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Comms down: NSW Floods

I once spent a rainy weekend learning how to report from a hostile zone. 

On the evening the course began, a dozen of us sat around a camp table in a converted shed deep in the Kangaroo Valley, its concrete floor spattered with human blood from squashed leeches. The lights suddenly cut and firecrackers exploded behind us. When we eventually switched the lights back on, one of our number had disappeared – ‘kidnapped’ at the hands of our instructors. 

It was the beginning of a weekend designed to shock, if not convince. We self-consciously fumbled our way through exercises simulating hostage situations, being shot at, dodging improvised explosive devices and midnight dashes through hostile territory. It was all fabulously incongruous with the Porsche parked in the muddy driveway, Sydney a short, easy drive away.  

I did, however, come away with one important lesson: always assume a communications black-out. In war zones and natural disasters, more often than not, the reality on the ground is that phone signal, internet and 3,4 or 5G have been wiped out. I put the theory into practice just weeks later as I reported from flood-hit Dungog after 2015’s massive east coast low. Not only was it almost impossible to reach by road, but no electricity, phones and internet made getting any information in or out doubly tricky.

And here, right now, in NSW’s Northern Rivers, that lesson again rings true. On Monday morning, as reports of Lismore residents screaming from their rooftops for help started reaching the media, Facebook lit up with scores of messages of concerned family and friends pleading for news of their loved ones. People dropped what they were doing to reach the addresses that steadily landed on community pages, updates putting worried minds at ease. But by Tuesday evening, the internet had largely petered out.

SES and emergency services, not to mention community groups, live on social media. But with internet knocked out and patchy phone signals across much of the region, there is no way to remotely check where floods have inundated, which roads are washed away and to connect with communities in danger; there is no way to know who needs what, where and when. 

Beside the urgency of the immediate need – whole towns devastated, thousands without homes and clean water – a comms black-out poses an added layer of chaos across the region, even for those who now face nothing more inconvenient than canned fruit and muddy gardens. 

We are all hugely and overwhelmingly dependent on one thing: the internet. Without it, the systems we’ve created to make life easier end up, well, making life harder.

Where there are shops still open, no internet means no payments by card. Which in turns means a run on ATMs. Non-retail businesses that depend on the internet – most, that is – have gone AWOL. At the pharmacy, e-prescriptions can’t be processed. At the doctor, the Medicare system can’t be accessed. School is closed and NSW’s online remote learning modules sit untouched. Thousands need and want to help, without knowing where to direct that energy. 

We’ve gone from the crisis of the pandemic, which gave us virtual hyper-connectivity, to another that removes that connectivity and replaces it with a strange and quietly unnerving befuddlement. We can’t busy ourselves with work, distract ourselves with Netflix, get bills paid. But we also can’t search for information about donations and fundraising. We can’t check if the motorway has reopened, where fuel is available or which supermarket hasn’t shut its doors because of empty shelves. We can’t WhatsApp relatives overseas – or friends down the road – to let them know we’re safe and dry. As one neighbour said, it is the first time in twenty years that he has not had the internet at his fingertips. 

Instead, the radio plays, non-stop. The local radio station does what it can to deliver vital information. A blind Jack Russell has been found and taken to a shelter in Ocean Shores. St Finbarr’s Church is collecting bedding and nappies. If nothing else, climate change poses a case for saving local news outlets – we saw it with the bushfires, and we see it again, now, as the region depends on radio to deliver news that matters.

And, things turn physical. Neighbours are dropping in on each other to check they are ok, having real conversations. Cafes are feeding cashless locals on trust. Where fuel is available, groups of friends are driving cars and boats to affected areas and taking help to those in need instead of waiting for word to reach them. IRL, the community is taking initiative, bound by its isolation. Where small pockets of 4G are available, word-of-mouth spreads and cars collect, their occupants tapping on laptops in car parks and on curb sides, doing what can’t be done in person – or put off by a mega flood. 

Because what natural disasters show us in scary focus is that we have put all of our chips on the internet being there. Just always being there, dependable and wondrous and super convenient. Until comms are down, that is.

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Blog

Coronavirus and a three-year-old

 

A three-year-old, two minutes, a mic and no warning: Welcome to Finia Fridays.
In this first interview, we talk COVID-19, social distancing and the locked-down state of international air travel. Kind of.

Me: Finia, what’s in the air and what are we scared of when we touch each other?

Three-year-old: Um, coronavirus.

And what is coronavirus?

You can’t touch things.

Why, what does it do?

It’s do get corona on your hand.

And then what?

Then what. You have to wash your hand. Huh?

Mmm-hmm.

And then you have to … mm, don’t touch things.

Why, is it because, does it make you sick?

Yeah, stay.

Makes you sickie. And then what.

Then what. Then what?

Do you have to go to hospital?

Yeah. Have to go to hosiple. Hmm?

And then, what about all the planes in the sky?

All the plane is gone in the sky co’ we can’t go on plane co’ we can’t reach the plane cos all the plane in the sky so we can’t fly in the plane. Everyone fly in the plane, now we got no more planes to fly in. That why it’s really sad.

And are you, do you miss seeing anybody?

She buries her head in the sofa. Ok, now she’s looking sad and she’s told me she’s not doing any more talking. Ok, Finia, thank you for the interview.

Huh? What?

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On running and crying

 

There’s a part of my running route, a short and gentle uphill climb that turns a right corner at the top, where the path curves round a busy set of traffic lights. 

I’ve come to remember sections of my runs by what I was listening to when I trod each section. Or maybe it’s the other way round – I remember pieces of podcasts and news stories, reports of global events and snippets of heart-warming anecdotes when I think of the places I’ve run. The beach in Queensland that is all about Turing and sentience, the corner of summertime Munich that now reminds me of alien invasion, the Kenyan elections unfolding alongside a corn field in west England. 

Maybe it’s the rhythm of my jogging, or the fresh air, or the lack of distraction, but I have a curiously vivid memory of those places and their soundtracks.

The path has got a lot busier than usual, we’re allowed out of lockdown for exercise and the gyms and beaches are closed in this part of Sydney, Australia, so everyone seems to have taken up running, or walking with their families, to escape the four walls of home. I tread from the pavement to the road and up again, skirting around prams and masked couples where I usually pass next to no-one. 

And as I tread the warm tarmac, sweep around roadworks and pass boats parked on trailers alongside the golf course, I listen to news from America during the Covid-19 crisis. My runs have become 

That’s what I was doing as I approached the small hill a few days ago, and that’s how I learnt how hard it is to run and cry at the same time.

I’m listening to a story about a woman who is barred from visiting her mother who has ALS and lives in a hospital and, with coronavirus spreading, the woman worries about never seeing her mother again. She stumbles with grammar, her syntax muddled by the overwhelming reality that, if coronavirus reaches her mum’s ward, it’s very likely she’ll die. She lives across from the hospital and can see her mum’s window. She’s forced to ask questions she never imagined she’d ask – will she have to stand in the park as her mother dies, and imagine what’s going on behind that glass as she looks up from her safe distance?

And I think of my own mother, in a high-needs unit in a care home in England. She has early-onset dementia and is hoisted from her bed into an armchair and back again each day. Because of the virus, she’s not allowed to leave her room or to have visitors, so, even if I was to somehow abracadabra my way through aeroplane-less empty skies to Covid-ravaged Europe, I’d get no further than looking up at the double-glazing in her window, too. 

My chest seizes up as the woman describes her dream of getting her mum the fuck off planet earth and how irrationality sometimes takes over – could her mother’s ventilator be given to a younger, more potentially fruitful patient? She has no breath of her own, and no chance of taking another breath, after all. 

It’s happened a few times, now, as I run and listen to what sound like dispatches from a third world country. The hospital worker in New York City who couldn’t be with his wife as she died at home. The immigrant who, sick with Covid-19, is sleeping in his car because he was thrown out of his accommodation by his scared, pregnant landlady. 

I struggle for air, my throat clamping down and my chest feeling like it’s buckling under a heap of sand bags. I can’t breathe. I imagine asthma attacks as I try to keep moving. I hear a whimper – it’s me. I stop, fold over and catch my breath as tears merge with sweat, pricking my eyes.

I leave the green of the park behind me and run towards the ocean cliffs. I lean on the railing and suck in big lungfuls of salty air, the foam churning 100 feet below and, in the distance, with the land, people and the virus behind me, I look to the calm, grey horizon.

The accounts go on – ventilators puffing and emptying broken lungs. The suffocating coughing, the good samaritans and the thought of so very many, locked down, locked away and locked out. I miss you, Mumma. I’m not running, so this time, when the tears roll and my face crumples, I can breathe.

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Bedtime, Bondi

The Southern Cross sits above the avocado tree and the slow, steady flap of a bat beats rhythm into the shrill electric static of the night’s white noise. Crickets, frogs, the bite of a motorbike revving as it pulls up, up, out of the bowl. Mosquitos leave nothing unpunctured, their leafy homes alive with the fecundity of late season heat and deafening storms. There’s a mango tree that doesn’t bear fruit and baby banana plants, their soft, pale green arms pushing through a corner where, when we arrived, a pigeon lay dead and defeathering. Windows all around, lit by yellow insides of homes I hear but don’t see, look down onto this pocket; Ruby’s parents, the TV-addicted girl, the Frenchman and James and his silent housemate. Their lives – or the private bits of it, at least – are strangely familiar to me now, part of the soundtrack of my languid Bondi evenings.

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