After the Storm.

This week my little town of Newcastle has been battered and bruised. A severe weather event known as an East Coast Low traumatised us with its cyclonic winds and torrential rain. It was a tricky beast, rotating slowly, offering a ruse of respite in the short-lived eye of each of its many storms. The Bureau of Meteorology online radar became our dreadful focus as we waited for a sign it was over. The Low was vulture-like, repeatedly circling, ready to swoop. We braced for impact. Upstairs, our house shook. Water in the glass on my bedside table generated pretty concentric circles with each new gust of wind. The rain fell in great sheets, swathing the landscape in greyness. Rivers broke their banks, new lakes engulfed houses and cars, water surged and wilfully carved its way. Many lost homes, roofs, fences, trees, cars, belongings. People died.

And then finally, after two nights and a day, the Low left. There was still rain and wind gusts but nothing compared to what we’d experienced. It was time to assess the damage, to see what could be done, to prepare for the inevitable and continuing flooding. On Wednesday, Newcastle went into clean-up mode.

Disclaimer: I should probably throw in here that I’m a proud Novocastrian. We breed them tough in the Hunter Valley, especially in our town, and for all our apparent and sometimes-frustrating parochialism we are a generous and giving community. Bring on your worst because no matter what – the aftermath is when we shine.

We had a houseful of guests. We put out a call on Facebook that our little home was open for business. We still somehow had power and could offer food and hot water. We were better off than the majority of our family and friends. We fed cousins, showered kids, charged iPads and iPhones. Someone brought a thank-you bottle of red wine which was gratefully received by the grown-ups at dinner time. Others were doing the same; offers were all over social media.

At about lunchtime midweek I could stand it no more. The worst was over and I was itching to get out and see what was happening. I wanted to check out the big surf, grab some groceries, get back in touch with life outside the walls of my house. All within our home were fed and playing happily so I grabbed my camera and slipped out.

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Driving into Newcastle was an eye-opener. My partner had been into town that morning to grab his lap-top so I knew a little about what areas to avoid and which roads were closed. I’d seen all the images in the media. I knew that many trees would be down; we’d had our own disaster with an enormous gum tree uprooted and resting precariously on our fence and neighbours shed. I knew that traffic lights were out, schools were closed, trains and buses were out of action. But I wasn’t prepared for the extent of the damage.

Fallen tree Dairy Farmers (1 of 1)

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The trees. Everywhere, trees on their side, uprooted, branches, seeds, flowers, leaves, leaves and more leaves. Huge piles of greenery shaped by the force of the water and wind: a she-oak carpeted pavement alongside Newcastle High School; dark and heavy branches blanketing the walk at Customs House; piles of plane tree leaves along King Street. And the Banksias! May Gibbs’ big, bad Banksia men blown from their tree homes, all wet and muddy on the foreshore. Hundreds and hundreds of them spread mournfully on the ground, wet and unrealised.

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I headed to the beach. There were many others, mainly families looking to entertain their house-bound broods while schools remained closed. And yes the surf was BIG. Messy, brown, frothy and just a little scary. A handful of surfers braved the waters at Nobbys Beach whilst pedestrians headed to the flooded Newcastle Baths, oohing and aahing over the surf-made waterfalls within its walls. The kid’s canoe pool was no longer visible save for a few rusty posts and chains on the southern edge. The Esplanade was closed to cars and strangely eerie to walk along in their absence. And Newcastle Beach – what was left of it – was a study in abstract art with millions of tiny pumice stones swirling in and out of the waves with noisy movement. The powerful surf must have broken up shelves of the stuff; there was more of it than sand.

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 fallen pedestrian sign (1 of 1)

The horizon didn’t disappoint, with heavy purple-grey clouds washing the skyline whilst the sun shone through cloud-breaks above. I saw some blue sky whilst I ran from the rain. There was 15 minutes of a gusty southerly preceding complete stillness on Newcastle Beach. It all felt other-worldly.

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I spotted a family on Newcastle Beach ferreting through the debris and filling bulging garbage bags with…what? I asked. They were cleaning up the beach. The same surf that created all those tiny pumice stones had also pulverized the rubbish out at sea, creating a colourful confetti of plastic refuse. The father said they were happy to be photographed. The little boy told me they always cleaned up the beach after a storm. This was their ‘thing’. I wish I’d taken their names so I could publicly congratulate them.

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During the first frightening night of the storms, my five-year old daughter snuggled against me seeking reassurance and warmth. I told her it was all OK, that we were lucky we were safe inside and could look after each other. She looked up at me and asked “what happens to the homeless people when there’s a storm?” A good question. We talked about it and hoped that they all found somewhere safe and dry to wait out the weather. On my afternoon excursion I saw a man in the foreshore park string up a makeshift clothes line to dry out his sleeping bag and tarpaulins. He’d survived the storm OK but all his gear was soaked. I read about a woman in Sydney who asked her Facebook friends to donate clothes and food for her to deliver to the homeless in her area as the storms hit down south. She and her sister collected the goods and distributed them among the city’s homeless community. Apparently they were easy to find, having gathered in large groups in any dry spaces they could find. This type of response restores my faith in humanity, just like the family on Newcastle Beach. Sometimes, people rock.

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Not everyone was happy to talk. A fellow along The Esplanade was shovelling sand and sweeping out his garage. I approached him and asked if I could take his photo. “Why would you want to photograph this? What possible good could come from it?”. He was agitated and unhappy. I left him to it – I didn’t think he was in the mindset for a conversation about shared experiences. Perhaps the prospect of another huge high tide fuelled by flood waters was too much for him to bear.

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And then there’s this. Someone who saw an opportunity. How better to put forward your climate change beliefs than use the enormous tree that’s crushed your car as the result of an out-of-control East Coast Low? Severe weather? Tick. Dramatic outcome? Tick. You can’t help but admire this person’s dedication to their cause.

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There are many cafes and restaurants who’ve opened their doors to people without power. They all deserve a shout out, like the Newie Burger Company at The Cambridge who offered free tea, coffee and movies for kids to watch and the Euro Bar in Hamilton offering free pasta dinners to those in need. Of course, there’s so many more that could be mentioned – sandwich shops catering for emergency workers, pubs keeping isolated towns in good spirits, people opening their doors to strangers for showers, offerings of empty freezers so those without power don’t lose all their food. In a wonderful and usual show of Hunter Valley-ian ethos even those in need are extending their limited resources to others.

When in dire straits it’s good to have a sense of humour. Tuesday night’s 135km/hour winds wreaked havoc in many ways, not the least of which was the ‘flying trampoline’ effect. Many woke on Wednesday to strangely empty backyards, owners not sure what was missing but knowing there was an absence. In homage to the flight of the trampoline(s), there is now a Facebook page entitled “Where’s my Trampoline gone? April 2015 carnage”. Yes, you can upload your crazy pics of trampolines gone rogue. The page has 5,237 followers and growing. The things you do when you’re in lockdown and looking for the lighter side of a natural disaster.

And so in the aftermath of the storm, I offer the following:

  • My heartfelt condolences to those who lost loved ones in the floods. Of all those who died, the loss of great grandmother Anne Jarmain on Cessnock Road near Maitland affected me deeply; I traverse that road going to and from work. The images on social media ‘as it happened’ were horrifying. The thought that the sheer volume of water made it turn uphill and gather velocity is frightening. The open letter from the woman’s grandson to a local radio station thanking everyone for their efforts was extraordinary. The prospect of any lives being lost in a flood is overwhelmingly sad.
  • Huge karma points to those acting selflessly, in whatever capacity, over the last few days and coming weeks. From emergency service workers to those handling call lines, from retailers and foodies offering freebies to those sharing their own resources, time and care. Special kudos to the family cleaning Newcastle Beach – a great community service, a good way to get the family together outdoors and a fabulous lesson for those children.
  • On a personal note, thank you to Kelly Lees, Urban Hum beekeeper. Our bees are much, much happier now that their home is right side up. They are getting on with the business of cleaning up just like everyone else.
  • ABC 1233 Radio deserves a special mention. This local broadcaster became our emergency lifeline, a provider of updates and information. They did and continue to do a great job (we still missed you though Carol!).
  • At the time of writing this morning I received notification that my workplace at Maitland has been evacuated. It follows another flood warning for the Hunter. The rivers are rising again. My sincerest hope is that all are safe, dry and out of the way of those waters.
  • A warm imaginary hug to the guy sweeping out his shed on The Esplanade. Hope he’s found something to smile about today.
  • To nature: well, that was (and is) a spectacular and not-so-gentle reminder of your power. In the aftermath of your fury I found beauty in the fresh debris of sweet-smelling leaves and the glory of the huge ocean swell. The Hunter’s water tables are well-recharged now. Next time be a bit more kind, if you can.

Now for something I didn’t write. I love this perspective and think it sums up our East Coast Low experience rather well. These words belong to Paul Burke – dog owner, fireman and photographer extraordinaire:

“Now the wind and rain has stopped for a while, I can’t help but think Mother Nature has walked away from this excited conversation we’ve been having all day, shaking her head, thinking “…they thought it was all about them!”

Yes, I suspect she has.

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