People who grew up in Queensland can tell you about the afternoon storms that heralded the start of summer. Like clockwork, shortly after the kids finished school, the clouds would start to gather.
And then that strange quiet, before a great gust of wind would send leaves swirling and branches swaying. And then the rain would come.
Huge droplets of rain that would smash down for maybe an hour, maybe more — and then it was over.
Sure enough the next day it would come again — the monsoonal downpours that would cool everything down after a sweltering summer’s day.
Once, you could almost set your watch by the storms. But in the past ten years, the storms have been more irregular.
Sometimes the rain came, sometimes it didn’t. A smattering of showers might follow long periods of dry, but rarely enough to soak through to where it was needed.
The end of those regular summer rains is just one example of the unpredictable weather patterns we are now being forced to deal with, and after years of devastating drought, the worst floods many of us have seen in our lifetimes should serve as a wake-up call.
The powerful La Nina system — one of the strongest recorded — led to unusually low rainfall in South America and caused huge flooding in Queensland.
It had already been raining for weeks, when, on December 1, the Queensland media began to grasp the bad news — we were headed for a long, wet summer.
Queensland had already been drenched from its wettest spring on record.
Torrential December rains damaged crops and caused flash flooding.
The enormity of the crisis began to hit home in suburban Brisbane when the Brisbane River broke its banks on the high tide just before Christmas.
In the early hours of Christmas Day, tropical cyclone Tasha made landfall near Cairns, dumping more than 200mm.
By December 28, several Queensland towns had been declared disaster zones and were evacuated. Bundaberg suffered its worst floods in decades, More than 300 homes were affected.
By January 3, people in Rockhampton had to flee their homes as the city became almost completely cut off by floodwaters.
More than half the state was underwater — an area bigger than the size of France and Germany combined.
In Brisbane, most people had not yet realised they might be affected. After all, we were used to extreme weather being something that impacted the country, but never the city.
But on January 10, a wall of water smashed through Toowoomba and the nearby Lockyer Valley after a freak rainstorm. It left at least eight people dead and 70 missing. Many more lives were turned upside down.
The following day, it became clear that Brisbane would also be hit by flood. In the early hours of Thursday morning, a king tide met with a Brisbane River already-swollen with water released from Brisbane’s Wivenhoe Dam, which had reached 190% capacity.
By daybreak, more than 9000 properties had been inundated, thousands evacuated. Aerial photographs showed a picture of Brisbane most of us had never seen.
It was a surreal experience, but what happened when the waters receded was almost as surreal.
The crisis had galvanised communities. Thousands upon thousands of volunteers came streaming in from across the city, even from across the country.
Radio stations took on the new role of organising a sea of helpers — shovels, mops, buckets and brooms in hand — which descended on the flood-affected areas.
The flood crisis had unleashed something most of us had never seen before — droves of ordinary people simply walking up to others and offering a helping hand.
Evacuation centres across Queensland were overwhelmed with offers of help, along with donations of clothing and toys.
On January 10, Volunteering Queensland (VQ) announced that it had received more than 3500 offers of help. By January 15, the figure had exploded to about 55,000.
VQ CEO Jelenko Dragisic said on January 16 that the organisation had never seen such an influx of volunteers before.
“We think that this might be the largest, single outpouring of offers of volunteer support in Australia’s recent history — certainly in our experience,” he said.
On January 20, VQ released a breakdown of the volunteers:
· More than 55,000 from Queensland
· More than 2,500 from New South Wales
· More than 1,200 from Victoria
· More than 400 from South Australia
· More than 290 from Western Australia
· More than 130 from Tasmania
· More than 110 from Australian Capital Territory
· More than 70 from Northern Territory.
Offers of help came from as far as the United Kingdom.
On January 14, I visited friends in Paddington in Brisbane’s inner-west. We walked to the nearby Rosalie shops, where 48 hours earlier the local ice cream shop had been doling out free ice cream — clearing stock before floodwaters swamped the area.
When we arrived the waters had already begun to recede to reveal the thick, stinking mud that, mixed with raw sewage, caked large parts of the city and low-lying suburbs.
Earlier that day I had joined a team of volunteers from the Socialist Alliance and Resistance to clean up Marg Gleeson’s home at the riverside suburb of New Farm.
Marg, a Socialist Alliance member and Australian Services Union (ASU) delegate, told me of the efforts of her union.
“The ASU had been raising funds for some weeks because a lot of our members who have been involved, as part of their work, in the relief efforts in Rockhampton, Bundaberg, Emerald, have been very directly involved in the relief and recovery for the floods.
“There are cases of our members who are victims themselves, and have abandoned their own properties, as part of their commitment to their jobs, to undertake recovery work in other parts of the community.
“One of the other things the union is doing is taking on employers who have penalised workers by not paying them because they haven’t been able to attend work.
“My own organisation has freed up staff for days and weeks, and other staff are filling in and taking on extra work so that we can allow our organisation to provide voluntary work for the relief effort.”
I asked Marg what the efforts of the volunteers across the state meant to her.
“What it has showed is that essentially, humans are social beings, and it’s natural for humans to want to band together, and what’s artificial in our society is the capitalist ethic.
“I suppose this event laid waste to that. What we saw was the natural human values coming through and I think it’s prefigured the kind of society we could have, where people act in solidarity, without self-interest,” she said.
“In the area where I live there was an element of self-organisation. People were locally focused.
“A local disaster committee got together and contacted each resident to see what their needs were, which helped to organise the local volunteer pool. This happened in a number of areas.”
“The main movers were people who were active in local organisations, the local council and so on. I was doorknocked, like everyone else in the area, on Sunday and handed information in terms of where I could go for help.
“The local neighbourhood centre stayed open over the weekend and was a base for local organising.”
Marg was among the lucky ones whose homes were not totally engulfed by the muddy waters — they crept about half a metre up her walls, just above the powerpoints.
The next day, I joined more volunteers at a Yeronga home, where the waters had reached almost to the top of the windows — on the second floor.
Driving into Yeronga in the morning would normally take about 15 minutes from the city. That day it took more than an hour. The stream of volunteers had caused traffic gridlock.
As a woman applied a pressure hose to walls and floors, others ripped out the chipboard kitchen and threw it on the front lawn where planks of wood formed a network of bridges through the thick mud.
The view along the street was dreamlike — the sodden contents of people’s homes piled high on the footpath, two-metre-high hedges and tall shrubs all a uniform brown, volunteers covered in the same brown, staring up at the high water mark on houses five metres above where they stood.
As we washed away the mud in the house, strangers walked by to offer crates of sandwiches, bottled water and apples.
When the bulk of the cleaning was done we were treated to a beer and sandwiches in front of the house. We met a woman who was going house to house offering help. Like many houses in the street, ours was already overrun with more than enough helpers, and so she moved on to the next property.
The response by unions to the flood disaster has been noteworthy. Across the country, unions have mobilised their financial and physical resources to help out.
Maritime Union of Australia southern Queensland branch secretary Mick Carr wrote to members on January 13:
“Many of our members will be affected, many are volunteering assistance, with the urban sprawl it is working class families who have settled in the outer and low lying areas and they will cop the worst of it.
“The flood waters after they pass through Queensland will wash right down to the South Australian border and no doubt there will be many other parts of the country that will be affected, but for the moment it is essential that the union movement and our union responds the way we always have.”
Many other unions have mobilised in support of affected members and the broader community.
I spoke to Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) member Mick Miles, a delegate at the Queensland Children’s Hospital worksite.
He said: “We went around to all the sites, we got everyone to donate a day’s travel. Then we had a volunteer register, anyone who wanted to volunteer to clean out houses.
“There was a member out at Rocklea who lost everything and had no insurance and needed help. So we cleaned his house, and then we went back out there today to start rebuilding the house and fixing the windows and painting.
“There was about 40 to 50 of us out there.
“Last Friday we all walked off the job and about 50 of us went to one of the steelies’ grandmother and auntie who were affected at Fairfield. So we went down there and cleaned their houses out, and then the boys walked up and down the street offering help.
“The BLF went out to Sherwood and Rocklea and other areas where all the volunteers were and put on barbecues.
“[Former Australian swimming coach] Laurie Lawrence mentioned us on the news because we were out doing his nephew’s place out at Rocklea. He was there, he was very impressed."
I asked Mick about the many workers who have lost pay as a result of the floods. Many workers have missed days, but it’s the casuals and contract workers across the state who have taken a financial blow.
“A lot of blokes lost pay," he said. "At Eagle Street [in the Brisbane CBD] they shut the job down until further notice. All the casuals have lost pay. If you’re a casual you just don’t get paid.”
The story is the same across all flood-affected areas. Many workers have taken a well-deserved break because of the floods. Many others have lost many days of pay with no recompense.
Mick told me that even before full power was restored to worksites, workers were forced back to work.
“The boys didn’t want to go back to work last Friday, they wanted to go and help all that they could after the disaster.”
The stories of solidarity and courage of ordinary working people mark this crisis far more than the media grandstanding of ALP Premier Anna Bligh ever will.
Scientists have predicted increases in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events for decades because of warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions.
As the most vulnerable in our country, and across the world, begin to face the devastating impacts of such extreme weather, we must all face the question of how we will face up to this frightening challenge.