On telling tales and mythbusting

The Toowomba community, of which I am a part, is in a kind of collective post-traumatic state right now. I am sure we are not alone, and that other places are going through the same ordeal. It’s understandable, given the events of this past week; the horror began here last Monday with a deluge that is now the stuff of history.

The unfolding disaster – the death and destruction of lives, property and confidence – here and throughout the Lockyer Valley, Ipswich and Brisbane went on and on throughout the week. Our collective anxiety, which still remains, is being worked through and soothed in story-telling and the sharing of our experiences – friends we have lost, friends of friends, stories of survival from the day. Most, in fact all of these end with an affirmation of support for one another. We are being told to talk to friends and neighbours. It’s a more informal way of saying, seek counselling if you are troubled. Don’t bottle things up – good advice.

Many have sought a healing in the past week by speaking the unspeakable out loud. Whilst we understand the talking out to be part of the grieving process and the healing, not all of it is.  Fear and uncertainty are tackled sometimes from other angles, from a darker side, and the stories that emerge can become nightmarish.

Last week an unsubstantiated story did the rounds in the city. It goes like this: there are between 40 and 50 bodies in the Toowoomba morgue. The number varies, but the source has always been ‘a nurse who works at the hospital’ or someone that someone knows. That’s it. These bodies are supposed to have been in the morgue since Monday or Tuesday.

#mythbuster: The death toll since 10 January stands at 20, with 12 people missing. As police take custody of a body, it is added to the toll. #thebigwet #qldfloods QPS Media

I first heard this tale on Wednesday. Why the public would not be told is, of course, the part which unnerves the listener. Speculation is rife as to why the numbers of dead were not being released by the Queensland Police Service through the agency of the state’s Emergency Services Management Centre which has been meticulous via regular press conferences and media reports. The community has been kept updated on progress in search and rescue and on the number of bodies recovered on an almost hourly basis. ‘They’ don’t wish to frighten people,’ I was told at first. ‘They haven’t identified them’ is another. Neither of these explanations makes sense.

There are all kinds of unfounded rumours about the death which are totally unfounded and unhelpful. QPS Media

I find it both alarming and puzzling since those who have swallowed this story are intelligent people who, in the normal course of events, can spot a tall yarn and a conspiracy theory a mile off.  Yesterday morning another friend mentioned the matter to me yet again. Once again, that ‘reliable source’ – was quoted. The supreme irony in the rationale of not wanting to frighten people by suppressing the truth seemed lost on those who passed the tale along.

The fact that the story has been tolerated for so long and gone unchallenged speaks volumes about the state of mind of the community. It’s been hinted at in coded comments in the social media – Chinese whispers rampant. If it weren’t so disturbing, it would be funny. Of course, these times are hardly normal, not even next to normal.

Whilst in my own mind I dismissed this story out of hand, and not without some anger, I understand why it has been created for, at the deepest level, this is how drama works. As a horror story, and that’s exactly what it is, this blackly comic tale is an expression of the community’s anxiety, its powerlessness and the lack of closure which we are all craving. This story speaks of our fears and to our fears, and we have let it run wild. It needs to be killed off.

We’re feeding our deepest fears with this story; it needs to be killed off.

I believe I now understand what triggered the rumour. The story, born out of anxiety, attempted to make sense of something which may, perhaps, have been half-heard in a conversation by that ‘reliable source.’ It didn’t take too many questions in the right places to winkle out a few facts. Apparently, a spare morgue had been placed beside the permanent one at the Toowoomba hospital in readiness for up to 40 bodies. However this facility is not functioning, is not even turned on. I understand that neither the local hospital nor the John Tonge Centre (Forensic and Scientific Services) in Brisbane would be capable of dealing with so many bodies at once.

12 people have been reported missing. The death toll is expected to rise, but at the moment, we have found 20 bodies. Not sure we can make it any simpler. QPS Media

This afternoon the Queensland Police Media Service acted to dispel this myth. You can see their statement on the QPS Media Facebook page. It is hashtagged #mythbuster. Most of the blockquotes in this post are taken from the QPS Media stream.

I feel an enormous sense of relief in this reassurance from the efforts of the state’s disaster management team who have acted with great integrity, sensitivity and professionalism during the past week. The community has rightly gained confidence from the trust they engendered in us.

These conspiracy theories do us no good. They serve to aggravate the distress we are all feeling and to undermine the confidence we have in those who are serving us so well in such an awful time. This is a story that needs to be hosed away as something as toxic to the mind as the mud that has crept into the other places in which we live.

… of drought and flooding rains (Part 2)

An article I wrote about the flood disaster here in southern Queensland was published in today’s Melbourne Sun Herald newspaper and online. The published version was edited, as it needed to be. Thanks to my Editor (doesn’t that sound grand?) for making it a much tighter piece.  I thought I’d post the full version here for posterity.

A reader has taken me to task (rightly) for my errors of fact and my ignorance of the local topography which he finds ‘amazing.’ I apologise for this; it’s a salutary reminder to check your writing before you commit into words. I’ve adjusted the offending sentence to read, I hope, correctly now (italicised below). Here is Michael’s comment and correction of my ignorance which I freely acknowledge. I stand corrected; I wonder will he:
“The storm surge of water that ran through the streets of Toowoomba did not end up in Murphy’s Creek. That water exited Toowoomba via Gowrie Creek which ends up in the Condamine catchment and does not go over the range to the East. The water flowing into Gowrie Creek can not flow uphill over Mount Kynoch as it would be unable to rise the thirty meters [sic] or so to cross the Great Dividing Range. Your ignorrance (sic) of the local topography is amazing. The flood that went through Murphy’s Creek probably fell on the most Eastern side of the escarpment. In Toowoomba the low lying area’s [sic] as you might realize passes [sic] along the centre of town just to the West of Ruthven Street out to past the old Bacon Factory at Willowburn through Cranley and out past Kingsthorpe. It ends up in the Condamine River which eventally ends up in the Murray-Darling River system. It does not end up in the Lockyer Creek because it is physically impossible to flow from Gowrie Creek on the Western side of the range into Lockyer Creek on the Eastern side of the range.”

I live alone on a ridge in bushland above the little township of Withcott at the foot of the Toowoomba Range.  It’s quiet, something of a retreat from the busy-ness of the regional city 6 minutes away up ‘the hill’ as we call it. Those of us who share this ridge with the wildlife – pretty face wallabies, echidnas, scrub turkeys, goannas and thousands of parrots – pretty much keep to ourselves – we like the quiet, but we look out for one another. We’re always aware of the threat of bushfires where we are.

This season though, we’ve been less concerned about fires. We’ve been tolerating the rain that’s bucketed down on us for weeks now since well before Christmas. The ground is soaked. You have to be philosophical though, and not complain too much. It’s seems a bit churlish to whinge about something we’ve been praying for. ‘Too much of a good thing,’ you’d say, and follow up with ‘but it’s filling the dams – it’s good.’ It was obligatory stuff when chatting with neighbours and the small-business shopkeepers in Withcott to compare ‘the big wet’ with the draconian water restrictions we’d all shared over the past few years. We’d shake our heads and smile at the irony. We’d wind up with, ‘Ah well, good for the garden I suppose. Take care.’ We say ‘take care’ around here pretty much as a coda to everything. ‘You bet,’ is the response.

On Monday everything changed. The ‘inland tsunami’ described by Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson ripped through the centre of Toowoomba just after lunch. The volume of water which fell in such a short time – what a BOM official called a ‘freak local weather event’ – could not be contained by the drainage systems which were completely inadequate in trying to deal with ground already soaked. The 8 metre wall of water roared through the city. The deluge which fell on the eastern escarpment of the city poured down the Range, through Murphy’s Creek sweeping pretty much everything in front of it – cars, people, houses, property, roads, boulders. Withcott copped it – terribly; it’s a total disaster zone. I was lucky though, along with other neighbours on the ridge. The wet, brown, sticky stuff got within half an inch of flooding me out on Monday afternoon. There I was digging drainage ditches outside, soaked to the bone. ‘Daughter of the pioneers,’ I think I joked on Twitter a little afterwards. I love my social networks for keeping in touch with friends and family and total strangers I’ve met online, especially theatre-makers round the world.

Earlier that day I’d spoken to the General Manager at Queensland Theatre Company in my capacity as Chairman of the Board. After the unrelenting downpours of the past week or so, I wanted to see how things were in terms of the flooding predicted for the Company’s premises. It sits on Brisbane’s South Bank where most of the arts precinct lies – right on the river. By Monday the dam catchment areas were, at last, copping the kind of downpour from the weather system that, ironically, we’d needed just 6 months ago. On Monday they were nearly full. Further upstream towards Toowoomba, what flows into the Lockyer Creek gets into the Bremer River, which then joins up with the Brisbane. The dams would need to be released, so I was almost certain that Brisbane was going to flood in the next day or so. Things were getting serious. ‘We’ll all pull together and get help – sandbag things, move equipment to higher ground,’ she told me – and they did.

That afternoon however, images from the local Toowoomba devastation started appearing on my Twitter stream and Facebook pages. Friends who’d been in town grabbed them on their phones and sent them up; we passed them on. That afternoon and night they were played and replayed on television. Our lovely, quiet garden city wasn’t supposed to look like an action sequence in a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. We could only gape, disbelieving and speechless at what had happened up the hill – and at what was happening as we watched. Then we heard about the town of Grantham further down the Lockyer’s being devastated, and so it went as the water roared and spread – speechless.

But the thing you need at times like this is speech – at least to stay in touch, to talk to people when things are bad. The landlines went yesterday, the mobile networks have been congested trying to do duty in the crisis that unfolded pretty much hour by hour. With the landlines out – and as long as you have power – those using DSL lose net access – Skype’s out or flaky on the mobile. My son is overseas; my daughter and family elsewhere. I turned to social networks to stay in touch. The trusty iPad swung into action – not to play Angry Birds – but to preserve an emotional lifeline via a 3G network that hung in and dropped out by turns.

I slept long and deep last night after living on my nerves for pretty much all of the previous 48 hours – just praying the deluge would stop; it can get on your nerves, you know. As much as I love the sound of rain on the roof to get you off to sleep, enough was enough. Finally, last night it did. Safe … flood averted on the ridge … for now.  More importantly, the change in the weather pattern meant the helicopters could get back to the search and rescue work down the Lockyer. They’re at it again right now, buzzing overhead as I write. Many people remain unaccounted for, though unconfirmed local stories tell the worst. Before I drank my morning ritual pot of coffee this morning, I turned on the tv, heard the stories of babies and little kids swept away, saw what was happening in Brisbane, my home town and, well, I just wept. Haven’t done that for a long time – I pride myself on sticking to the old party line, ‘When the going gets tough …’ you know the one. I just wept at the overwhelming sadness and the helplessness of the whole thing. I needed to talk to someone and thought, ‘Bugger this, and tough be damned,’ dropped the stoic and changed my status update on Facebook.  ‘Weeping. Really.’ Within minutes I’d heard back from friends far and wide. Their consolation in dozens of voices helped enormously.

There’s a famous line in A Streetcar Named Desire spoken by the emotionally fragile Blanche Dubois. She says, “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.” Friends and strangers have been overwhelming in their generosity during the past three days. They have rallied online in Twitter and Facebook to provide emotional support, pass on vital information on road conditions from the Queensland Police and other agencies as well as offers material and financial assistance. “Who needs clothing?”; “I have a spare bed – give me a call”; “Anyone need a lift, a bed, a room?”; “the RSPCA needs people to look after pets. Can you help?” And so it goes. One of my Twitter followers worked tirelessly yesterday updating flood maps for Brisbane. And then total strangers worked together in lines last night in Brisbane –Kevin Rudd among them – moving other strangers’ belongings to higher ground. My daughter helped sandbag the ground floor apartments of strangers yesterday; they knew the river would rise this morning. Closer to home, our local Mayor, Steve Jones (Lockyer Valley) has been driving trucks all night to get people out of farms and little valleys where they have been stranded. This kind of thing is happening all over the place. The State Emergency Service are all volunteers – strangers who wade in when you need them. Thank whatever deity you follow for the kindness of strangers.

Here, on the ridge, we may have lost our phone connectivity but we’ve been out on the footpath waving to one another, checking up, taking care. ‘You OK?’  “Yep, you?’ Of course we endure – you just get on with it – but knowing you’re not alone is, perhaps, the most important thing right now.

PS: Today it’s Brisbane and Ipswich that are under flood. 75% of the state is flood-affected. The water is over the banks near QTC and the arts complex at QPAC. The Premier, Anna Bligh, the strain showing in her face, is being calm, focussed, articulate – and providing the kind of leadership that is needed right now. The city is under siege and it’s not even 3pm. That’s when the king tide is due, god help us.

… of drought and flooding rains


Since well before Christmas the skies have been open above Queensland. The media have told the stories over and over: an area the size of France and Germany combined is under water. The NASA satellite put images to this fact. People have been evacuated from many towns. Lives and property and animals have been lost. And it goes on. We watch the skies, check the weather radar on our screens and hope that it will stop – soon. We’ve had enough.

The wonderful work by emergency services, the Police, and volunteers who’ve come from interstate to help is beyond praise. They can never be thanked enough for what they are continuing to do. This is goodness at work.

The floods are not over as I write. The weather is expected to continue relentlessly bucketing down over the state; the south-east corner is copping it right now. Rivers and creek levels are rising and people are planning evacuations. Many are unable or unwilling to chance getting to work. This is a good idea. People should stay off the roads many of which are cut, or badly damaged.

We hang tight – stay stoic, do what we can for ourselves and others. Tweet out the latest road conditions, how we’re feeling, console others who are doing it tougher.  Make jokes – the human spirit is wonderful in being able to hope in the darkest and wettest hour. I’ve been soaked to the bone a couple of times clearing gutters, digging little drainage ditches – and I’ve been lucky where I live – so far. It’s the way we cope in this wilful, lavish country. The dams are almost full, the aquifers deep below the earth – drained after years of drought in this ancient land – are replenishing. That’s good.

Here’s a poem most Australians learned in school. It was written in the early 20th century by Dorothea Mackellar OBE. It’s a bit of an anthem and it springs up as a comfort, in my mind at least, at times like this.

My Country

The love of field and coppice,
Of green and shaded lanes.
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins,
Strong love of grey-blue distance
Brown streams and soft dim skies
I know but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!

A stark white ring-barked forest
All tragic to the moon,
The sapphire-misted mountains,
The hot gold hush of noon.
Green tangle of the brushes,
Where lithe lianas coil,
And orchids deck the tree-tops
And ferns the warm dark soil.

Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When sick at heart, around us,
We see the cattle die –
But then the grey clouds gather,
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady, soaking rain.

Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the Rainbow Gold,
For flood and fire and famine,
She pays us back threefold –
Over the thirsty paddocks,
Watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze.

An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land –
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand –
Though earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly.

Dorothea Mackellar

Winding down – there goes 2010

We’re in the last week of the year and it’s stocktake time. I’m clearing the shelves for the new year and making all of those resolutions that will be lucky to make it to Easter. Time to think about a list of what to do or not to do in the coming year. Everyone else seems to be making lists; I thought I would as well.

Memories of 2010

Mostly things done with friends and family

  • A wonderful week in Noosa in January with the children – so many happy memories in this most beautiful part of the world by the sea.
  • Days spent with my daughter in NYC in September. Just hanging out and seeing her delight at discovering new things – especially from the top of The Rock(erfeller) Centre and strolling up 5th Avenue.
  • Turning a corner near our apartment and seeing the famed Actors’ Studio just … there.
  • Knowing I could be in the lobby of any Broadway theatre in 10 minutes from my apartment.
  • Catching up with friends from grad school, now married and with kids. Getting to know them as parents, watching them doing so well and being so lovely together – and their great Southern cooking.
  • Ditto with other friends in Washington DC – and meeting their little girls.
  • The Smithsonian, the Library of Congress and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC – all splendid ways to spend time
  • Being all alone in the Washington Mall by the Reflecting Pool one morning
  • Walking the grounds and the home of George and Martha Washington one beautiful fall Sunday at Mt Vernon in VA
  • Visiting JFK’s grave and that of his brother Robert at Arlington National Cemetery
  • Spending time with my son in Vancouver, likewise just hanging out, and seeing him go about his daily life in such a calm, focussed way.
  • Meeting so many new people for the first time – face to face after months of online communication and finding them ‘real’ and friendly and just as I’d expected – a ‘real’ marvel
  • Of the 50 plays I’ve seen this year on two continents some were wonderful, some unforgettable for all sorts of reasons, some were ordinary, others were awful – but all were theatre – life imagined live.

I’m Grateful for

  • family and friendship, good health, freedom and peaceful times – the essentials;
  • the interwebs – what a wonderful thing this is to keep in touch, spread ideas, educate, activate and inspire hope in the world;
  • having the opportunity to work as an election day official. I learned a lot about how it operates and how lightly some people take their right to vote;
  • having had the opportunity to lead the search for a new artistic leader for the theatre in our state;
  • my pet companion who is ALWAYS glad to see me and provides a quiet, calming presence as I work around the place;
  • good wine and plentiful food;
  • my garden and bush patch and the native inhabitants who share it with me.

I Wish I Hadn’t

  • spent so much time sitting at the computer
  • spent so  much time behind the wheel of my car. I want a super power to transport me anywhere I like, just like that!

I Wish I Had – here comes the genesis of the New Year’s Resolutions:

  • spent more time in the garden and walking
  • become fitter
  • eaten better food
  • told the people I love how much I love them – more often

Things we could learn from our dogs …

It’s that time of the year when remembering things to be grateful for is on many minds. This one is out of the archives – I published it 2 years ago – but it remains relevant. It popped up in the list of just-read posts on my blog this morning. Here it is

fernI almost never respond or pass on the kind of gooey Hallmark greeting card stuff that arrives in my email inbox from time to time. Sure, I laugh at LOLCats but when it stops being silly and goes all sentimental … ? OK, call me cynical.

I got one of these emails a minute or two ago, and it touched me. I’d heard 10 minutes before that a Twitter friend is spending the last night his little dog and he will have together. The vet has advised a euthanasia procedure for the family pet tomorrow. My heart goes out to him; I know what it’s like. So I suppose I was a set-up for the sentiment in the post. But sentimental or not, here it is … stuff we could learn if our dogs were teachers.

When loved ones come home, always run to greet them.
Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face to be pure Ecstasy.
Take naps.
Stretch before rising.
Run, romp, and play daily.
Thrive on attention and let people touch you.
Avoid biting when a simple growl will do.
On warm days, stop to lie on your back on the grass.
On hot days, drink lots of water and lie under a shady tree.
When you’re happy, dance around and wag your entire body.
Delight in the simple joy of a long walk.
Be loyal.
Never pretend to be something you’re not.
If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it.
When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by, and nuzzle them gently.

Right after I press the Publish button for this post I’m taking my own loyal pet for an afternoon walk … she has taught me … well, quietly insisted is more her style … that there’s no better way to clear the head after a day at the keyboard. That’s her at the top. Walkies!!!

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