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.





6 responses to “On telling tales and mythbusting”

  1. Leonie Walsh Avatar

    I, too, heard “that there were up to 50 bodies in the makeshift morgue in Toowoomba” specifically attributed to victims of the recent flood. This caused me a great deal of dismay, angst, and questioning “Why no disclosure?” by the authorities. Making it more personal I thought had this been one of my daughters residing in Toowoomba and not making contact or knowing their whereabouts I would have been beside myself with anxiety and would physically have been in the midst of the search and rescue squad ripping the place to pieces, shovelling mud and silt aside to try and find my daughter/s. I could not see a logical and clear reason for the “coverup” and hoped this was not the case. Thank goodness this has been proven to be- dare I say – Chinese Whispers – of mega proportions! This is a huge lesson people in listening clearly and NOT jumping to unfound conclusions.

    Tonight I am thankful we do not have 50 persons on slabs in the makeshift morgue in Toowoomba. I thank the authorities for being clear and given immediate disclosure to their findings as the minutes, hours and days go on poste Mother Nature’s fury on Toowoomba and of course beyond.

    Learn a lesson everyone and be cautious before starting a whisper which may not hold any credibility.

  2. Mark Cook-Long Avatar
    Mark Cook-Long

    I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments expressed in this article. I find it hard to fathom why the emergency services would cover this sort of issue up when it is clear that people ate both traumatized by the event but not too traumatized in the knowledge that there are people out there missing, that some may never be found , and that we may need to brace ouselves for a ‘final’ deat toll (notwithstanding those who may never be recovered or at least not for a long time) that is appallingly high. So WHY would they go to the trouble of hiding the ‘true’ death toll. And do the people repeating this rumour have any conception of the damage they may be doing to the collective psychological state and recovery of the community, and the anxiety that may be exacerbated for those whose loved ones have not been found.

    Very disturbing and disappointing. Thanks so much for your intelligent views.

  3. Bob Avatar

    Well put Kate.

    Potential rant to follow..

    Did it sound wrong right from the start? YES. Based on the good works and detailed briefings to us (via the media) this just would have been entirely out of character.

    This comes down to a simple matter of character. It takes strength to sit back and think things through. It is all too easy in this day (social networking and all) to fire back the immediate response. In this instance, the “Oh no, that’s terrible, and “how dare they do that”, lent credence by simple volumes of responses, yet NO ONE challenged the notion on the forums I found.

    When challenged, it was basically a “what do you know?” The fact was, no one knew the truth.

    Crowd mentality takes over, and the well meaning get sucked in and all of a sudden the unlikely becomes the ‘truth’. That “truth” does huge amounts of harm.

    Is it likely to change? Probably not. The early equivalent was the “Furphy” where soldiers gathered around the Furphy water carts and the rumours would spread. I am sure htere is a Roman Legion version of these events too. These days we don’t even have to make the effort to gather water, rather we sit in the comfort of a chair and listen with our eyes and do not engage the brain.

    Imagine the energy that has had to be expended quashing or busting this myth? I put it to you it is probably in the “person/days of effort across the teams. Would it not be better expended in direct flood rebuilding works?

    This is simply the populous engaging in one of those despicable “forward or a child will die” chain mail things. The horror of the potential truth makes some believe it more easily.

    This is why A Current Affair and Today Tonight rate so well… Unthinking masses, being led by fear and loathing..

    Hmmm not so much as a rant, but a “getting it off my chest”…

  4. Nx Doyle Avatar

    Hi Kate. I hope things are knitting back together up there.

    We seem to want things to be different to the way they are, whether it’s in an effort to answer the imponderable, or merely to make things seem more dramatic. Apocryphal nonsense can make for campfire stories, pub talk and exciting notions of conspiracy. It stretches to inventing answers to explain the larger questions of life, so we can feel more comfortable and not have to hurt our minds thinking about things. Whichever way it goes and on whatever scale, it’s potentially dangerous and extremely limiting.


  5. Queensland Police Media Avatar
    Queensland Police Media

    We’re so pleased that we’ve been able to assist in attempting to quell the more outrageous of the rumours. Our thoughts are with your community at this terrible time.