At some time in the afternoon of this day last year, after a week of the heaviest rain on record, the normally tranquil Avoca River broke its banks, disgorging putrid, brown water flooding into the already sodden streets of our peaceful Central Victorian town. At much the same time on the Western side of town, the Yeungroon Creek also began to overflow, sending its predominantly clear water to join that of the Avoca. Which came first was to assume great importance in the days that would follow.
The waters from these two water systems joined standing water from the constant rain, as well as overflowing storm water drains that were already flooding some homes.
Mr Peaceful Day had spent a sleepless night. Sometime after midnight the hall ceiling had become so sodden that it had started to collapse, and he had had to call in a builder friend to remove the sodden plaster before it fell. The kitchen floor was covered with water, and the garden was now a shimmering lake. It had been his 50th birthday the day before, and on the fourteenth he was due to travel to Melbourne to join Jemimah and me to celebrate his special occasion.
Jemimah and I generally spend two or three weeks of January in Melbourne for intensive daily swimming lessons. We're here now, in fact. That morning I was at the swimming pool watching Jemimah have her lesson, when the phone rang. It was my Beloved, Mr PD, on the phone. After the night he had just endured he wasn't sure whether to leave town or not. The signs were all good, he said. The town meeting the night before had suggested that the river was due to peak somewhere between the levels of the flood events of September and November of the previous year. Neither of those had affected us terribly much, although September had come close, and so he felt fairly confident that this time we would be safe as well. The roads were quickly becoming impassable as the rain continued to fall, and people had been advised that this was the last change to stay or evacuate. I really wanted him to be with us in Melbourne. I wanted to celebrate his birthday. We had plans. After much discussion we decided that the house was likely to be safe and he started on his way. At least we would be together, we thought.
In hindsight, this was a very bad decision.
I was still at the pool when Mr PD phoned again. The Bureau of Meteorology had revised their predictions of expected flood levels. Now they believed that the Avoca River would peak 1 metre above the September flood level.
One metre. One metre. One metre.
Our town was going under. Our house was going under. Our business was going under.
The roads were closed. The roads into our peaceful town was impassable, and there was absolutely nothing we could do.
At least we were together.
We were to say that a lot in the next few days.
We spent the rest of that day glued to the television. The news was filled with reports of the big cleanup of the Brisbane floods that had hit the week before. We heard about the inundation of Carisbrook and Beaufort, but on our peaceful town the media was silent. It was as if our community of 1200 people had disappeared off the map.
As it turns out, it almost had. Soon after the floods hit, the town was isolated. Fire tenders had at first been used to ferry people to surrounding towns when even the local flood evacuation centre began to go under, but eventually the roads became impassable in all directions. Later the electricity substation flooded causing power outages in a huge surrounding area. The telephone towers went out and mobile phones failed. Our town had effectively become a great big black hole.
In was not until the 17th that we were able to return home. We left Jemimah with my mum, and along with my brother-in-law, Mr B, we headed for home. Or what was left of it.
I can't explain to you our emotions when we was first saw the destruction that this, Victoria's greatest natural disaster, had wrought on our home and on our community. Basically everything that sat on the floor was ruined. Beds, tables, sofas, bookshelves, occasional tables, chests of drawers, bathroom and kitchen cabinets, washing machine and dryer, fridge, dishwasher. It was overwhelming.
We will never be able to repay the kindnesses shown to us during those days. Teams of people travelled more than three hours each day from our churches in Geelong and Melbourne to help us in the clean up, returning the same night because there was no accommodation for them in town. Together they tore up carpet and floor boards, moved furniture and cleaned walls. Folk hosed down garden beds, to remove the mud and save the plants that were still alive. Electrician friends checked and replaced power points. Family friends donated a power generator. As the moulds began to grow the clean-ups got harder. We cut holes in the floor to dry out the foundations. Bottles of bleach were poured onto the surfaces.
Other friends out of town accommodated us and many other flood refugees. They set up beds. They cooked for us. They listened to us late into the night as we poured out or hearts. I don't know what we would have done if it were not for these very special friends.
The magnitude of what had happened was overwhelming at this stage. We were numb with shock. Many nights, lying there in our makeshift bed on our friends' dining room floor, Mr PD and I would just hold each other and cry. It seemed impossible to imagine how we were ever going to be able to find a way out of the huge deep abyss we found ourselves in.
To be honest, I don't know how those without faith continue on at times like that. The magnitude of the disaster was too great for us to comprehend. We really had to just hold tight to God. That's all we had. I found comfort in the Psalms. I read Psalm 18 over and over:
He reached down from on high and took hold of me;You really learn to rely on God when it seems there is nothing else.
he drew me out of deep waters.
He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
from my foes, who were too strong for me.
They confronted me in the day of my disaster,
but the LORD was my support.
He brought me out into a spacious place;
he rescued me because he delighted in me.
Psalm 18: 16-19 NIV
Gradually things began to return to what was to become a new normal. The house dried out enough to move back into. We were able to bring Jemimah home. She and I started school again. In a fashion, anyhow. We read books and sang songs and just took pleasure of being back together. Gradually her fears began to subside and she started to sleep through the night again.
On April Fools Day, Mr PD returned to work. Our family business was very different from what it used to be like, but it was good to be back. I returned full time until we were back on our feet. It took most of last year, but we're beginning to feel that there's light at the end of the tunnel.
Before the flood our home was beautiful. Long before we married, Mr PD had spent some years in Saudi Arabia. We had used the proceeds of those tax free years to renovate and restore our 1915 property, and to furnish it with Japanese antiques and my collection of South East Asian textiles. We worked hard to make it a welcoming and peaceful haven filled with throw rugs and comfy sofas and scented candles and shelves of books and flowers from our garden. We practiced hospitality regularly. We hosted a weekly Bible Study, and had many friends to stay. We had knowingly overcapitalised, planning to stay put until we retired in 15 years time.
After the floods were are faced with this renovation all over again. Only this time we have no nest-egg to finance the process. This time we have nothing but a mortgage. A mortgage on what we no longer own. Because our Insurer judged that the damage came from the Avoca River and not the storm water, we are not covered for the damage caused by the floods.
Living in a home with borrowed furniture and no floor coverings is no fun. We have mice and spiders and no way to keep them out. Drawers don't open and cupboards don't close. Sometimes it all feels overwhelming.
Still, there are signs that things will get better. A few weeks ago our Insurers finally agreed that the ceiling that fell in the day before the flood is covered under 'storm damage'. As is the resulting damage to the kitchen floors. We are saving for a new kitchen, and new dining furniture, and are working towards having this done before the end of 2012. It will be wonderful to have one comfortable room again. Little by little it will happen.
People often ask us if everything is back to normal again.
We are a very, very long way from being normal. We are a long way off having carpet. And furniture. And a sustainable business. We will possibly never have a home as beautiful as we once had.
Throughout this past year, though, I have been grateful for many things. Most significantly, I am grateful for the generosity of people. People who are strangers; people who are our friends in real life; and people that we only know through the pages of A Peaceful Day. So many times we have been overwhelmed by the kindness of others. Tupperware sent wonderful care packages to 495 affected homes in our community alone. A local nursery sent rose bushes. In December, a Christmas tree store sent trees and decorations to every home with children. Every child in the community received new school clothes, stationery, school shoes and a pair of Dunlop Volleys. Richele and her family sent a huge package of magical Barefoot Books for the local kindergarten, and later sent me a bundle of Christmas books to replace some of those we'd lost. A blog reader from Sydney sent me a copy of Jostein Gaarder's The Christmas Mystery. Whoever you are, dear friend, I thank you so much.You have become indeed a Christmas mystery of your own. When a church friend noticed how sad I was over the loss of a very special Miao textile book, he scoured the Internet until he finally located one single copy. It was in China, but he bought it for me anyhow. Its cost was astronomical, but he truly could not have thought of a present that would please me more. We are so grateful to all of these people. We are thankful to those who have lent us furniture. We are thankful for those who cleaned. We are thankful for those who prayed. We are thankful to those who continue to pray.
My husband and I are very insulated people. My family accuse me of being pathologically private, and I fear that Mr PD, although being less introverted than I am, is tarred with the same brush. We tend not to talk much about how we feel, and we tend to rely on each other for emotional support. Throughout this last twelve months, though, we've learned who our friends are, and we are constantly grateful for each and every one of them. Friends are the people who step in and help you when things fail. Friends are the ones who care.
If it has taught us one thing, the flood had taught us the value of relationships over material possessions. We can do without things, we can even do without books (maybe), but we can't do without friends.
We really are so incredibly blessed.