Our home is high and dry in Camp Hill, for which we’re very grateful. Apart from missing a couple of days at work (my office in the CBD got shut down), the floods have hardly touched us. Of course, it’s a different story compared to 16 confirmed deaths 15 missing people, and the homes that have been affected. About 30,000 properties have been affected in Brisbane alone, and about 90 towns and villages have been affected in Queensland (see here, though the BBC's normally excellent standards of reporting have slipped on some facts and figures). The floodwaters are now moving south, and Victoria is getting heavy rain, so this emergency is far from over.
I was back at work on Friday, and my wife, Janna, volunteered to help clean up a house in Fairfield that belongs to a family that we know through church. The floods had left a half-inch layer of mud on the ground floor. My wife said it looked like someone had spread a ganache over the entire floor, only not as tasty.
I joined the rest of the family yesterday as we returned to the house. We went in two cars; me going first with my daughter, Evie, and a wheelbarrow occupying the rear seats. Janna followed in a friend’s car and picked up Jin, one of the lads from the church youth group, on the way.
Usually, our friend's house is a 30 minute drive from our home. However, on the way in, when approaching Cornwall Road, we hit gridlock. The police had sealed off the area to cars. We found out later that all the available parking had been occupied by volunteers, and the streets and roads needed to be kept free for emergency vehicles and rubbish removal trucks. Some other friends at church had left shortly before us, so I called them on the mobile to find a way in. They had parked near the cemetery, so we crawled through the traffic and found a car park with one place remaining and grabbed it.
Evie and I loaded the provisions into the wheelbarrow and set off through the graveyard. On any other day we might have looked like grave-robbers. We met Janna and Jin at the house.
What we found could best be imagined if you took a muddy, outdoor rock festival and dumped in on suburban Brisbane. The place was full of people and mud. A couple of army trucks were there, but the streets were filled with the parked cars of the volunteers who had turned up to help. I later found that about 20,000 people had registered with Brisbane City Council to volunteer with the clean-up. Many of them had come in by bus.
Whilst Janna and Evie went to work on the house, I got stuck into the mud in the yard. I was not the first there, an we must have had over 100 people shoveling mud into a procession of wheelbarrows. In the morning, I thought there was no way we would shift the mud from the yard, but by the afternoon, the bulk of it had been removed.
The volunteers in “my” patch came from all over. There were the two middle-aged ladies, the father of one owned the neighboring house but he was in hospital at the time. They got shoveling in the ankle deep mud. One guy, Troy, turned up with shovel in the morning and simply found somewhere to work. About a dozen young men belonged to an Ultimate Frisbee Team. A couple of men were jet-spraying the driveway earlier. Some people shoveled away in a single spot, others walked past with jet-sprayers and other specialist kit, and still others patrolled the streets with food and drink. The Frisbee-players and I took a lunch break on the less muddy area of the grass, eating a tasty bean and rice casserole followed by bean-sprout salad. The food, plates and drinks came from the husband of a colleague of the house’s owner, and the excess was used to fuel up several areas of work.
When my arms could take no more, we called it a day. Walking back to the car, we saw the streets transformed. The mud on the roads was beginning to dry, but the big difference was the huge mounds of furniture and other effects that had grown on the roadside. The owners of "our" house had managed to save most of their stuff by lifting it off the floor, or taking it upstairs. Many of the other homes were not as lucky and they had their entire contents shifted by the volunteers onto the roadside for later collection by the Council trucks. I have never seen so much stuff; furniture, cupboards, fridges, washing machines, carpets, curtains, plenty that was unrecognizable and all of it stained and ruined by the mud. There was an entire stage lighting rig outside one house, presumably the owner’s business but now destined for land-fill. Some houses appeared to have been emptied of everything but the walls and ceilings, though in other areas, even these had to be stripped out, leaving nothing but the timber frame, the weatherboards and the tin roof.
Two things have stayed with me as I reflect on this. The first is the fury and violence of the flash flooding that claimed so many lives. I realize that I had wrongly imagined the Biblical accounts of flooding (e.g. Noah’s flood in Genesis 7 to 9) as quiescent, widespread flooding, even though classical depictions of the deluge show terrifying, chaotic scenes. The images of flash flooding in Toowoomba and the aftermath of Grantham remind me that the fury and violence of the flood is often associated in the Bible with the wrath of God (Job 20:28-29), and we should rightly fear Him because of it.
The second is that even though we are overwhelmed by the chaos and violence of the flood, there is One who cannot be touched by the waters, no matter how hard they try to claw their way up to Him. Though many of the people I spoke to yesterday might have had no religious convictions (and one openly expressed his doubts), I can’t help but look at them and think that God was in the flood. He was there, with his shovel and wheelbarrow, slopping mud or cleaning floors or handing out food and water.
I don’t know how to fully reconcile these two aspects of the divine mystery that we call “God”, but I believe it when it says;
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD is enthroned as King forever.
The LORD gives strength to his people;
the LORD blesses his people with peace.
Psalm 29, verses 10-11.