The world has been well introduced to Brisbane this last week. All now know that it is built around a river…and that rivers can over-flow to ignore the planning authority’s views about what should go where. No, this Ol’ Man River just kept flowing along up the streets into houses and basements, across roads meandering as it pleased. Having just arrived in the beautiful city, it was strange to be perched on the 37th floor of an apartment block where I am temporarily lodged and look out onto the river directly below. The build up to the disaster was slow but grew like a musical crescendo. Rain, heavy rain, torrential rain, wind added for effect, skies muting from light grey to slate to black…….it was quite a performance. The worst part is that you did not know when it would reach its peak. The composer had not left a score.
At work on Tuesday, as the elements became more dramatic they tugged at everybody’s attention. Then there was word of the river breaking its banks downtown. The thought of “heck that’s where I live” was quickly followed by…”hmmm will I be able to get back to base”. And everybody started to work out their own risk level and they tried to remember what might be lying around should their home places be invaded. Concerns at work were growing about electricity supply. The major problem would be the animal house. QIMR is beside a complex of hospitals and they would have priority if back-up generators were needed. Would water continue to flow through the pipes? Would supplies of liquid nitrogen get through? As the questions mounted it became clear that keeping the show on the road was not going to be sensible. It could in fact be dangerous. So we accepted the radio advice and put the priority on safety and went home. The traffic was very heavy as everybody had the same idea. You have seen the movie but usually it is in the science fiction category. And still the crescendo grew.
Safely back on the 37th floor, the emphasis changed for me. Everything was functioning in the apartment block and the rain became periodic. So now the question was how long would we be besieged by the weather? Did we have food? Would the shops be open? How long did we have to make provisions for? For me ‘bad weather’ has always meant wet and cold. Here there is no need to muffle up as it was 27degrees when we went to the centre of Brisbane to shop. A ghost town without tumbleweed awaited us! No cars, shops closed and very few people. Well in fact there were a number but they were all in Woolworth’s large supermarket. With food on board we then waited for the next episode. Word came in of the internal tsunami in a major town close by. Would that happen here? Somebody callously calculated that the volume of water that was about to descend on Brisbane was equivalent to the contents of Sydney harbour. That sounded like a dousing. The sea tides that influence the river were also misbehaving and we learned when the “king tide” of the season would come on Thursday morning. TV programmes ran a constant commentary on the events as they unfolded and one “helpfully” modeled what would be under water if the river rose by 5 Meters or even 7. Total disaster in the offing! I moved the car up to a third storey parking place.
But deceptively, Wednesday and Thursday were pleasant sunny days. The rain stopped. Balmy weather. But below the river was still writing its own different script. It surged past below, cornering at speed. It moved at a speed that would be close to a sprint for a human, but it did not tire. Upstream it continued to collect and display its wares; a door, a mattress, a big plastic container, the jetty with a boat on board, black things, white things, peoples things, a gangway for the local cross-river ferry. Non-stop. Each item representing a loss, a cost and a challenge to put right again after the floods.
We went down to the riverside. The pleasant boardwalk was several feet under water. The nice restaurant we had lunch when last in Brisbane was awash with the muddy stuff that is today the river. The coffee shops are closed. Dramatically we saw that the river was now on the road at the bottom of our street….a few hundred meters away and uphill it would have to travel…..but still. The street is called Creek Street, and now we know why. A morbid tourism develops as cameras are out to record this once in a lifetime event…….we hope.
Back on the TV the images are stark. One that hit me was that of the pitch of Suncorp Stadium where rugby is played, completely under water like a brown massive swimming pool. But the predictions are becoming more positive. The worst will be over on Thursday. But the cost is unimaginable both in Aussie Dollars and human grief. However the tone is upbeat. We will get over this, they say. All will pitch in they say. And missing is the blame game, the quick demand for compensation, and “shouldn’t the EU send a special dollop of aid to us” that I believe would be more typical in Ireland if this happened.
Friday it is back to work, as everything seems to be functioning OK. There will be stories to be told and then repeated until the full fabric of remembrance is in place. The flood story will be one with a start, middle and an end. But living in it the dominant question was; where are we in this narrative? Looking out from the balcony I see the stakes in the water that slowly became submerged by the river yesterday are still submerged. The car park that acted as a meter for the expansion of the river is still under water up to the half-way mark. And a series of unconnected objects worthy of a modern art collection still float by urgently seeking the sea. But I think it is over and will become part of my recollections.