From the driveway, the view was brown. It didn’t matter where I looked: the picket fence, the long wooden steps up to the first floor of the timber house, the concrete slab in the built-in garage, the wheel barrow full of photos. Everywhere, there were piles of wet things, in varying shades of khaki, waiting to be sorted. Even the tall murraya hedge was painted with the gray brown of muck drying in the Brisbane sun. The slime ended about eight feet up the hedge, in a horizontal line. Above that line, the leaves were still glossy green, as if it had rained mud from the ground up.
I rinsed the small wooden figurine again. By this time, I had been crouched over a square plastic container for hours, and my back hurt. In my hand, I held baby Jesus swaddled in white and river sediment. His manger was missing small bits of paint from a baptism that had lasted too long. As I tucked him and the rest of the nativity set into a green garbage bag to take home for a final cleaning later, I noticed he was smiling.
When a family loses half a house and a business, a nativity scene becomes more than a religious symbol brought out once a year; even a plastic dustpan and brush are no longer just tools used to sweep up the dog hair. They are links to the past.
After a flood, every item must be sorted, evaluated and, if it can be saved, scrubbed clean: Pinseeker golf clubs, 100 tea light candles, a wrench set, costume jewelry. Something as trivial as a dustpan brush must be handled with care; wiry hairs mingled with mud and years of abandoned skin cells have to be teased out from between the pink bristles. I would not wash my own dust brush, but it is different when you have custody of someone else’s belongings, when you are one of the people who decides what can be saved and what must go.
As a rule, I don’t like touching anything that is a domestic petri dish: the dappled underside of the toilet seat, the long green string of festering hair clinging to the prongs in the basin drain. Yet, it didn’t bother me when I shoved my arms into the back of my friend’s closet, pulling out unrecognizable items sodden with tarlike sludge. Despite the putrid smell of rot, I didn’t think about the bacteria that splattered my face and crept inside my gloves and rubber boots. I wheeled boxes of photos through the rooms on the ground floor to the driveway, maneuvering in the muck like a rally driver.
In January 2011, the Brisbane River overflowed its banks, peaking at 4.46 meters, or almost 14.6 feet, above sea level. It was the worst flood since 1974 and the second worst in over a century. Companies in the city center had to evacuate, the Port of Brisbane shut down for six days, and canoes and tin boats replaced cars in many areas.
By the time the water retreated from its invasion, we knew the damage was much greater than anyone had anticipated. My husband and I, thankful only to have lost power, phoned friends who lived in low-lying suburbs to offer our help. One friend had fled the city entirely, but Elizabeth and Andrew, who live a five-minute amble from the river, were struggling.
At the time of the flood, Elizabeth and I were not close friends. She is a tiny woman with big curls, big eyes and a big personality. She is our family chiropractor, and our children went to the same daycare. We shared a mutual respect and the odd cup of tea. She was also three months pregnant and safer looking after her 5-year-old son than exposing herself to the potentially toxic bacteria left behind.
That’s why, as soon as the roads were open, we drove at a walking pace to Harte Street in Chelmer to help Andrew reclaim their home. The Brisbane City Council later estimated the official “mud army” at 23,000 volunteers, but gauging by the traffic that day, we were many more.
On a normal weekday, I drive through Chelmer to take my girls to school and daycare. We slip along the back roads, lined with graceful homes and prestigious addresses, and along the river. We follow an avenue canopied by huge laurel trees and jacarandas, which color the pavement mauve when their flowers drop in the spring. I was not prepared for what I saw after the flood. From a distance, it could have been any Third World country. Military vehicles were everywhere. There were mud roads, a soiled pillow in the middle of the street, piles of detritus growing in front of the houses and taking over the pathways. All of this was blistering and festering under the subtropical sun, intensifying the stench of mangrove.
Chelmer, one of Brisbane’s many river suburbs, is tucked into the top of a tight upside-down U-bend in the river; all sides but one are bound by the river. Builders have told me they would never live in the eastern half, where Elizabeth and Andrew live, because the soil is rich with layers of sediment documenting repeated floods. Like most Brisbanites, Elizabeth and Andrew thought the Wivenhoe Dam, built in 1984, about 80 km, or 50 miles, upstream from the city, would protect them. No one expected 22,000 homes and 7,600 businesses to be flooded across half of the Brisbane City Council’s suburbs.
The larger metropolitan Brisbane, which began as a penal colony in 1825 and now has a population of 2.1 million, wasn’t even the worst hit by the December 2010 to January 2011 flood season. Three-quarters of Queensland—an area bigger than Texas and California combined—was declared a natural disaster zone. Thirty-six people died.
The eastern side of Chelmer, where our friends live, is comfortably middle class. It is colloquially called “the low side” for now obvious reasons. Elizabeth and Andrew have a modern three-bedroom “Queenslander,” a term that originally referred to a single-story, wooden house, with wide verandas, built on stilts or stumps. It is a structure designed for the harsh environment of this state. But over time, we have tampered with the Australian icon; we have raised it and built in underneath it to make more living space. Elizabeth and Andrew’s house was flooded to the ceiling of the ground floor, engulfing her chiropractic business as well as the garage, the laundry, a powder room, a storage space and the large living room. Their kitchen, main living areas and bedrooms on the upstairs floor were spared.
I have lived in Brisbane for seven years and in Australia for a decade. My 4- and 6-year-old daughters were born here and are growing up with Australian accents, and my English husband now has dual citizenship. Yet, I still feel as if I’m at a private party without an invitation. Any minute, the Aussies may “dob me in,” or “report me” to the cultural police. I don’t understand the rampant “slanguage,” and I can’t seem to use it properly. I don’t recognize half the people mentioned on the radio or during the evening news. I have no interest in the latest Aussie Rules football or Rugby League match, which is probably my biggest cultural faux pas. I am not a beer and barbecue kind of girl. Do not try to drag me to a cricket match.
Before the flood, I had come to accept I would not belong anywhere. It seems I don’t have the cultural references needed to root myself. I can fit in almost anywhere, but belonging is not so easy. I am Canadian, but when I go back, I feel like a foreigner: I don’t have years of experience with politics and pop culture, the media or any of the national systems to understand those quick references others take for granted. Perhaps I left Canada too young and would have forged a sense of belonging had I stayed after university instead of moving to Paris, where I met my first husband. Or, maybe, I didn’t live in the UK long enough. It’s also possible that my feelings of displacement were even more acute because, at the time of the floods, we were living in a rented house in an unfamiliar area while we renovated our own home. Even my accent is a mess: Australians ask me if I’m Irish; my parents have noticed an Australian twang.
Here are the parts I’ve left out: Brisbanites are warm and friendly, at least on the surface. Can I fault people who’ve been here for decades because they have their circles of friends and family and have no need for someone new? Isn’t it the same in any country?
Also, I like being different. I feel claustrophobic when I think about staying in one place forever. I don’t want the tether that comes with being part of a tribe. My home is my family—and this little patch of 32 perches in Corinda (about 8,700 square feet). I like my marginalized state, being able to change and move between borders, picking the best of each country and making it mine.
The clean-up after the flood changed my perspective. I’ve been unraveling it ever since, pulling it apart in the same way I unwrapped sodden envelopes from around Elizabeth’s holiday pictures, glued together like papier-mâché.
This type of cleaning has unexpected benefits. The repetition makes it meditative. It is as if my brain refuses to be outdone by my hands’ busywork. It is similar to the phenomenon of driving a car, alone, without children screaming in the back. These are the times when an elusive thought becomes an idea, a sentence becomes an article.
This is what happened as I took off my rubber boots and entered the calm upstairs of Elizabeth’s house. Up here, the only damage was to the contents of the fridge and freezer, from the power having gone out days earlier during the flood. I stood alone in a modern-day Pompeii. On the stove, there was an unwashed pot from some sort of pasta, and there were bowls and glasses in the kitchen sink. A few sprigs of rosemary, from Elizabeth’s mother’s herb garden, languished in a vase by the kitchen window.
Upstairs, I was shielded from the noise and stench and heat of Harte Street. One school, one music studio and 75 homes on the street were flooded, many to the roof. I was relieved to be away from the putrid smell of compost and the slime underfoot. The once quiet street was a construction site, raucous with the mechanical popping of generators and the spraying of pressure washers as people hosed down the fences, trampolines, even bushes and trees, and their houses, inside and out. There were cars and trucks and military vehicles, shouts and banging, throwing and dumping. Adding to the muddy organized chaos, teenagers, children and women walked by, calling out like hawkers, offering free soft drinks and packaged sandwiches from coolers and ice-filled wheelbarrows.
Up in the kitchen, the fridge freezer, fragrant with neglect, greeted me with the smell of stale ice cubes. With my head in the fridge, I washed away the hidden atrocities of the meat keep. From the freezer, I lifted away packages of homemade meals and bags of bloody, dripping chicken. I scrubbed slicks of dark, sticky liquid from the removable shelves and the door, and then washed the whole inside with the loving hands of a doula. I sorted everything into “garbage” and “safe to eat.” I erred on the side of caution.
A freezer is something private. You do not open the door and grope into the back of someone else’s freezer any more than you would dig around in their pockets without being asked. I don’t remember looking into anyone’s freezer except my mother’s.
As I unpacked the contents of Elizabeth’s freezer, I could see it as more than a simple utility: It is her investment in her family’s culinary future; it is a reflection of her internal life. I saw her desire for order and control (towers of plastic takeaway boxes filled with serving-size portions of gluten-free deserts and homemade dinners), her attention to detail (each specific item is labeled), her borderline obsession to match like items (cookies next to cakes, rissoles next to spaghetti sauce). Elizabeth’s freezer was stuffed full, just like her conversation. She is an eager talker and one of the few who will not let the journalist in me talk over them.
Long after the flood, I was still unraveling my emotions. It took a natural disaster that created over 400,000 metric tons (441,000 short tons) of waste—more than a year’s worth of household city garbage—for people to work together with the cooperation and shared sacrifice of ants. I didn’t feel like a Brisbanite, but I had tapped into the old barn-building sense of community. For once, I felt I belonged.
Thirteen months later, I talked with Elizabeth about the flood while she hung laundry in the sunshine and fed her 7-month-old son, Stuart. She said disaster strips away pretenses and fears. It brings us to the core of ourselves, and she sees that core as kindness. Before, she said, she would not have asked for help; she would not have wanted to trouble anyone. Now, she finds there is something “gracious” about being able to accept help and say thank you.
I wish she had asked for help when she and Andrew were scrambling to carry items upstairs. I wish we had offered help, especially because we drove by their street late Tuesday afternoon, around the same time her husband and a male friend were struggling, unsuccessfully, to move her chiropractic table. All around their area, there was a rush to pack homes into rental vans, cars and the backs of low-riding trucks called “utes.” Inside their home of 10 years, Elizabeth, pregnant and nauseous, made dinner, tucked her son, Edward, into bed and went to bed herself. She thought they would clean up their courtyard, if it flooded, in the morning. She thought there would be more time to pack. It was Andrew who fielded the stream of calls suggesting they evacuate. Finally, at 11 p.m., they did. It wasn’t until they drove over the river that Elizabeth saw how much the water had changed, how angry and high and wide it had become, and she realized they might lose everything. By Wednesday morning, they could no longer reach their home.
I don’t know why we didn’t stop to offer them help. Perhaps it was the mounting anxiety inside me that pushed me to get my little girls back to high ground. Maybe, like most people, I thought the river would not invade more than a few low-lying homes. Maybe I thought Elizabeth would phone if they needed our help.
It is here that I have to unpack my own presumptions. Because Elizabeth and Andrew are Australian, I assumed they would have a tribe, that their cousins and friends who live here—who belong to them, who share long spiderwebs of history with them—would be helping them. I skipped over the facts that Elizabeth’s sister lives in London and that her elderly parents are an hour’s drive away. Andrew’s family is spread around eastern Australia.
Now, when I think about those days when the river overflowed, the things I heard and saw and the feelings that overwhelmed me are still just as vivid: the sound of helicopters; the irrational fear of water rushing through the house and stealing my children; the pounding of the fat rain on the steel roof for weeks before the river escaped; the revving of engines as neighbors and strangers at the lower end of our street moved furniture to higher ground; an elderly man cutting his grass as the water approached his property line, mere hours before his house was submerged to the roof; locals standing in the sunshine, watching the water advance up the street and marking the edge with a squiggly line of white chalk; the man in the canoe paddling near the roofs of sunken houses.
There are some things I enjoy cleaning. Pretty things that smell good: silverware, windows, my flute, the nativity scene that Elizabeth bought for her son Edward’s first Christmas. Time slows for this type of cleaning.
Back at the rental house, working on the balcony, I got a quiet satisfaction from smoothing the cloth over the curves of the yellow angel, using cotton wool to work out the last of the sediment. By this point, the city had been drying out for well over a week, but the putrid ooze of rot still hung moist in the air. I don’t remember how long it took for that smell to disappear. One day, it just wasn’t there.
I bathed baby Jesus and his entourage again. I was surprised that more of the paint hadn’t peeled off the figurines. I cleaned all the pieces several times over two days and left them to dry in the sun on two red and white polka-dot tea towels. They needed to be safe for Elizabeth’s son and the new baby.
Many items belonging to our friends could not be saved: the suite of glass Christmas tree balls that Elizabeth’s sister had sent from Harrods in London, the washing machine, the chiropractic table, a small box of accessories for Elizabeth’s Barbie collection, Halloween decorations they had brought back from Maine and Vancouver, boxes of holiday photos. I was relieved and excited to have saved the interlocking nativity scene, which is crafted of solid wood and painted fun colors: tangerine yellow, red, cobalt blue, white and the green of a bougainvillea leaf. The figurines looked happy to have escaped the truckloads carried to the dumps.
I did repairs where necessary, glued the blue tail back on the shooting star and the horns back on the chocolate-colored bull. I wrapped the shepherds, the wise men, the angels, Mary and Joseph, the donkey and the animals in smooth white tissue paper and snuggled them in a Crabtree & Evelyn bag.
Before the flood, Elizabeth had loved ambling around her neighborhood under the shade of the red flowering poincianas. It took 10 months before she could complete her first walk. She kept reliving the dread she’d felt during their three nights of refuge and exile. She was taken back to the long hours of waiting, of not knowing whether they’d lost the whole house or half, to the Friday morning when Andrew finally reached their home and phoned her, crying, because their upstairs had been saved.
In November 2011, they finished rebuilding the downstairs, including Elizabeth’s office, with the crucial help of an AUD $30,000 donation from The Society of St. Vincent de Paul. They never thought they would have to rely on charity, but as was the case for many people, their insurer did not cover their house. They have no savings left, but they are able to pay their bills. Some families are still not back in their homes.
With so much lost, we both found something new. It became easier for Elizabeth to talk about the flood and for her to look at it more philosophically. Yes, she missed some things, but most of them could be replaced.
“Others lost so much more,” she said. “Their entire house, their sense of personal history, their loved ones.”
One afternoon, when Elizabeth was out running errands, I left the nativity set and her debutante ball gown at the top of those long wooden stairs so that when she came home, there would be something that made her smile.
At Christmas, Elizabeth displayed the chipped manger scene. When I asked her why she hadn’t touched up the paint as she had planned, she looked at it the way she looks at her baby. “It has more history because it came through the flood.”
And we—Elizabeth and I—have more history, too, because of the flood. I am weaving Elizabeth and her family into my nomadic tribal web. I have a deeper respect for Elizabeth now, for allowing me into her freezer and into her life, for trusting me with her precious items when she could not be there, for letting me help and especially for being able to see the bright flecks of hope that can come out of disaster. I don’t know how I would have reacted if our house had flooded, but I do know I’ve been changed by sharing the experience. I’ve moved on from a simple understanding of belonging, something formed in my youth and never questioned. Perhaps I’ll never find where I belong or if I belong anywhere at all. I am like the wooden nativity figures, chipped and peeling in places, but I have more history for it.
In February, I went around to Elizabeth’s house to pick up the nativity scene, so that I could describe it accurately in this essay. I found the little figurines swaddled in their white tissue paper with a yellow Post-It note on top: “Thank you for saving us—we are very loved.”