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And the clean up begins



After the river peaked early on Thursday morning, thankfully nearly a metre lower than first feared, the floodwaters began to subside during the day.

By Friday morning, the first of the flooded families were able to get back to their homes to see just how bad the damage was.

My sister texted me, asking if I might be able to go over and help out at our sister's house in Auchenflower. The waters had only inundated the first floor of their rental property . . . again, I say "only", but gods, it was enough.

Their tenants had managed to get some of their furniture up to the first floor of the house, but not enough, and had not enough time before they had to evacuate. They are lucky, in that the main living area of the house on the first floor was untouched.

My sister had already arranged for friends to come on Saturday to start the clean up, but as our sister pointed out, once that muck had the chance to dry out, the clean up would be that much harder. Hence the shout out to me, and to hubby.

He'd been able to make it to work on Friday though, so it was just me. And of course I said yes - at least I would be doing something to help, rather than just feeling sad and suffering "survivor guilt".

It took me two hours to make what would normally have been a 45 minute trip. Firstly because I knew I'd have to take a roundabout way to get there, as my usual access route was still under water. And then there was the traffic. I'd already heard that it was taking forever to get from the city out to one suburb that's usually ten minutes away, so I'd planned to go out even further than that and loop back.

And still I hit traffic and honestly? A lot of it had to be people out to have a look at the damage, and that made my blood boil. Particularly as the authorities had been begging people to stay off the roads except for essential travel.

However, I did see a group of young people, walking back from an area that was particularly hard hit, filthy from head to foot and carrying work gloves. They'd obviously been down there, helping out, and I was cheered by that.

My sister caught me in the car and asked if I could stop and pick up some cold bottled water for the workers. The drinking water is still safe, but no one wanted to be tracking filth upstairs, and of course, few people had thought to bring a water bottle.

I got out of the traffic and hit a supermarket. Cold bottled water was completely sold out, so I made do with bottled water off the shelf and some cold diet Coke. I also thought to grab some apples, thinking they might also appreciate a snack. And had my second blood boiling moment, as one of the staff changed the price of stock on the shelf to increase it by two dollars a kilo.

I wanted to slap him, to point out that the store had already paid for that stock, so there was no way rising prices of produce should be applied to it. I wanted to accuse him of gouging but honestly? He was just one of the clerks - whoever made that decision was sitting in a comfortable office someplace.

Back in the car, I used my city referdex to plan a route through back streets to avoid the traffic . . . only to run into it again closer to my sister's rental property. More rubberneckers.

Again, they called me in the car - my sister's car was parked in at the house, and they wanted to go back to her home and grab a second generator, so they could get another pressure washer operating. Luckily, her husband owns a generator business. He was at his store in another suburb, which had gone completely under, starting the clean up there.

When I got to the suburb, it was literally like entering a war zone. You could see the high water marks on the streets, showing just how far it had come, and the mud and muck that was left behind as it receded.

My sister's street was indeed like a parking lot, because people wanted to get in as soon as they could. Part of that is to see what the damage is, but the other part - the Queensland spirit - is to get in and start fixing it.

I dropped off water and snacks and picked up my sister and one of her helpers, and we shot back to get the second generator and some more cleaning supplies. A little local knowledge helped us avoid the worst of the traffic going back, and I even managed to get a park in the street as someone left right as we got back.

Going into the property for the first time was awful - I can't imagine what it was like when they first arrived that morning. I was seeing it after they'd hauled out all the furniture and belongings, which were now piled up on the footpath, awaiting removal by the city. The stink was just foul - the water was dirty, contaminated by raw sewerage, even spilled oil from boats.

And you could tell exactly how high the water had been, because anything touched by it was stained a filthy brown.

Inside, my sister's fears that her helpers wouldn't be available had proved groundless - between her friends, her tenants and their friends, there was a team of workers, busily scrubbing down the walls. Which might seem like a pointless exercise, since they would all have to be torn out - the plasterboard was like papier mache, and the wood panelling was bowed and swelled with water damage. But if we hadn't taken that muck off, the house would remain uninhabitable until the walls could be replaced.

The tenants apparently had indicated they didn't want to return, but there were probably thousands of others thinking the same thing, and finding replacement rental accommodation might well be impossible. My sister assured him that if they couldn't find somewhere else, and wanted to return, she'd work with them to get the repairs done as soon as humanly possible.

This was one of the reasons that, although they'd removed all the internal doors downstairs, because they were warped and ruined, they hadn't thrown them to the kerb, because they might be needed as temporary doors before repairs could be made.

My sister and her husband might be wealthy people, able to afford to do repairs themselves and wait to be reimbursed by insurance (if they're covered - remember, a lot of policies won't cover for flood, or as one insurance company is now saying, for a "natural disaster" - um, WTF? Why else do you take out insurance, for fuck's sake?), but with so many thousands of homes and businesses, not just in Brisbane but in the seventy other towns in the state that are flood affected, and the other states now being hit by flooding, tradesmen and building supplies are going to be in short supply.

With rubber gloves and workboots, I waded in and got to work scrubbing walls. We discovered a makeshift storage area under the stairs that hadn't been cleared yet, and had to down sponges to get that emptied. Leftover tiles from the bathroom, mostly, and some other papers stuff that had been washed in there with the floodwaters. All of it slimy with filth and reeking to high heaven.

We needed a torch to make sure no snakes or other critters were lurking - they'd already found a dead fish in the house earlier. The torch on the walls showed the high water mark - over my head - and how high the water had splashed during the deluge, probably a metre or more above that.

Then it was onto the backyard. You don't think about it, but every plant in the garden was coated with that muck.

Photobucket

You'll have to pardon the quality of the photos - shaky hands from working hard and cellphones don't make for the best focusing.

Underfoot, it was squelchy and the ground even more sodden than I ever thought possible. And there still remains this slick of silt and oil and, as I said, even raw sewerage. My sister, who's an environmental engineer, says that a sprinkling of lime will help cut the smell, and to start decomposing the silt into the soil. Hopefully, the sister who owns the property, and who has her landscape gardener ready to come and survey the damage (like I said, they're wealthy), will get some similar advice.

They have an inground pool, which you can see behind the worker in the photo - which is full of that foul water. And which can't be emptied - when the ground's so wet, the only thing keeping an inground pool actually in the ground is the weight of the water. Otherwise, the water table would rise around the empty concrete shell and literally pop it out of the ground. Happened in the wake of the 1974 floods.

I guess it will have to be cleaned out, the water all filtered and chlorinated, even though it's actually a salt water pool. But until the power comes back on, the filter won't work. And it's been submerged under over a metre of water for a day, so it's probably fried anyway.

Plus, until all the water drains away from the suburb, they can't get in to check the electricity substation to get the power on. Then the house will need to be checked to make sure the wiring's safe before they can turn the mains on again.

On Friday, 30-plus hours after the high tide, the water was still up in the suburb - my sister's house was barely three houses from this:

Photobucket

Again, apologies for the photo quality. And as you can see, my sister's house is actually up the hill - there are obviously houses in lower areas still underwater. To make matters worse, that tidal river? Yeah well, we had a high tide yesterday afternoon that re-flooded that street. And there's another king tide due in six days . . .

These floods. They just keep on giving.

The one other photo I've got is the wooden fence between the houses - it's coated in that slime. But, thank the good gods for pressure cleaners and portable generators, because you can see a little how the pressure cleaner gets rid of the muck, and the germs, so quickly:

Photobucket

Cleaning that by hand? A six foot fence, running the length of the property? Days of work. The other side is fortunately a chain link fence, easy fixed with a hose.

Anyway, at the end of the day, was standing with some of the other workers and talking. They are local to the area, and two of them had been down at the local shopping precinct at Rosalie, helping the business owners there with the clean up, and marvelling at how many other locals who were lucky enough to be unscathed were there pitching in. And how many of these were young people - this is kind of a trendy area.

One of the nameless men - well, nameless to me anyway - said it restored his faith in humanity. I had to agree. I heard someone on the radio that morning say, quite confidently, that if they gave us a week, we'd probably have it all cleaned up. Perhaps a little optimistic, but I had to admire his spirit!

Still, even at the end of the day with so much accomplished, almost everything I saw was like a new heartbreak. In my sister's street, there were houses where the piles of ruined belongings included sandbags - that made me almost weep, thinking how that must have felt, piling them up to try to protect the house and being overwhelmed in the end anyway.

And still I managed to be surprised by people's almost indifference - I went up to bring my car down the street, to pick up my sister and her cleaning supplies and shovels and stuff, only to find some idiot in a home removal van had parked me in.

He was parked (as was I) in front of a house at the very top of the street, which hadn't been affected. I went around to the back of the truck and politely said to him, look, you've parked me in, can you shift your truck back a few metres so I can get out? He had the room to do that, but he was all, oh, in a minute, maybe that guy can shift his car and you can get out and I pointed to the space he'd left in front of my car and said, no, you have to shift your truck.

While he headed off to the house, a young couple from a few houses further down came over and said they'd seen him park the truck, and he'd very nearly taken the side of my car out when he had. There was barely eight inches of clearance - the only reason he could get out of the truck was because the cab was so high up.

He came back out and I thought he was going to move the truck - instead, he's got some other guy shifting his car, which didn't help at all. I pointed and quite firmly said, you need to move your truck.

After all that, he shifted it back two metres, which took him ten seconds, and then had to come direct me so I could get out. He could have gone back another metre and saved himself the trouble.

I wanted to scream at him, to point at the water at the end of the street, at the state of my clothes and boots, and ask him if he was fucking blind or just pig ignorant? The house he was moving hadn't been touched, and yet people at the bottom of the street had lost everything. We were here trying to help, and he figured his house moving was somehow more important.

And yet, despite assholes like him, this city, this state, has proved our Premier right - when you knock us down, we get right back up again. The Lord Mayor of the city, Campbell Newman, asked for volunteers to help with the clean up.

He had people wanting to go the minute he asked!

He put them off til Saturday, because they needed a bit more time to have a plan of attack sorted out - they've divided the city into five wards, each with a separate coordinator, and they were getting the logistics in place.

There's been a couple of occasions when he's made announcements - for example, that transfer stations would be open til 9.00pm to take trash from people. There were transfer stations who didn't get that message and turned folks away - he said publically he had "kicked some bottoms" (because he was too polite to say "arses"!) and that he apologised for the mix up. The minute it's come to light that someone's not with the program, he's dealt with it.

He wanted 6,000 volunteers - he got more than 20,000. And that's only the "official" volunteers - the people who registered with the city crews. There's likely twice that doing their bit unofficially - like the folks cleaning up in Rosalie, at my sister's house.

Or at one of my colleagues' house - she and her partner have spent three years renovating their home, only to have it go underwater. They've lost everything and a bunch of folks from work headed over to help them clean up.

This article brought a prickle of tears this morning, and a feeling of pride. When they're turning folks away because they've got too much help, it's truly wonderful.

Today, the call was for folks with strong backs, because they're going to start getting rid of all that trash stacked on people's footpaths. I have no doubt they'll get them. Along with groups of young blokes with utes who are pitching in to do that already.

The radio station I listen to has decided it's going to be world's biggest PA system, and has spent the last few days broadcasting appeals for help and offers of the same. Need some help in your street? Have a spare room and hot shower to offer, or an empty house to offer? Same with Facebook.

My sister said on Friday, she wondered how we'd possibly managed the 1974 floods without mobile phones. I think then, neighbourhoods were closer knit communities, but still, communication must have been a nightmare. We've been so blessed with the coverage and the information coming to us on TV and over the 'net, both before and after the event.

Of course, for all the good news, there's also the low bastards - there have been ten people caught and charged with looting. But the good news is that that maximum sentence for that doubles in the event of a disaster situation. The scams have started too - dodgy tradesmen offering cleaning services for cash up front who then disappear, and a scam where flood-affected homes have been contacted by people offering to fast track access to disaster relief funding, if the person can give banking details - we all know where that's going.

The trouble is, people who've lost everything are overwhelmed and not thinking clearly, and so can be taken advantage of. There's a special place in hell for those who prey on them.

The other good news is that the number of missing is down to 15, and the death toll's only risen by one. Most of those missing folks were evacuated safely and just hadn't been tracked down. The remaining missing are two families from the devastated Lockyer Valley and sadly, it's more than likely they have died. There's a massive debris pile in Grantham that remains to be searched, which may hold their bodies. Or, since one of the dead was found 80 kms away from where they lived, it's also possible the missing may never be found, tragically.

Still, in spite of all of that, and thanks in large part to Anna Bligh, who continues to be an absolute rock, we're moving forward. We're looking at getting the schools cleaned up so that the start of the school year isn't delayed, so that kids can go back to some semblance of normality, be with their friends during the day - in Australia right now, we're coming towards the end of our long summer school holidays, for those of you who aren't Aussies.

Roads are being opened, we're cleaning up, and we're keeping in our thoughts and prayers those folks in Victoria facing what we've just come through, the folks elsewhere in our state who are still cut off, or still facing rising rivers.

It's been a damn tough start to a year, but looking on the bright side, and in the words of Shania Twain, "Up, up, up, it can only go up from here".

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
utssq
Jan. 16th, 2011 04:50 am (UTC)
This is going to come out sounding kind of flip, but I would rather have a tornado go through my house than deal with a flood.
Especially since you guys are dealing with the bottom feeders as well as the good-doers. Especially insurance companies.
Keeping you guys in my thoughts most definitely, and wishing there was something more I could do to help.
oresteia
Jan. 16th, 2011 05:37 am (UTC)
I keep crossing my fingers for everyone, I've never experienced survivor's guilt before but there could be a lot worse forms of sadness possible I would think. And going to help someone else even if they are your sister is a step in the right direction. Sucks about the warm water though.
alex_royale
Jan. 16th, 2011 05:57 am (UTC)
You inspire me...this spirit you've always had. Truly, I wouldn't know the first thing to do if such an event were to happen where I live. Droughts and forest fires, sure. Been there, done that. But a flood? All that WATER? I'm just so so SO incredibly THANKFUL and relieved you and yours are okay. One day at a time, I guess is the way. And yeah, it can only get better right?

*hugs*
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )