Floods and fires

The eastern coast of Australia has been on the wrong side of nature’s umbrella since the beginning of the year. The drought that had given us the tinder box which ignited into devastating bushfires in the Black Summer of 2019-20 was replaced by floods of near biblical proportions in March 2022.

Communities in the very south of Queensland and the far north coast of NSW (Big River Country) have been inundated by record breaking floods. Further south, areas around Sydney and Wollongong were also lashed by the East Coast Low – a quaint term for a cyclone-like event that occurs south of the areas cyclones are supposed to stick to.

Waiting to be rescued

My new town of Armidale was not affected by flood. The thirsty paddocks around here soaked up the welcome rain. It got a bit boggy but given nearly everywhere is downhill from Armidale, there is no risk of widespread flooding. Not so for the residents of towns like Lismore and Woodburn. The news was filled with heartbreaking images of families huddled on the roof of their two story homes with water lapping at the gutters waiting their turn to be rescued. Some of them waited for days. The demand for rescues exceeded the capacity of the emergency services and everyone with a “tinny” (a small aluminium boat) joined the effort to deposit soggy, hungry people on drier land.

The rains continue

A month later when recovery efforts were well underway, and widespread tidying up in full swing, another East Coast Low dumped more rain. Less than the previous event but because the ground was already sodden it did not take much to over top the levee again and people were evacuated for a second time. This time there were few rooftop rescues, mainly because those families were yet to return to their homes and because of swift enforcement of evacuation orders. 

Lismore’s future

Flood is a frequent visitor to Lismore. There is a levee around the town which is meant to protect them but this year the flood was a full 2 metres past previous records. Climate change? Probably.

I listened to an interview many years ago, when another bad flooding event had submerged the town. When the ABC reporter asked the hydrologist what could be done to protect the town, she drew a sharp breath and said “Move it”.

Move the whole darn town. Sounds crazy but not that crazy. With the the millions of dollars that are spent in fixing things after flood every couple of years, it seems like a good long term strategy. When you add in the personal cost, the trauma; the loss of household “stuff” and the fatalities, it seems like an even better idea.

Will it happen? Probably not.

I wouldn’t like to be trying to insure my home there though.

Here to help.

I am here in the disaster zone, helping out as an SES volunteer. My role is a small one. Working in the “back room” logistical side of things at an airbase. The helicopters are busy dropping food and supplies to people and animals. Today I helped load a chopper with sleeping bags and air mattresses for people still stuck in an evacuation centre.

I’m not getting wet and I’m not getting dirty, but I’m here and doing my bit. Just like hundreds of others of my orange colleagues and those from other agencies like the Rural Fire Service, the Police, the Defence Force and NSW Fire and Rescue. Some get paid, but for others (like the SES and RFS) this is a labour of love. For me it’s all part of my personal strategy to improve my life. Volunteering is one of the things that contribute to your own positive mental health and happiness.

Remember this!

To get here, I drove through the towns worst hit by this 1 in 1000 year flood. The scene was horrific. I found it hard to keep driving. I wanted to leap from the car and help the family I saw sweeping mud from their home. I wanted to hold the hose for the firies (fire fighters) who were sluicing out the shops. I wanted to take photos of the mud on the roofs, the caravans tipped sideways; the cars randomly wedged against trees; the bits of furniture stuck in the branches 10 metres above the ground. The piles of books and furniture stacked outside on the street waiting for collection. I wanted to record and share it all. But that seemed disrespectful. Disaster tourism. It didn’t seem right.

Or is it a chance to share an historic moment in time when Australians once again pulled together to help a community in trouble. A time when we decided climate change was here, and now.

Fellow Australians, It’s only a few weeks out from an election. Remember this. Which party has our long term interests at heart? The planet’s?

Remember that handshake during the fires? Where is he now?


There are no photos for this post. Maybe I’ll take some on the way home.

Mini-Doc of the Week 5 – Mardi Gras

Behind the scenes at Sydney’s Mardi Gras.

Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is held in the first week of March. This year is the 42nd event. There is a lot of organisation (obviously!) that occurs behind the scenes and on the day of the parade a long lag time while everyone arrives, gets into their positions and waits for the parade to start. This is a great opportunity for photographers who are behind the starting line.

A few years ago I joined in on the Sydney Mardi Gras to celebrate diversity in the Emergency Services.  It was a LOT of fun.

I have put this new clip together as part of my 2020 challenge to publish a mini-documentary each week. I am aiming to improve my video production skills. The only way I’ll do that is if I practice. So, here’s another practice run, this time fiddling about with repeating short sequences. I don’t think iMovie is the best software to use for that.

Hopefully, by the end of the year, I’ll be as good as George Lucas! Huh!! 🙂 If I last that long! It’s not as easy as the Photo of the Week Challenge!

 

I took the footage in March 2017 and put this clip together a couple of weeks ago. Shot on an iPhone 8 and edited in iMovie on an iMac. Music by Justin Mahar via MusoPen

First responder.

A traffic accident on Harris Island, Scotland.

June 2019

I am still not sure what made me look up at that particular moment. I guess something must have caught my eye. With more than 40 years driving experience under your seat belt,  you remain alert even when you are admiring the broad, rugged landscapes of Harris Island.

But look up, I did. Just in time to see the large white SUV, which was the second car behind me, pull out onto the other side of the road to overtake. At the same moment, the car directly behind me also pulled out and accelerated rapidly.

“No! Mate! No!” I shouted at the silver car “Don’t!”

The small silver car slammed into the side of the larger, white car, and became airborne sailing over the top of the white car, rolling over and over again. It dropped into a gully next to the road. I didn’t see it hit the ground, but when I did see where it had come to rest, I could tell from the dug-up field, that it had skated on its roof across the rock-studded grass. The white car spun on its wheels and ended up facing the right way in the correct lane, front tyre punctured, passenger side caved in, airbags fully deployed

It all happened in a fraction of a second, but as people say, it seemed as if it was in slow motion. Every nanosecond etched on my mind.

I pulled over to the shoulder of the road and grabbed my phone from the charger. I opened the boot of the car and fished out my first kit. The one I had brought in case I sprained my ankle while hiking.

As I jabbed 999 on the phone’s keyboard,  I thought to myself “I don’t have enough Bandaids for this accident. Those people are dead for sure.”

“Ambulance, Fire or Police?” the calm female voice said at the other end of the line.

“Ambulance and Police,” I said, already fumbling with my phone to put it on loudspeaker, so I could use the Emergency App to give my location.

 

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These are the emergency contacts for NSW, Australia, I don’t remember if it gave the 999 number in Scotland. I think I just remembered it from TV shows!

“Which one first?”

“Ambulance, I would say. I have just witnessed a serious road crash. My location is XYZ”, and I gave my coordinates, reading from the screen.

I ran down the hill, the tiny first aid kit tucked under my arm.

I got to the white car first.

“Are you hurt? Any injuries?”

“No,” they both said, “We are OK, just a bit shaky.”

“Stay in the car,” I said, “I have called an ambulance.”

I turned to see a young man and woman crawling out of the silver car and watched incredulously, as they scrambled up the embankment.

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“Come! Sit!” I said, sizing up their injuries. Scratched hands from the broken glass. A large graze on his temple. Cuts to her shins and shredded tights. Both had dilated pupils and were rambling on about what had happened.

“I just didn’t see him!” the young man said.

They were in shock.

I passed my assessment on to the calm lady who was still on the other end of the phone.

“I’ll send two ambulances,” she said. “it will be a while.”

I pulled out a gauze pad from my kit and told the girl to hold it on the largest cut on her shin. The blood flowing freely from the cut, making it look more gruesome than it was.

“Press  hard with this,” I said, “what’s your name?”

“Joanna”

“Where are you hurt, Joanna? Is it ok if I touch you to see if you have any injuries?

“My back and neck are really sore.”

“I imagine they are! Can you just stay really still for me?” I draped my one, silver blanket over her shaking body and asked her to breathe with me. “Nice deep breaths Joanna… Slow down, slow down… you’ll be Ok. The ambulance is on its way.”

By this stage, some other people had begun to pull up.

“Do you need help?”

“Yes, I do! Do you have a blanket?

The Dutchman nods.

“Get it, and wrap this fellow up. He needs to stay warm.”

“What’s your name, mate?” I asked the dazed man.

“John”

“You’ve got a bit of a bump on your head there John! Can I have a look at it?”

I took another piece of gauze from the meagre first aid kit and pressed it against his bleeding head.

“Can I help? another voice said from the crowd. “I am a navy medic.”

“Take over here, mate, you can do a better job than me!”

“No, you seem to have it under control.” He walked away and melted back into the crowd.

“HANG ON!!” I thought, “Is there no one here better equipped than me to deal with this? Here I am on the other side of the world in a foreign country being a very bossy Australian telling Scottish people what to do?? Is there no-one?”

It would seem I was it.

The Uncle of the White Car Man (who I now knew was Alex) turned up at my side. They had called him straight after the crash.

“You need help,” he said. Not a question but a statement.

“Yes, mate!”

Thank god, another person willing to lead.  “Can you stop the traffic up there. We don’t want to get run over ourselves.”

There was no verge, and we were sitting right on the road.

The traffic was calm and patient. A few people got out to look at what was happening and then returned to their cars. There were offers of food and water for the injured.

“No,” I said “You don’t know if they are going to need surgery. Let’s wait for the ambo’s”.

The quizzical looks reminded me that abbreviating a word and adding an O was a uniquely Australian practice.

We waited. I checked on the two in the SUV again. They were still shaky but definitely uninjured.

My phone rang.

“Yes?”

“Harris Police here, can you tell me what has happened?”

“Road crash at (co-ordinates).  No major injuries. The traffic is building up.”

All matter of fact, as if I do this every day.

“We’ll be there as soon as we can, but we are already dealing with another matter at the other end of the island.”

It seemed like an episode of Shetland. The majestic scenery was laid out before me. The rocky outcrops, the soaring birds, the inquisitive bystanders. The grey, scudding clouds.

More time elapsed.  perhaps 30 minutes, and then the welcome wail of a siren. One ambulance had arrived.

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“Ok,” the green-clad fellow said, “What’s going on here?”

“Traffic accident, four people involved the two in the white car are a bit shaky but otherwise appear to be OK. These two, John and Joanna, crawled out of that car (the ambo lets out a long low whistle) and up the hill. They have some superficial injuries (pointing to their legs and hands)  but are both complaining of headache, backache and a sore neck. They have been conscious and lucid the whole time. Their breathing has steadied, and they seem to be able to move freely, but I have asked them to stay still. Joanna is the most distressed, but I am concerned about his contusion on John’s forehead.”

“Ah hah…” he said slowly as he put on his gloves.

Shit! No gloves! I forgot to put mine on!!

“How long ago?”

“About 40 minutes?

“Hmm ok. Can you just hold John’s head still while I have a look.”

I cradled John’s head in the way I had been shown in the advanced first aid course I had done.

The paramedic looked at me and said: “Hmmm you know what to do… are you a first responder?”

First responder? I smiled and as a million thoughts went through my head as to how an Australian holidaying in Scotland had taken charge of a traffic accident, was well, not a first responder per se, but certainly a well trained NSW SES volunteer.  How do you describe what the NSW SES is? Tick tock tick tock …it all flicked through my mind, and I decided on

“Well, no, not exactly. I am a volunteer in the emergency services in Australia. I have had some advanced training in this sort of thing.”

That would do for the time being. Another ambulance crew turned up. The paramedics decided to treat John and Joanna as having potential spinal injuries, which meant very cautious handling. I helped them strap the two onto spinal boards, and lift them onto the ambulance.

As they departed, I looked at the long, long queues of traffic stretching back on both sides of the road. The white car was still in the middle of the lane, immobile, blocking the traffic.  The once patient drivers beginning to get impatient as the ambulance vanished over the hill. To me, it seemed like another accident waiting to happen, as people began to pull out willy-nilly, trying to get past.

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In rapid-fire, I said to the Uncle “Contra-flow traffic, ten cars each way. You let ten cars past and then stop them, and then I‘ll let ten go from my end. Do that until we finish. Hold up your hand like this (the stop signal) and raise your other hand to me when you are ready to change over,”  I demonstrated a beckoning signal.

I went up the road and waved the first car on. It didn’t move. An older woman in the driver’s seat was slumped over the wheel.

“Oh my god,” I thought, “don’t tell me she’s had a heart attack while we’ve been waiting? And the ambulance has just left!”

I walked gingerly up to her car and tapped on the window. She woke up, startled. I let out the breath I hadn’t realised I had been holding.

“Move on please ma’am.”

For the next 15 minutes, we directed the traffic. I cursed the fact that I was dressed all in black and had no hi-vis, no glowing traffic wand. Not like in the training I had done.

The police rang again. They’d be there soon.

After 2 hours, they did finally arrive. The queues of traffic had gone, the ambulance had taken John and Joanna away. Alex (the driver of the white car) had calmed down, and his Aunty was now just plain angry that the police had taken so long to get there. The Uncle and I were congratulating each other on what a fantastic job we had done with the traffic. It seemed so peaceful.

The police officer began to get my details.

“Hang on a minute,” she said. “I just have to check on my colleague”. He was striding down the road, fishing something out of his pocket.

“It was his first day yesterday.”  Eye roll  “I just have to make sure he does not breathalyse them without me as a witness.”

She came back to me 20 minutes later and started to retake my statement.

It was cold. The wind had picked up, and I was busting to go to the toilet. While caught up in the middle of the emergency, I had stayed calm and in control. The only thing I could think of now was not wetting my pants in front of this police officer.

I told her I needed to go.

“Go down the road to the Youth Centre. It’s just around the bend here. Tell them the Police sent you. They’ll let you use their loo. Wait for us there.”

“Right yeah sure,” I thought. But sure enough I said the police had sent me, they let me use their loo and now more comfortable, I sat on the car bonnet and waited. Another 15 minutes later, the Police pulled up at the Youth Centre, and I  gave them my statement.

It was now three and a half hours since I had looked in that rear-view mirror and I  was finally on my way again. Cold, hungry and thirsty. However, my overwhelming emotion was pride! I had done good! I had stayed calm. I had been useful! I had used the training I had been given through the NSW State Emergency Service to render first aid and direct traffic. I might be a bossy Aussie, but who bloody cares! On this day, at that moment, I was the right person at the right time, and I helped people. Really, really helped them.

Punch the air,  Old Chook! Today you were truly invincible and very visible!


The NSW SES is a volunteer organisation which has jurisdiction over storm and flood events in New South Wales, Australia. In some rural units, they also look after road crashes. I have been an SES member for nearly 5 years. I have been trained in many aspects of emergency management. You can read about the SES here. It’s a government-funded body and one of the things I really love about Australia. We look after each other!

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