Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Rain, rain, rain

It's been a fun-packed couple of days on the weather front as gale-force winds and torrential rain sneaked in and have surprised us. For the first time since we moved back into the outskirts of Coffs Harbour in February we had an electrical blackout yesterday evening that lasted well into this morning. We were a lot better off than we would have been in our previous house: at least here we have mains water so if the power goes out we can still flush the toilet and have a shower. And did I mention that the roof here doesn't leak..?

My clever husband has set up a UPS on the server so that it can at least shut down in an orderly fashion having saved our data, and we have a gas lantern, plenty of torches, spare batteries and a little gas ring burner with spare canisters as well as a gas barbeque so we're not exactly roughing it if the lights do go out. The weakest points of the house are things like the freezer and the fridge, in which food obviously begins to deteriorate over time, and the fish tank: although the water temperature and the air temperature aren't radically different so our tropical fish won't die of cold, we're not sure how long they'll last without oxygenation of their water, although they survived over twelve hours this time around with seeming ease.

It is amazing, though, how vulnerable we all are to climate and geography and Australia certainly provides its inhabitants with many challenges in both areas. Last time we had a prolonged bout of really heavy rain was the week we moved house (of course!), when we had 23" (almost 60 cms) in 3 days. Road surfaces and storm drains just don't cope with that amount of water in such a short space of time and the centre of Coffs Harbour simply floods, while surrounding rivers burst their banks and whole areas are cut off. There isn't much one can do about it. There are those who will read this and doubtless think that civil authorities are short-sighted and badly prepared, but I'm only just beginning to realise how tenuous any sense of established 'white European'-style civilisation is in this country.

I hear, with astonishment, that what is now the Botanic Gardens in Coffs was - until 1981, so only 28 years ago - the site of the "night soil trenches". Yep, you heard me: human waste from septic tanks was collected and buried in trenches close to the town centre until less than 30 years ago. Emerald Beach, a nice village a few kilometres up the coast, with lovely houses, a beautiful beach and unbelievable views, only got mains sewage facilities 5 years ago. Mains electricity is almost (I say almost) everywhere, but mains gas is virtually unheard of and only possible in the big metropolitan areas. I grew up with above-ground power poles but these days in the UK most towns have spent 25 years and more burying their services so that it was a big shock moving here and seeing power lines everywhere, with the poles also carrying phone and data cables. Surprise surprise, when the wind blows, the rain comes down and branches fall off neighbouring trees the power poles frequently come down with them, leaving people with regular blackouts and phone outages. If you live on a property with bore or tank water rather than a mains water supply - far from ubiquitous - then a power outage usually means your water pump shuts down unless you have a solar-powered pump, so no water for flushing or washing until the power company finds the fallen branch and repairs the line.

M assures me that metropolitan areas (and let's face it, the vast majority of Australians live in big cities such as Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth) have all the facilities I'm accustomed to from living in Europe. But outlying areas have been strapped for cash for years because so few voters live in those constituencies. Coffs Harbour might be the largest city in the thousand or so kilometres between Brisbane and Sydney but it's really very small; it practically counts as being in the bush, so conditions here really shouldn't be a surprise.

I have had to find a new attitude to go with living here. Australians allegedly moan about whingeing Poms and to an extent I see the frustration. If I was living in Sydney, with all the services on tap and a big infrastructure to support my lifestyle then moaning might accomplish something as well as afford me a pleasant passtime, but here it's pointless and annoying. You just get on with things.

In fact it's not all bad losing power. I can't waste time reading the news pages on the BBC website when I should be doing something else, I can go to bed when it gets dark because I can't see to do anything else, and we can play simple games of cards or just talk to each other instead of stressing out about 'more important' things. It's probably good for me.

I've just aqua-planed my way back to Korora after picking up our daughter from school and fruitlessly seeking a way to get to the large Bunnings Warehouse just south of town. Major accidents have blocked the Pacific Highway to both the north and south of town so the place is backing up with large B-double articulated trucks; rain has closed the airport, the link road to the airport and most of the sideroads off the Highway (including the road out to our block so interestingly if we'd been living up there we'd have been cut off from town by flooding!) and is encroaching on the centre of Coffs. We had to turn round half a dozen times, trying to find alternate ways to get to Bunnings until we could see, from a distance, that although the lights were on in the store there was a moat of water around it that must mean staff and customers are stranded. Close by, floodwaters have cut off a large High School so that parents and school buses were one side of a large and enlarging body of water while the 300 or so children were a kilometre away on the other side. On the way back up the Highway I stopped to buy spare batteries for the torches, bread and milk, butane gas canisters for the gas ring and petrol for the 4WD just in case we're stranded for a couple of days, and then we came home (with the back wheels of the 4WD sliding out from under us as we negotiated the windy hill back up to Korora). My darling daughter is - unusually on a school night - watching television for a while, since we will probably soon lose satellite reception, internet connection and power and our opportunities for entertainment will be slightly curtailed! And I feel fine. This is just how it is, and frankly we are going to be living a kilometre and a half up a dirt track some time in the next year or so, and I'd better get used to it, because it might be me stranded on the other side of body of water. I plan to have plenty of spare batteries, tow ropes, D shackles, torches, gas lanterns and other sensible stuff so that I don't whinge while I wait for the flood waters to subside.

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