Dignity, daring as young guns face the floods
By: TONY KOCH
THE January floods in Queensland amounted to the worst natural disaster in the state's history, causing the deaths of more than 30 people and costing billions of dollars in damage and lost production.
Many hundreds of journalists, photographers and television cameramen spent weeks in gumboots, sleeping in emergency refuges, cars or wherever they could grab a bed and a feed.
But one stood out. ABC Radio, particularly in regional centres, scrapped all programs except news bulletins and became a 24-hour flood information service.
I listened to at least 100 callers from far-flung places that are little more than postcodes saying they depended on the ABC for vital information on rainfall, creek and river heights, police warnings, evacuations and road conditions.
Roads and bridges were washed away, communication lines were down, television services and landlines were patchy at best. But the ABC provided timely information and warnings, relayed calls from emergency service workers, stranded truckies, farmers and others, ensuring the information was disseminated.
There is no doubt whatsoever that ABC journalists and management saved townships, homes and lives.
For the three weeks leading up to the Lockyer Valley flash-flood disaster, journalists had faithfully reported on floods affecting central and southern Queensland, from St George and Dalby to Jericho, Emerald, Rockhampton, Bundaberg and Maryborough.
The Australian's young journalists Jared Owens and Rosanne Barrett were out on 10- and 12-day stretches with our experienced photographer Lyndon Mechielsen, spending very few hours of any of the days with dry clothes. And this newspaper's Sarah Elks also set up at Murphys Creek and Grantham, demonstrating what hard work and empathy can achieve, covering the first of the funerals of the people who died. As any journalist knows, in these circumstances, that is one of the profession's most difficult assignments.
As in all widespread floods, it was difficult just to get around, and helicopters can only deliver you to one spot. The effort Mechielsen and his band of youngsters put in, and the results they achieved, were outstanding.
When newsrooms were alerted mid-afternoon of Monday, January 10, about the flash flood that hit Toowoomba, Postman's Ridge, Murphys Creek, Withcott, Helidon and Grantham, and the probable loss of many lives, journalists from all organisations headed for the trouble spots.
Veteran Toowoomba-based Channel Nine cameraman Peter Collins and journalist Cameron Price were able to get into Grantham that night and gave the first insight into the devastation caused by the flood and the trauma faced by residents. They remained at the refuge throughout, filing great stories and images. Their work was first-class and continues to be so.
In the next day or so, media from all eastern states and two television crews from New Zealand descended on the region. It was a tough assignment because the anxiety and grief of the locals was ongoing. They knew who was missing in Grantham and Murphys Creek, for instance, because those people were not with them in the refuge.
Police were not releasing identities of the bodies they found or the list of those ``missing''.
No doubt scores of media representatives throughout Queensland went to amazing lengths to get their interviews and footage, and at Grantham I was able to watch two going about their jobs.
Photographer Jack Tran, suffering a heavy chest cold, stood in the torrential rain at Gatton showground when the Black Hawks were bringing people evacuated from Forest Hill. He was the only photographer taking the shots, and ruined a $5000 lens in the process. But his efforts were rewarded with the iconic frame of the flood coverage -- of the wide-eyed baby Montanah being carried by an RAAF officer from the helicopter.
Vietnamese-born Tran, a freelancer who has worked mainly for Time and other quality magazines in Asia and Africa, was employed by The Australian for this assignment and was not happy with photos he had taken when the first Black Hawks came in, so he went back to try to do better.
His other frame of an upset mother and her four children running in the rain from the chopper is a powerful insight into the distress suffered by the victims of these floods.
It is sometimes said that great photographs don't need a caption. These were in that category, so much so that the shot of Montanah was used on the cover of newspapers and magazines throughout Australia and in seven other countries. It is the feature photograph on the Premier's Flood Appeal postage stamp collection launched last week by Australia Post.
Earlier on that day Tran and I had got ourselves into a spot of bother which involved driving around road blocks and across flooded creeks. One of the penalties was that my laptop was rendered inoperable, so by late afternoon I was in a pickle about how to send copy.
In Gatton, across the road from the main emergency refuge was the office of the APN-owned Gatton Star, a weekly servicing the Lockyer Valley.
I asked editor Brendan Stenihardt if he could help. He saw we were fellow journalists in trouble and without hesitation he offered assistance. He invited Tran and me in and gave us access to a computer and desks. Without his assistance our contribution would have been very poor.
As well, he introduced us to Melanie Maeseele, a young journalist from his sister paper, the Queensland Times. Maeseele had spent a fortnight in the Brisbane bureau of The Australian doing work experience five years ago, so we had at least met.
She knew the local area, the people, the police. She also knew where to get fuel when it was being rationed, all the back roads through the farmland to get us around police road blocks to Grantham and other spots without being arrested, and when we ran foul of the police, inevitably it was a local cop who knew her and all was well.
One forgets how hard these regional reporters work -- she had to drive, interview people (many of whom were severely distressed), take her own photographs and then get back to the office, file the pictures and provide two or three pages of copy. An amazing effort from a talented reporter who is in touch with her readership and knows her patch.
The job of reporting in Grantham and Murphys Creek was particularly difficult. In other disasters, such as the horrific Victorian bushfires or plane crashes, the catastrophic event is over and the death toll is known.
It was initially suggested that as many as 40 Lockyer Valley residents were dead or missing. As this goes to print, 19 have been confirmed dead and a further nine are still missing.
In the Lockyer Valley last week, particularly at Grantham, it was a case of waiting every day to see how many more bodies were dug from the mud and debris, and to then cross another off the ``missing'' list.
The delay in finality for the people of this township was torture for them. They had little way of knowing which of their neighbours were missing, or if they had been found alive and well elsewhere. The task of interviewing these people in their state of almost perpetual shock was one which required great sensitivity and patience.
I did not witness or hear of an unsavoury incident involving a media representative. Conversely, there were many incidents and contributions which occurred to reinforce our faith in our colleagues.
Through the many tragedies of recent years -- terrorism attacks such as occurred in Bali, the tsunami, cyclones, devastating bushfires and floods, journalists have learned much about gathering and disseminating news, and personally coping, in a dignified manner.
Grantham was one such instance. Media representatives were as much in shock as were the locals, and their job, of necessity, regularly meant they were just another shoulder to cry on.
The people of Grantham and Murphys Creek, including those who lost their homes and were in the emergency refuges, were incredible to deal with. This is heartland agricultural country and these were farmers, farm labourers, abattoir workers, or those working in industries associated with servicing farm needs.
These are honest people whose hands are more comfortable with a mattock than a mouse. Most have a strong religious philosophy -- evidenced by the eight well-supported churches that exist in nearby Gatton. Their livelihoods are intertwined with the elements -- the soil, the rain, sunshine, seasonal change. They understand the agrarian merry-go-round and the vagaries of droughts and floods.
But nothing could prepare them for the devastation that was wreaked upon their humble valley a fortnight ago. One had only to look into the faces to feel the intense pain they were experiencing.
Police, soldiers, emergency service workers -- everybody combined to do what they could to ease that burden, but as each day came and went, and more bodies were found and others still being sought, the desperation continued.
Without the combined efforts of all branches of news media, the effect of these floods on people and property would have been much greater than it has been.