Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Surreal, Dear Editor, Surreal...
The magnitude of the disaster dwarfed my everyday struggles with my VW – which wouldn't start that afternoon and which I then ran into a snowbank, intentionally, later that same evening.
I coped with my feelings of helplessness and self-indulgence by chanelling a fictitious Christine trapped under the rubble in Port-au-Prince, another reality to the Christine also trapped, but in Germany. My German life seemed artificial and meaningless, especially in comparison to the immediacy of life I had felt as a Peace Corps volunteer in Haiti.
The piece I wrote was very well received by my writers' group in Stuttgart and was even published by Klett for use in their online ESL program. Other than that, nothing much happened. I still haven't looked for publishers. I've written more about Christine, but shared it with noone. I started a novel about Haiti. It sucked. It was just too large for me to handle.
My editor at Klett cut the word 'surreal' from the piece. Too fluffy.....not immediate enough.
All of which shows I still haven't connected with the tragedies of people around me as I sit in as position of relative peace, safety, and wealth. It IS surreal.
Today I sit at my home in Queensland, safe from the flood waters, worried about the lack of chemicals in the pool, catching up on a week's worth of laundry while 75% of Queensland lies under water around me. Again, it is surreal. Even the newscasters say so, so it must be true!
At the moment I am as far away from the tragedies unfolding just down the road as I was a year ago from the tragedies in Haiti.
And this is tragic. It is the largest national disaster in Australia's history. (Unless you ask the aborigines and count James Cook as a national disaster.) The largest NATURAL disaster then.
Scenes on the TV remind me of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans a few years ago. The ferocity of nature is awe-inspiring. But only when you aren't directly in its path.
Since I can't relate to it all without using terms like surreal, I look at statistics. And realize, once again, how lucky we are here. We have 10 deaths so far, from the flash flooding of an inland tsunami to the west of us two days ago. The flood waters have been slowly rising for weeks, and even now, with the worst of it expected in Brisbane overnight, people have been warned and evacuated.
2 deaths in Brisbane so far, out of a population of 2 million people. As compared to 200,000 deaths in Port-au-Prince, a city of 1,250,000. As compared to almost 2,000 in New Orleans, also a city of 1,250,000. What we have going for us is the nature of the disaster – relentless flooding as opposed to an instant disaster, as well as infrastructure, relief workers and the promise of help in the future. Fancy words and genuine international effort aside, what does the future look like for Haiti?
It will be tough – 2 million people alone is 10% of the people in Australia. (It's a HUGE country, with a comparatively TINY TINY population!) And that's not including the rest of Queensland. In our (relatively unaffected) area alone the bridges are out to neighboring towns, roads are cut, communities split off. Homes and businesses in affected areas will need to be rebuilt.
Then again, the electricity will come on again. (We were without it for a while yesterday and that really DOES make it all hit home. How will we get information? How much battery life on the laptops? The mobile phone? How are we going to boil water in the event of contamination.? How are we going to see if we have to pack up and leave? And yes, the bags were at the door.) Clean water has been contaminated in some areas. Ross Fever and Dengue will be concerns as mosquitoes already infest still waters, but we have no cholera, typhoid or malaria here. And public health agencies are in place to deal with this as rapidly as possible.
The worst of the flooding hasn't even hit us yet and already agencies are setting up to provide relief funds to affected families.
Somehow, I don't see Queenslanders living in tent cities a year after the disaster. (And most of Haiti didn't have electricity, potable water or proper sanitation, roads, phones, hospitals, and the list goes on, even before the earthquake.)
Then again, I look at pictures of Haiti and see beauty and hope on those faces too.
We are spending this disaster playing Clue (Ryan is kicking our butts!) and getting to know our neighbors. It did get a little hairy for a bit there yesterday when, after hours blogging, completely and blissfully unaware of the tragedy unfolding around me, I stepped outside and saw that the two rivers surrounding us had flooded their banks and were threatening to connect in a circle around us, cutting off escape. We called friends to cancel Ryan's birthday party on Saturday (honestly, the silly things you worry about, right?) and when they heard we still didn't have a TV, they drove right on over – roundabout the flooded bridge - and lent us one so that we could stay informed. They also brought games for the kids.
Later when the electriticity went out, new neighbors across the way stopped by with candles and ice for the refrigerator. Four more families stopped by or called to see if we needed food.
Today, new neighbors have offered us their extra car so that Damon can get to appointments over the next few weeks. (Busses and rails are sporadic right now.) Another friend finally realized what we meant when we said that we have no furniture and were sleeping on mattresses. (It means we have no furniture and are sleeping on mattresses, but I guess people assume we are exaggerating.) A bunk – bed is coming. And another friend was angry we didn't take HIS old TV weeks ago.
These are all people we called to check on to see if they needed help.
And they are helping us.
Thing is we feel fortunate to be where we are. (And while people seem appalled at our lack of amenities, we knew what we were in for when we started over again on a new continent.) There are thousands of folks sleeping on shelter floors right now. Without mattresses. We are not the only Queenslanders without furniture or car. At least we have our home.
What do you do in the face of such tremendous need? Do we say 'no' to offers of help because there are others in even greater need?
We decided quickly to take the help. So that we can better help ourselves and therefore be in a better position to help others. (There is also the karmic feeling of having done the same for others in Germany when we gave our stuff away before leaving.)
Damon is hoping to join neighbors heading into Brisbane over the weekend to help whoever needs it in any way they can.
I still feel guilty that I didn't do more to help Haiti last year. And so I feel privileged to be able to help this year. I am happy we decided to move here when we did. It is only right that we share in the tragedy – and rebuilding – of our new state and country.
And, my editor will be pleased to note, not at all surreal.