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.