After the flood

Of course you must stay with us, I assured my suddenly homeless son. For as long as it takes to rebuild.

Which could be weeks, I thought, looking at the muddied wreck that had been home for the family of four.

We’d seized as many of their possessions as we could, splashing through the rapidly rising waters in our little convoy – cars and a truck bursting with mattresses, fridge, clothes and fluffy toys. A team of touch football mates appeared from nowhere to help load and disappeared just as rapidly to help other families.

But the rapid rise of the waters over the roads prevented a second trip, and much good stuff was left behind.

Then the waiting, on that fine and sunny eleventh of January, eerily free of portents of the rising catastrophe. Within hours all access was cut off and the broadcast warnings were increasingly grim. We had no idea how high the waters would rise.

The next day, an urgent call from an old neighbour’s – could we help her sister on the edge of the flood zone get her things and herself out? So with our son and other volunteers we loaded up a couple of utes, took out what we could and lifted big items onto blocks inside the house, as the water slurped up from her backyard drain.

By the end of the day the slab beneath our high-set Queenslander looked like a bazaar, with son’s and neighbour’s chairs, rugs, fridges, beds, cupboards and linen jammed together.

Fortunately our newest guest had rescued some bottle of vintage wine to add to the party atmosphere that night, with candles called into service when the long blackouts hit. This was turning into fun!

But then the waters receded, and after another day we finally saw our son’s house. And saw his heartbreak. Their little nest, bought only a year before and improved in a hundred little ways, was now like a mud hut, full of junk. Everything inside and out was coated in the rapidly drying black muck left behind by the river, its stench filling our nostrils.

Colorful stickers of rockets and planets on the walls of our little grandson’s room were stained and grimy, while limp stars dangled from their threads. Beds and cupboards, boxes, toys and muddied teddies lay upended where the tide had dropped them.

Crockery was smashed or scattered in strange corners of the house, relics of the unseen whirlpools of the late-night watery invasion.

The kitchen clock was frozen at 26 past 6, witness to the moment the waters had reached half-way up the walls.

The waters had climbed relentlessly past midnight until they were several roof tiles above the guttering. We’d glimpsed footage of the floating roof on TV news, filmed from a boat that sailed down our son’s street some three meters above the road.

And suddenly the clean-up was on, like a pitched battle. Friends and family were joined by dozens of robust volunteers who streamed through the house, carting out everything in sight. The footpath looked like a long garbage tip. Water tankers drove up and down, hosing the slimy mud off the road while trucks picked up the rubbish.

The street took on a carnival atmosphere, with sausage sizzles, drinks and ice creams, everyone helping each other. It was Brisbane at its finest.

People from all kinds of backgrounds – receptionists, plumbers, accountants, public servants, electricians, teachers, medicos, lawyers, police, pensioners – they all pitched in with equal enthusiasm. And as well as locals there were supporters who’d come up from interstate together with friends and strangers visiting from New Zealand, Britain, Germany and elsewhere. Local politicians praised the Queensland spirit, but it was in fact a universal demonstration of the human spirit at its best.

The deconstruction started. Out came the plaster walls. The gyprock was like wet cardboard – we pulled it out with bare hands. Down came the ceilings, creating waterfalls as the saturated insulation slopped through. Up came all the floor coverings, a mixture of carpet and tiles.

The house ended as a skeleton, a framework of studs, joists and trusses, but with the outer boards and tiled roof in place. It had plenty of time to dry out.

We heard later that people who’d just hosed out their VJ-lined Queenslanders and moved back within weeks of the 1974 flood were left with reminders of the river smell for years afterwards, whenever the humidity worked on the unseen remnants of mud behind the walls.

Meanwhile my wife Helen and I settled into a new life – empty nesters no longer. The fledglings sent off by the parent birds had returned fully grown with chicks of their own.

There were sympathetic looks from old friends. “It must be difficult,” murmured one. They saw my cheerful denials as lacking credibility, perhaps because they knew how grouchy and difficult men of a certain age can become.

And indeed adjustments had to be made – as much as possible by the house guests, not me.

So I was able to keep my ABC classic FM music station, although with the sound a little muted. I had to yield on my aversion to television when the sun is in the sky, and to TV programs with commercials. But I made sure interloping teabags didn’t supplant my precious leaf tea.

We’d allocated the little family two rooms plus the second bathroom. Yet over the months there seemed to be a gradual encroachment. The carpets in living areas were colonised by little cars and trucks, a dolls house, blocks and a train table.

Our bathroom had the house’s only bath, so it became a home for rubber duckies, turtles and tiny boats. I’d often find the toilet had a little insert in the seat. The backyard soon had a sandpit and play castle, plus scooter, balls and tonka truck. Soon it seemed that Helen and I were confined to two rooms, while the young family had the rest.

I discovered that my preference for dining at a civilised hour would mean dining alone, as Helen was intent on sharing the evening meal with the family. So I found myself sitting at table at a time I hadn’t known since I was aged 10.

And it didn’t seem such a bad thing, especially in the winter. It seemed natural to be eating as the sun set. Dinner was over and cleaned up well before the 7pm news, and often even before the 6pm news.

Having two talented cooks in my wife and daughter-in-law was a nice compensation. They took it in turns to produce a variety of culinary delights. The legendary Chinese ideograph of two women under the one roof representing trouble was fortunately proved wrong. (The ideograph, too, is an urban myth.)

At table I observed parenting styles while keeping my counsel, and was a little sheepish to see shadows of my strict regulations at meal times. These days I felt far more indulgent about youngsters’ infractions.

But story-time and goodnight kisses were a daily boost — something grandparents normally don’t get to experience every day.

Our grandson Patrick turned 3 during their stay. He delighted in nicknames, often telling us that his little friend Annie called him Patches while he called her An-yan. He’d already renamed Gran as Nan, and now the tongue-twister of Grandpa was simplified to Punka. I got to like that name.

I had all the fun dads have with little boys – he loved listening to made-up stories with himself as hero, and when I mowed the lawn he’d follow me about with his toy mower.

Little granddaughter Grace seemed the less interesting of the grandchildren when she moved in aged 4 months, but soon wormed her way into my heart. It was amazing to see her developing mobility as she learnt how to roll over and sit up, and then made the big break-through into crawling, suddenly having the whole house as her domain.

She’d crawl up to me, snuggle her face into my corduroy pants, and then look up with the expectation of being picked up. Who could resist her?

But it couldn’t have been easy for the young parents, suddenly thrown into a role of dependency while trying to manage their family as well as do their jobs and part-time study, on top of dealing with all the complications of rebuilding.

My son was heard to say laconically when introduced to a new friend: “I’m 32, I’m homeless and I’m living with my parents.”

Perhaps our assurances that at a similar age we had camped with our oldies for some months after returning from overseas helped convince him that his situation wasn’t entirely unique or even unbearable.

My daughter-in-law kept a calm appearance for many weeks after the disaster, but an encounter with then lord mayor Campbell Newman at a council function to hand out plants resulted in her breaking down in tears as she told their family’s story and the funding uncertainties. The tears were contagious. Lady mayoress Lisa Newman was bawling, the mayor’s male minder shed tears, even the stony-visaged Newman had a lip tremble. For weeks after, as he made his transition to state politics, Newman told the story of my daughter-in-law’s tears as he lashed the state government.

The aftermath of the flood left us all feeling depressed, including our toddler grandson. He was alarmed every time it rained, and having been kept away from the house for weeks during the clean-up, we found he’d formed the idea that the house was still under water.

We shared the young couple’s ongoing set-backs. The inevitable disappointment when the insurance company finally decided it was the wrong type of flood. The disappearing mirage of the Council’s buy-back scheme for inundated properties (again, the wrong kind of flood). The disappointingly inadequate first offer of financial support from the government, with a means test so stringent that no-one who’d qualified for a mortgage could possibly have such a low income.

The waiting for answers from bureaucrats meant weeks of inactivity and a sense of helplessness, like swimming in custard.

I made a submission to the flood inquiry. Couldn’t the inadequate insurance of so many flood victims be partly the fault of the banks who provided the mortgages? Shouldn’t they have ensured that their mortgagees’ insurance covered realistic risks? And should rebuilding of low-set houses be sanctioned on a flood plain? Houses in this area are doomed to flood again and again, whether Wivenhoe is full or empty.

Buttressing the young family was the support from friends and strangers who didn’t forget and kept pitching in.

Gifts of toys, furniture and clothing poured through our doors. An acquaintance sent a huge hamper of goodies, while meals, cakes and drinks kept arriving from myriad friends.

Very generous cash gifts were quietly and often anonymously dropped in. A former student in Japan sent a donation, little knowing his own country was just weeks away from a far more terrible devastation. And ongoing labor was at hand to get the major reconstruction started, led by my son’s redoubtable parents-in-law.

People kept turning up as volunteers to help with carpentry. A retired builder in partnership with the dad of a mate did important structural work. Maverick councillor Nicole Johnston appeared one day and energetically wielded a wheelbarrow to clear away rubble.

Surplus gifts of furniture were distributed back and forth between other families in the street, until finally anything extra was packed off to the serious flood victims at Grantham.

A week or so after the flood, the muddied kitchen clock began ticking again. Surely a good sign.

Finally came the break-through with the second round of government financial support, drawing from the millions in donated funds. Coincidentally I was in parliament when Premier Anna Bligh made the announcement, and messaged the good news to the family. It was enough to make all the difference, to permit serious rebuilding without substantial borrowings or deferral of important work.

But fresh uncertainty emerged. Did all the work and expenditure so far count for nothing? Would they be financially penalised for having made a start? And while the funds were in the pipeline, was it wasting money to keep working on the house?

“If I know anything about governments,” I intoned, “they’re going to want receipts for everything and they’ll dole the funds out in stages.”

Fortunately I was wrong. Perhaps in reaction to the political flak over the flood money, the government handed over the lot to affected households after seeing two quotes. I wondered if the casinos would prosper, but for our little team it was a great break-through. They could proceed apace with the bottleneck of jobs that needed significant funding to be started.

I felt some sympathy for the government and bureaucrats responsible for distributing the funds, knowing that con-artists are always on the prowl, on top of the problems of incomplete or tardy applications. I felt less sorry for all the whingers who seemed to think every natural disaster was the fault of and should be totally rectified by the “guv’mint”. I doubt much help goes to flood victims in countries like Bangladesh.

Rebuilding gave the young family a chance to make some changes to a house that had now been inundated twice in its 60 years. The bathroom became the kitchen, a french door was opened to the back yard, giving the house much more light, and two bedrooms had their size adjusted.

There was one significant discovery. A major support beam visible below the ceiling turned out to be a hollow structure of wood veneer – an ancient builder’s shonkiness. The roof would have sagged inwards if the flood hadn’t revealed the secret.

And removal of floor tiles revealed hardwood boards in unexpectedly good condition – brush box from northern NSW. Instead of recarpeting, the boards could be sanded and polished to a beautiful golden brown.

After months when nothing much seemed to happen, a flurry of professional building activity rounded off by painting and reconnecting to electricity meant the house was ready to be lived in again. And so the little family left us, seven and a half months after the January disaster.

It was disturbingly quiet and still the first morning after they’d gone. No happy babbling of baby chatter or toddler’s yells and laughter. No toys being trundled up and down the hallway. No little boy waking us at dawn to ask if we’d play. No calling to order from the parents. No big pot of porridge on the stove. A dreadful hush that made the place seem very lonely. Carpets lay sadly bare, deprived of their toys and kiddy furniture. It was all too quiet and neat.

A couple of days later, as we visited the little family and I looked around at their beautifully restored house, my grandson begged us to stay longer. We realised he was missing us too.

I told him we had to go back to our house, but we’d be seeing him and his sister often. He threw his arms around me and gave me a tight hug. “I love you Punka,” he said. Not entirely a bad flood.


A shorter version of this story was published in the Brisbane Courier-Mail on 13 January 2012: Nest feels a little emptier after family ties fortified by floodwaters.

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