underneath the waters. A cane toad swims in circles in the corner, as a child‘s toy floats in the muck.

There is one final pile of rubbish to be dumped on the street, and my husband and I begin the shovel loads of water damaged everything into plastic bags. So many of my mother-in-laws 25


university books and papers; so many childhood books. I wonder if my husband lay on his bed in a winter‘s afternoon, reading this story. My little sis-in-laws fashion drawings. I photograph each one, to honour her memory. Sleeping bags (the one hubby used in New Zealand walking the Milford Track?) electric blankets and so on, a household and a lifetime of stuff. Inside the cupboard, below where the tv used to be, below where the stereo played classical music, below where the numerous photo albums lived, the set of World Book Encyclopaedias sticks stubbornly within the cupboard.

Three days ago I watched one of my Mormon Angels (LDS a.k.a Latter Day Saints) try to wedge out the books with a shovel. It took me a while to work out what he was trying to do. Beginning carefully, he tried to prise the books out; but they were too swollen with Brisbane River mud. After a good ten minutes, he continued to use the shovel, but out had gone the carefulness, and into the room came sheer strength and muscle power . But it was no good, the books remained where they are, still. So it‘s true, the pen is mightier than the sword. Or shovel.

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The Flood of 2011  

A personal memoir of the Brisbane Flood - 2011

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