Staying Afloat Down Under

There was cricket in Sydney last week. The crowd wore pink fluorescent wigs and hats cut from watermelons. Shirts were optional. Australians are fun-loving when there is fun to be had. It’s part of our national character. So is our disregard for authority, which we celebrate, while at the same time being one of the most law-abiding nations on earth.

That’s what the rest of the world sees, and it’s all true. But we want to see something more in ourselves, a hard-working stoicism — and right now it’s the northeast state of Queensland, where once-in-a-century flooding has devastated countless communities, that shows it most clearly.

All maps of Queensland are deceptive. They show inland plains crossed by rivers, always colored blue. It’s tempting to imagine riverboats hauling freight, green fields stretching out from either bank, industrial towns and cities drawing water for their factories.

What the maps don’t reveal is that the rivers are often only possibilities. Many are dry for years, their waters long since soaked up by the parched ground and left as a chain of water holes.

The maps also don’t say that, every few years, the rivers flood. Once in a generation, they cover the land. And sometimes, like now, they tear the state apart.

To the north and west of Brisbane, the state capital and my hometown, Queensland faces a flood affecting an area the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined. The mines that supply one-third of the world’s coking coal are shut down. Crops have been destroyed and the soil that grew them has been carried away. Mercifully few lives have been lost so far, but the economic impact has been estimated at $5 billion. Some 200,000 people have been affected, many of them forced from their homes by water and mud.

Nevertheless, there is none of the clamor of disaster, none of the chaos one might expect. Crisis management plans have been activated. Townships, towns and cities are hard at work, not only as governments but as communities. Neighbors are helping neighbors, and then helping people they have never met. When the hard-hit coastal city of Rockhampton put a call out over the radio for people to fill sandbags, 70 volunteers turned up within minutes.

There’s a calm resilience too. Rockhampton’s Fitzroy Hotel, surrounded by floodwaters that have risen to an inch or so below its floorboards, has rebranded itself as the Fitzroy Float-El. Its customers now arrive by boat. Inside, on the widescreen TVs normally tuned to sports, the Fitzroy is showing footage of the last inundation, 19 years ago. Veterans of that flood are turning up to watch themselves filling sandbags, back when they were thinner and had more hair.

Even after the rain stops, we’re told, it will be weeks before all the water is gone. As the less-fortunate evacuees return home, they will find mud everywhere: in their filing cabinets, their kitchen cupboards, their photo albums. As I learned in the aftermath of the Brisbane flood of 1974, the smell will remain for years — a swampy stench that comes out of the walls and down from the ceiling on hot days.

Those people will need room for grief and anger. Most of them, though, when interviewed standing in the wreckage, talk about how life goes on.

Events like this flood not only show our stoicism, but create it. It’s important to Queenslanders, like all Australians, that we see ourselves as people who look adversity in the eye, stare it down and band together to overcome it.

Houses will be repaired, and new ones will be built. Businesses will get back to work. In ground that was baked dry but is now soaked deep, eggs will hatch, seeds will germinate and hidden species will reveal themselves and make the most of this change in their luck before the next drought sets in. Life will go on and, for farmers and those dependent on the land, the next crop should be a good one, if the weather holds.

Nick Earls, the author, most recently, of The True Story of Butterfish.

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