BACKSTAGE

25 Nov 2022

NATURE – The Ultimate Disruptor

by John O’Brien

“There you are, quietly going about your day, minding your own business and, BAM, something happens. It might be small, it might be dire, but you’ve been disrupted.”

This was the first paragraph of my column, ready for edit. I had some pithy anecdotes and was feeling smug about clever insights into man-made, social, and technical upheavals. Then, the storms hit Victoria, and I got well and truly disrupted.

That draft is binned. Following is how Thursday 13th October 2022 unfolded for me.

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Serious weather was forecast for later in the day, but I was sure I had plenty of time to whip down the hill for a routine doctor’s appointment and pharmacy visit. Left home at 9 am and got to the clinic fine by 10. They were already 45 minutes behind but that’s normal. Delay number one.

I took my usual scenic route from the docs and soon found water on the road. It was standing and not flowing, so forded the first one easy, and got through the second but only just. Looked at what was ahead, saw the flood marker at 0.9m and flowing steadily across what is normally a road – not a good idea to try going through that! Lock the hubs in, do a 27-point turn between the rising rivers either side of the diminishing track and head back the way I came. Except, by then, the way in was rapidly going underwater. Slowly does it, heavy 4×4, I’m in the lap of the gods now.

 Got out to dry ground ok, took a deep breath, and headed for the chemist. Did that quickly and turned towards home. Two short waits for council crews to clear trees but got lucky with timing. Get to our township – nearly there. Wild weather now coming in and one of the routes to safety is already 1m under water. Headed for the other path in on that side of the mountain to find a massive horizontal gum blocking the way. I’m less than 4km from home – so close, yet so far. Crap.

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Turn around to head back down the way I came up, but huge trees dropping like dominoes. It’s carnage on the mountain now.

Detached limbs flying about as if they were frisbees. 100+kph gusts throwing the car around. Down to 2nd gear into the wind. Slowly fording through long sheets of water, the bow wave coming up over the windscreen, gritted teeth, silently praying that the road surface below was holding. No time to become a statistic. 4×4 bravado rules.

Blocked from one end, go back to be blocked at the other. Council crews doing their best, pulled from one near disaster to another. Locals grabbing their chainsaws and heading out into the chaos, doing whatever they can to let stranded people through.

Could cut my losses and camp out now but increasingly desperate to be in my sanctuary. I opt for the long way around to home. Back down the hill I proceed. But no. Blockage again. Another tree down, another hope dashed. A local mate turns up and we start clearing. His little battery saw is all we have and woefully underpowered for the job. I clear debris and keep a lookout for any branches or trees heading our way in the swirling, teeming rain.

Creeaaaak, groan, whoa, “Heads UP” in my loudest yell as the other half of the tree we are clearing heads for the earth. The sound of 60+ tonnes of timber hitting the ground mere metres away is impressive. We are most definitely awake. Back to it. Soon enough, another local comes through, Stihl a-blazing, and helps carve a path.

A frantic phone call from a neighbour’s grandmother – her grandson stuck in a river coming down the road. We knew where he was but could not get there without removing multiple trees. Cut through one and then the saw died. Council crew trying to get home themselves purge a way through. The young fella gets home safe.

I head back out through the water to try the long way around. No go there either. Another tree on another road and VicRoads crew report several blockages and road closures ahead.

Stay on the flats, or risk getting back up the mountain? From texts and calls, neither a great option. Many flat-lander friends with water at the doors and rising. Higher ground it is. Once more back through the long sheets, more resembling lakes than paddocks or carriageways. Dumb again, but sustained adrenalin now getting the better of common sense.

Slowly back up the hill. A tree falls behind me – that one would have squashed the car for sure. Onwards the only option. Have secured a bed for the night – just need to get there.

Phoning in to home, only to hear an audible crash at that end as a massive bough hits the deck, 40m from our house. While confident our well-built castle is sturdy and safe, I still couldn’t be there for mutually comforting hugs.

Towards my temporary refuge, but one more tree to clear off the road before a warm fire and bowl of soup awaits. Phew, safe and sound. What a ride. The storm abates while we eat and talk, debriefing as we come down from the excitement of the day. The power goes out. Rain falls all night during an edgy sleep.

Next morning, I caffeinate and tentatively pick a path home. Most options still cut but one might be a go-er. I choose that. Get to within 2km of the house before yet another tree blockage. I’d just yacked to neighbours rescuing stock and they came down to help clear a bare minimum for me to squeeze the ute through in sill deep mud. That alone would have been an adventure on a normal day!

Looking at the minimal debris over the last km or so, I reckon our little hamlet fared better than everywhere else I’d been over the previous 25 hours. That’s how long it took to do a regular trip to town, normally a tenth of that time. Never as exciting.

Ironically, since home safe, I completed my regular Tree Hazard Awareness course for CFA personnel. It hammers home situational awareness and dynamic risk assessment (DRA). Both these skills came to the fore as I was trekking through the stormy madness. Not all my choices were optimal, some perhaps poor, but I unconsciously followed DRA principles all day. Identifying hazards, assessing risk, constantly reviewing, staying hyper-aware. More than once, I presaged tree and branch falls before they became life threatening.

Disruptions come in all manners. This was not war, famine or pestilence. Nor a printing press, steam engine or iThing. Not even the first world annoyances of a tradie not turning up yet again or an untimely phone call. But it did highlight our puny powerlessness in the face of Mother Nature unleashing some of her worst. Urgent, primal turmoil. A true disruption.

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