Neighbourly Blogs

Cyclone Debbie: The human stories

As a large continent, Australia has a range of extreme storms in different climatic areas, some seasonal and others described as a ‘one in [select a number]’ year events.  Although these descriptors seem clinical and dry, the events themselves are anything but regular in the lives of those people living in the path of the storm.

Cyclone Debbie recently had a serious impact on a broad area in Queensland and NSW – and was an excellent example of this:  while it was not the most severe of cyclone categories when it hit Australian soil (then downscaling quickly to a ‘tropical low’ storm), the damage wrought has been measured in billions of dollars, a non-emotive way to calculate and describe the severity of the disaster.  The calculations have been based on the estimated value of crops lost, fencing down, stock drowned, insurable claims and the value of non-insured losses.

I’m not sure how that data sounds to others, but to me (though ‘billions’ do sound a lot), it is what has happened to families and their communities – the human stories – that demonstrate the real loss.  The tragic loss of life.  The loss of family history through ruined photographs, heirlooms and personal treasures.  The loss of a family home that has witnessed a generation or more of laughter, tears, triumphs and tragedies.  The fatigue and grief of cleaning up and starting again.

And it is not just the impact of storm (or floods, or fires) on those who are living in its path.  There are the professional emergency services, emergency volunteers, defence personnel, electricity grid contractors, who work around the clock in the immediate lead up to, and aftermath of, such events.  These are often people living in the same communities they are working to save.  There are countless stories of volunteers losing their homes at the time they are working hard to save others’.  The impact on these people is enormous.

It is no coincidence that, as part of the sadness, anger and frustration that sets in after floods have flowed away and emergency services stood down, the incidence of family violence spikes.  This only adds to the trauma and further erodes a family’s resilience and ability to recover.

As I reflect on Debbie, having just read about her ongoing fury – this time impacting on communities in New Zealand – many people in Eastern Australia are still hurting.  Badly.

Some towns will observe rituals where floods and wind have taken lives of loved family members and neighbours.  Funerals will be held.  In one village in Northern NSW, a community will focus their grief on the coffins of one brave mother and two of her children she died trying to save.  Schools will hold memorial assemblies.  Tears will be shed, hugs will be tighter – their sad hold lingering while each gathers strength from the other.  And yet…

And yet, we all know that these communities will recover.  Neighbours will help neighbours.  Local councils (staffed by each town’s neighbours) will provide support and recovery services.  Someone will hose off and start their barbecue and encourage others to join them for a bit of downtime over a sausage and cold drink.  Stories will be swapped.  Sympathies exchanged.  Kids will step up beyond their young years in their will to be helpful to their families and others close by.  There will be countless kindnesses offered and received in every affected street and town.  In some cases, Debbie’s aftermath will see communities closer than they were before she furiously visited and left.

The value of neighbours, of belonging to a place, of caring for others and being cared for by others – these are universal values and have incalculable benefit.  They’re values that are not front-of-mind most of the time.  But when much is suddenly lost, young and old lives swept away, when material goods are irreparably damaged, when there is a long, hard slog ahead to put homes to rights:  that’s when neighbours are key.  When we know we are not alone.  When we find the energy after sweeping out tonnes of mud from our own homes to lend a hand next door.  This is when we know others are in the same boat and that it takes each community member’s best efforts to renew their sense of ‘us’.

Neighbour Day is a national movement aimed at reminding people of the value of forging good relationships with the people living around them.  There are many, many benefits, individually and collectively, of having strong social capital in all our neighbourhoods.  What is really exciting is that it is in every person’s capacity to help build that capital.  Though the capital cannot be measured in dollar terms, its value is realised in the real richness it brings to every community member when times are tough and the chips are down.