… 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

10 Years on … how technology has changed my world

Yesterday the new solar panels on my roof started generating energy for the first time, joining the smaller hot-water solar system I’ve been using for a couple of years now.  I was fascinated to see the wheel on the old meter spinning backwards for the first time; the energy company will put in a new digital meter next week.  I was out there again this morning a bit after the sun rose, watching the generation increase, and the wheel begin to slow down.  By now, as the sun is getting higher – and it’s winter here in sunny Queensland – the capacity is probably around 75% and rising, and the wheel will start to reverse soon and go faster.

I’m trying, along with millions of others, to do something locally about the world’s ravenous appetite for electricity.  The solar guy told me that the average household here consumes the equivalent each day of half a wheelie bin of coal.  Wheelie bin is local for those large, plastic garbage bins we place on our footpaths each week for collectors.  Half a wheelie bin per household per day!  That brought it home to me.

So, I’m getting a kick not only from knowing I’m helping out in my small way, or that I’ll get a rebate of 50c per KW of energy produced once I’m generating more than I use, but also that we now have the technology to harness my home to our star.  I still say ‘Gosh’ a lot, so you may understand that I have an imagination that at times gets the better of me – hence the italics. However, my imagination then spun off into thinking about what’s changed in my little world as a result of technology in the past 10 or so years.  It’s extraordinary really.

There have to be dozens of individual changes, but for me this is what springs to mind about the past 10 or so years:

  • I do all my  banking and bill-paying on line – I haven’t had a cheque book for yonks.  In fact, I use less paper than ever before, come to think of it.
  • I have captured more images (I used to say ‘take photos’), shared them round, and enjoyed them faster than ever before.  I’ve had a camera since I was 10 years old.
  • I undertook a more intensive, more rewarding period of professional development, met more colleagues, and learned more new skills than I can recall from other times in my life – and I continue to do so.
  • I feel more connected with the rest of the world, and have met and communicate with more people living in my country and beyond than at any other period in my life.
  • I’ve learned to appreciate and imagine the infinite possibilities of the word digital for me and for the rest of the world, and put some of this to work.
  • I’m writing more, thinking more, communicating more and have access to more information as well as music and books than at any other time in my life.  This doesn’t faze me or overwhelm me; it actually excites me.

I still love using a fountain pen, reading (and smelling and enjoying the touch of) real books, drawing on paper and puddling around with watercolours, spending hours face to face with friends – some of whom I’ve met online.  And, of course, I love my garden – to put all of this change in perspective, there’s nothing quite like getting your hands really truly dirty in a garden bed and watching the slow turning of the seasons as plants grow and the face of the landscape changes.  I’m retired now from full-time work, and not a day goes by when I’m not thankful for the opportunities I now have to continue engaging with the world ‘out there’ perhaps even more fully than in the past.  What a wonderful world it is!

By the way, if you haven’t already seen it, check out the updated video of Shift Happens about how change will accelerate in the near future.  It’s a terrific, short little presentation that makes its point well.

Lest We Forget – thanks Dad!

Australian Army Rising Sun hat badge used betw...
Image via Wikipedia

Dad served in the Australian Army in WWII.  He was one of what playwright Sumner Locke-Elliott was later to call the Rusty Bugles, in his play of that name.

090296 WILSON. C.S.  served in the ranks as a mechanic, working on Army vehicles that were building the highways through the Australian outback, and keeping the transports rolling.  I’m not sure how he felt about being a soldier who was never called upon to fire his gun at the enemy.  The men in Locke-Elliott’s play hated being cooped up, waiting for what they thought was the ‘real war’ to happen.  I’m sure my mother, if she had known where dad was, would have been happy about it.

Those are his service medals in the image above – with a sprig of Rosemary, for remembrance.

Thanks Dad.  Remembering your service on this ANZAC Day.