By Louise Ure
I’ve learned a great deal about myself this last couple of weeks and an equal amount about levels of compassion.
I’ve spent the last week in the middle of the Queensland floods. Untouched by them if the truth be told, but smack dab in the middle of it all.
Five of us had travelled to the resort town of Noosa to stay in the $8 million vacation home of a friend. Balconies on all four sides. Teak decks and plantation shutters. A riverfront setting with a private boat dock and just a five minute walk from the beach and all the shops.
It bucketed down rain for five days straight. Real Singapore-style monsoon rain … a wall of water with crashes of thunder and shudder-inducing lightning. But that was fine. We could read good books stretched out on the lounges or brave the rain for a fine meal down the road. We were isolated. We were oblivious.
I entered an orgy of eating duck. Duck rillette. Duck prosciutto. Duck terrine. Duck pate. Duck and rosemary pies. Crispy skin duck. Duck confit. Duck Marylands. I became so besotted with duck that I could have paddled back to San Francisco with my own little webbed feet. It was an idyll. A perfect vacation hidden behind a wall of falling water.
Until the owner of the house called to ask if his house was floating away. “Turn on the TV. It’s a true inland tsunami and more than sixty percent of Queensland is underwater.” Think about that. Sixty percent of Queensland is larger than France and Germany combined.
We did. And we finally saw what the rest of the world had been watching for the last two days. Cars hauled backwards over a bridge of rushing brown water. Houses unmoored and crashing against concrete abutments. Parents who managed to push both children up onto a roof before being swept away themselves. A thirteen-year old boy who had pleaded with rescuers to take his little brother first and got his wish. I imagine open-mouthed screams from the people in those houses as lives changed and ended in the blink of an eye.
We were mesmerized … and terrified. These were scenes from only 60 or 90 kilometers away. Our little river behind the house fed into their rivers. The rain falling on us fell also on their shoulders. And yet … and yet … we were a world apart. A literal island that felt no such pain. Yes, the river rose, but not enough to swamp the house. Our streets ran gutter to gutter with water but soon emptied back to the sea. Our shops and restaurants were all still open (and serving duck) even though the roads to both the north and south were cut.
It was then I started to think about levels of compassion. For me, hearing about a great disaster is the most remote sort of compassion, a calm narrator’s voice on the radio provides great distance between me and the pain.
Reading about disasters brings it closer to home. For some reason, my imagination is spurred by specific, written descriptions that bring the sadness to life. Obviously, that kind of empathy is what we strive for in our own writing.
Watching images of the disaster makes it even more real for me. I’ll never forget the images of that little blue sedan rushing backwards in the roiling water. Or the two horses still tethered to a post who so desperately tried to keep their noses above the rising water.
The next level of impact for me is to hear about the impact on a friend or family member who is going through it. Whether it’s a diagnoses of cancer or the matter-of-fact recitation about the flood waters swirling, if it happens to someone you know, it becomes more real.
And the only thing closer than that is when it happens to you.
This time it didn’t happen to me. Or to anyone I know. But the images and words alone had the power to make me grieve. We all wanted to help, but the roads to the north were impassable. And in truth, I’m not sure that any volunteer effort I could have offered would have indeed helped and not hindered their already wonderfully coordinated efforts.
Friday, when we were more sure that the roads to the airport would be open, we drove south to Brisbane. Taking off just north east of the city, there was much brown water where city streets and parks should have been.
Virgin Blue took flood relief donations on board. Four in our party contributed almost 30% of the plane’s total. At that paltry sum, maybe I should have started my levels of compassion barometer a little lower. Or maybe these other folks on the plane were the real volunteers who had just taken off their gum boots and rain slickers and were resting their heads against soft cushions for the first time in a week.
If you’d like to help with the relief effort, the web site for donations is: http://www.qld.gov.au/floods/donate And remember that 13-year old boy who valued his brother’s life above his own.