Only disconnect

Because I’ve lived in Queensland my entire life, I’m allowed to say that the weather up here can be a mother-fucker sometimes. Our summers might give us golden mangoes and a legitimate reason to walk around in jocks, but the same heat can knock you flat in the middle of a working day. Usually, the cycles are predictable enough. When it gets really hot – a dizzying, steamy heat that’s thick like a tongue – you know a cool storm’s about to break through. But storms only provide temporary relief before the mosquitoes come out in force, driving you insane as you lie in bed, naked, moaning and slapping yourself like someone with Tourette’s. Living in Queensland is like living in a lung: it inhales and exhales. And like a lung, it’s also prone to occasional respiratory problems – such as cyclones and floods. When it’s in particularly bad health, it retains water. That’s when Queensland gets in trouble.

On New Year’s Day this year, I woke up at 4 am to catch a series of planes that would take me to New Delhi for a book I’m writing. Everyone else in Brisbane had partied the night before, but I’d slept through the countdown to ensure I’d be awake for the flight. My apartment overlooks the Brisbane River, which didn’t seem any different that morning. It looked like it always did: big, brown and benign. Said to be older than the Nile, the Brisbane River coils around the CBD and its surrounding suburbs like a cramped snake. If you live inner-city, you’re never too far from the water, which makes the river a great channel for transport. The Riverwalk – a floating walkway made of connected pontoons – connects my suburb of New Farm to the city, allowing people to literally walk on water to work every day. Brisbane’s CityCats – large, double-hulled catamarans – get you places faster than a car. Some people call the river ugly, and they wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s also massively useful and doesn’t harm anyone. Most of the time, at least.

My boyfriend wasn’t around when I left our apartment that morning. In fact, I hadn’t seen him properly in weeks. I’d slept through my New Year’s, but Scott had worked through his. Scott produces radio for the ABC in Brisbane, and lately he’d been called in for bizarre overnight shifts to provide statewide emergency broadcasts about the storms in Queensland’s north. Violent, biblical downpours were slaying towns up there and some had flooded badly already: Emerald, Rockhampton, Bundaberg, Dalby – in that order. Find those towns on a map and you’ll see a pattern. The storms were working their way south.

Soon after I landed in Delhi, I met an Indian guy who told me he’d once lived in Toowoomba – a major town just over 100 kilometres from Brisbane – and that he still had friends there. We bonded over our shared history in Queensland when I asked a stupid question.

‘Are your friends okay?’ I said. ‘I mean, has Toowoomba been affected with the floods?’

‘Uh, no?’ he said, giving me a baffled look. ‘Toowoomba’s really high up.’

My boyfriend’s mum and several close friends came from Toowoomba. Still, my geographical knowledge is famously stunted – it’s almost a disability, really – so I nodded stupidly, feeling like an idiot. When I later got on a computer and looked it up, I felt even more dim: Toowoomba is about 700 metres above sea level, and located well away from the flood plains. Of all the places in Queensland, Toowoomba would be safe.

Then, only a couple of days later, Toowoomba flooded. More accurately, it was hit by a moving wall of water that came out of nowhere. Seven metres high, it was described by the Queensland Police Commissioner as an ‘inland instant tsunami’. The YouTube footage I saw that evening was unbelievable. In a matter of minutes, a small brown river running behind an outdoor carpark became a massive rapid, moving with enough force to sweep parked cars away and carry them down a hill. When the water receded, cars, utes and trucks were left stacked on top of each other like toys. In the end, thirty-five people would be confirmed dead and a further nine would remain missing. Scott emailed me to say Brisbane was expected to flood next.

Initially, the idea seemed laughable. Last year, I’d been roped into my apartment building’s fiftieth anniversary committee, where the older residents asked me to research and design a commemorative booklet. Neighbours regaled me with stories about Brisbane’s record 1974 floods and showed me the photos of the Queen Victoria Bridge, where the water was so high it had crept close to the bridge’s road. The Brisbane River had been dammed after that, which was supposed to prevent a similar flood ever happening again. Brisbane didn’t seem able to flood. But the reports Scott emailed me had confirmed it: Toowoomba flooded on a Monday; Brisbane was expected to go under on Wednesday. It was real.

I boarded a train from Delhi to Bangalore, a trip that cuts through the middle of India like a scalpel and takes over thirty hours. I got on knowing I’d be without internet at exactly the same time the water was due to hit Brisbane. Besides the shoddy reception on my mobile phone, I was about to be cut off from everyone, without a clue as to what was happening to my family and friends. Just before I left my scrappy hotel to board the train at Nizamuddin station, I also read that my suburb and street was now officially listed in the expected flood zone.

It wasn’t like my household was in danger. We lived on the eighth floor and I’d seen Facebook updates saying that my neighbours – many of whom are hardy, tough lesbians in their senior years who’d seen much worse – telling me the building and its basement were currently being sandbagged. But there’s a weird helplessness that comes with being away from home, knowing it’s about to be swamped (in the best case scenario) or even ruined (in the worst).

As my overnight train swung through stretches of empty land and mobile reception blackholes, I charged my phone at the train’s crackling, buzzing AC socket. I was glued to my iPhone, waiting for the rare moments when patches of reception would appear. In countries without widespread 3G coverage, they often have something called Edge instead. On my Indian Edge network, Facebook didn’t load. Emails whirred around without ever coming through. Browsing news websites was impossible. Trying to load news apps like the ABC took as much time as shitting a brick. In the end, Twitter was king. It worked because plain text loaded easiest. As soon as I got reception, my phone would push through hundreds of tweets about the floods and I’d scroll through them furiously to catch up.

Through Twitter, I learned that Campbell Newman, our army-trained mayor, had given the green light for the military to demolish the floating Riverwalk. His method was unclear –
he was possibly going to blow it up with explosives – but his reasons seemed legitimate enough: he wanted to avoid the possibility of it becoming a fast-moving missile and destroying a major bridge. Part of me was horrified; another part of me – the adolescent boy obsessed with B-grade disaster films – was almost excited. In the end, it wasn’t necessary. Part of the Riverwalk broke off safely and is now assumed to be somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

The entire time, I tried to politely maintain a conversation with Rahul – a young, chubby, fashion-obsessed guy in his early twenties who was sharing my side section of the train. We’d already spoken for hours about his background and interests – mainly fashion labels, which got tired quickly – and he’d already enjoyed offering comments about how my wallet was ugly, or how I took terrible photos, and how I was bad at planning my trip. When I eventually retreated to sit with my face glued to my phone, he looked mildly offended.

‘Why do you keep reading that?’ he asked.

‘Because my city’s flooding,’ I said. ‘It’s happening right now. I told you.’

‘Well you should put that a-way then,’ he said. ‘Reading about it is just going to make you up-set.’ He looked at me hopefully. ‘You should talk to me.’

It was going to be a long journey.

When you’re disconnected from your home during a natural disaster, your imagination starts to play tricks. As I saw my friends tweeting about losing power, one by one, I imagined Brisbane had become some post-apocalyptic nightmare world. The flood was about to peak, power had been cut off, so in my mind, Brisbane was now trapped in a kind of permanent night, with a tidal wave on its way about to wash over it. In reality, the streets in Brisbane were actually quite sunny, and for all the water that rose from the roaring riverbank, a lot of it actually just gushed out of regular stormwater drains too. Because Brisbane’s so hilly, some suburbs carried on as normal. My brother’s neighbours kept on mowing lawns and couldn’t see any water at all.

When I got to Bangalore, the flood peaked. My CouchSurfing host Eric felt sorry for me, even though I reassured him that all my family and my apartment was safe, which I’d confirmed after getting email updates from everyone back home. By that stage, ABC online had prepared incredible satellite imaging of streets before and after. Together, Eric and I moved the cursor back and forth, which was as ghastly as it was hypnotising. Homer Simpson’s voice came into my head as we moved the mouse back and forth.

Brisbane wet, Brisbane dry. Brisbane wet, Brisbane dry. Brisbane wet –

‘Oh my God,’ Eric kept saying. He was a devout Christian. ‘Oh my God.’

We turned on CNN. That’s when I discovered there’s something demeaning in watching foreign journalists reporting from your hometown as it falls apart. It’s like inviting guests over to your home at the same moment your roof has begun collapsing. I saw Brisbane’s floods unfold as other CNN viewers would see it: as a complete outsider. Many would be seeing Brisbane for the first time and to them, I realised, it would have appeared like a city of flimsy-looking wooden houses, slowly being eaten up by its ugly brown river. It may as well have been in some distant Asian country – like, say, India. Watching CNN, I all of a sudden felt very far away.

In a way – and here’s the perverse part – part of me was afraid people wouldn’t be very impressed by our floods. CNN’s report on Brisbane was followed by footage of the floods in Brazil. It showed a screaming fat woman trapped in rushing water, standing on what was left of her home, which was about to be swept away. At the last minute, she clutched a rope that a neighbour threw to her from a balcony and jumped into the killer water at the very second the rest of her house was smashed and carried away. It was something straight out of a bad Roland Emmerich movie. I couldn’t stop watching. It wasn’t a competition, but it pained me to think people wouldn’t care about my city in comparison.

In February, I returned to Brisbane. It was night, and I drove through streets I knew had been flooded and submerged. I’d seen the pictures. But now, all those streets looked the same to me as when I left. It was as if nothing had happened. It took a few days to notice the changes. The CityCat stop outside my apartment was gone, as if a giant squid had swallowed the ramp whole and taken it under. My local post office’s floor had been ripped up, and I had to plan my trips to the CBD in advance, since I only had buses to rely on now – no more ferries, no more walking. For me, they’re not massive changes. I haven’t lost property or family members, like others have. But it’s definitely not the same Brisbane I left on New Year’s Day.

I can’t describe what the floods smelled like, because my streets don’t smell any different. My friends did a good job of that on Twitter. My friend Rowena railed against the lame television news coverage and their clichéd insistence that the post-flood smell of the city was ‘indescribable’.

‘Reporters,’ Rowena wrote, ‘the smell in Brisbane isn’t “indescribable”. It’s perfectly descri-bable: wet earth and poo with top notes of chemical.’

She added: ‘Also, please don’t describe flooding as “surreal” unless there are eggs, tentacles and goats playing instruments involved.’

I was over 9000 kilometres away from Brisbane when it sank. I might’ve been cut off from my city, but I was never completely cut off. Five years ago – before Twitter was properly launched – my poor Indian mobile phone signal would have meant being entirely cordoned off from any flood information when I was on that train. Instead, the new technology allowed the shitty technology to work. My experience of the floods was ultimately defined by a sense of disconnect; it was never one of disconnection. For what it’s worth, I’m grateful.

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is a Brisbane-based freelance writer. He is a senior contributor to frankie magazine. The Family Law (2010) is his debut book, and is published by Black Inc.

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