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Flood of the Blood

My name is Jane Clifton and I have lived in MARIBYRNONG, with my partner, Paul Williamson, since 1996.

We knew the property was on a floodplain when we bought it and we have always been vigilant about the idea of being flooded. There have been a few close calls over the years.

We renovated in 2011 and opted for an upstairs extension. The renovation involved raising the house a little to meet requirements: we had to lose our 2 fireplaces and go up. We never thought we were completely safe but we certainly fulfilled council requirements.

In the week beginning 10th October 2022 we knew there was going to be a lot of rain. The kind of rain we knew about from the markings on the pole outside Poynton’s Nursery remembering the big ones of 1974 and 1993. There were warnings on TV and radio weather reports but no actual messages from Melbourne Water until it was too late. Until we were underwater.

On Thursday 13th October, all the available advice online – from the BOMB - indicated that the flood level would be aproximately 2.7 metres and my partner was assured by this that the water would not get inside the house. I’m more of a pessimist/alarmist and, on Thursday night, set about putting as many treasured possessions as I could in the safety of our upstairs extension – where the kitchen and living area are located.

Had we known that the water would inundate our house to waist level and completely submerge the back yard, we would (a) have put a LOT MORE stuff upstairs and/or (b) hired a truck, thrown all our beds, office furniture, filing cabinets and equipment, the piano, libraries full of books and countless other personal items of clothing, memorabilia into it and driven the truck up to the Highpoint car park.

The night of Thursday 13th October was sleepless and brought NO WARNINGS from any official body, just a general sense of dread and anxiety. I lay, fully dressed, on my bed for what would be the last time in 56 nights, on pillows whose cases I’d sewn from vintage souvenir silk scarves from where I was born – the Rock of Gibraltar – that I would never see again.

My greatest fear was that the water would come in the night, that we wouldn’t be able to see it. We were spared that nightmare, at least.

When the door-to-door evacuation order came at 5am on Friday 14th there was a bit more frenzied carting of stuff upstairs, but it was a tussle between trying to save stuff and needing to get the cars out before we wouldn’t be able to drive away.

By about 8am the water was up the steps, over the verandah and into the house. By 10.30am it was all through every house from Van Ness Avenue to half way up Duffy Street.

I had driven my car up the street just in time, at about 5.45am, and sat parked in it outside No.18 until about 5.30pm – grateful that I had the foresight to fill the tank the day before - watching in horror as the water rolled in like surf at Bondi and drowned the street.

Paul, stayed upstairs in the house and was helpless against the flood. At one point I saw him wade out towards the front gate where the water was shoulder-height on a 6 foot man.

For the rest of the day the street was a sluggish hive of activity. Neighbours from the safe upper areas offering tea and biscuits, the use of their toilets. People pulling out kayaks to row down to houses and rescue vital medications. Cute families of waterbirds, ducking and weaving, oblivious. Floating wheelie bins with lids of many colours, nosing up other people's driveways, sharing bottles and compost. Film crews from TV and radio, a constant drone of choppers.

No visible signs of any SES teams or, indeed, anyone official-looking.

We were ON OUR OWN.

I kept in phone contact with Paul and the pictures he texted of the interior of our house were devastating.

I watched my 86 year-old neighbour inch her agonising way, one step at a time, with the aid of her daughter and a zimmer frame, up the hill to safety. Her face told the story. To have this happen in your 80s….

Gloom, horror, exhaustion and an unprecedented camaraderie pervaded. Faces were long with realisation, etched with an overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of what nature can unleash and just how long the road back to what life was like on Thursday 13th October was going to be.

As the sun began its descent, around 4, the water slowly began to recede - at the rate of about a centimetre every 15 minutes. How long can a person stare through the windscreen at a waterline across a street, willing it to go back? Queen Canute of Duffy Street, I was, going cross-eyed with concentration.

It was time to make plans for the night and where I was going to sleep. There was no way for me to wade down to my home or even hitch a ride in a canoe. Our daughter, Molly, was living in our old house in Kensington, but how to get there? There were barricades everywhere and all the bridges were still submerged or too dangerous to cross between here and the other side.

Finally, reluctantly, feeling like a deserter, I did a u-turn, turned my back on the river, wove my way through back streets and checkpoints upwards to Highpoint then took the long way round via the West Gate Bridge.

From that great height it was possible to see the extent and absolute devastation of the bastard river.

Once the water did finally recede it was like someone had pulled the plug out, I was told. It happened quickly, leaving a deep brown horror in its wake.

Mud. Not 'glorious' Lewis Carroll-type mud but that mud you see on TV news reports of floods all over the world.

Our very own, toxic, Maribyrnong mud was deep, squelchy, impossible to drive on and lethal.

We were lucky. At the crack of dawn on Sat 15th a veritable army of fellow-musicians, actors, relations and friends appeared with trucks, equipment, rubber gloves, mud vacuum cleaners, brooms, Karchers and absolutely boundless energy. And they kept coming for days on end.

I have never felt so loved or so proud of my showbiz community and my family.

They worked their arses off with us.

We had electricity and wifi that very night: months later, my neighbours were still trying to find an electrician. We had the plaster ripped off and industrial-strength fans blasting out any chance of mold: they would run for nearly 6 weeks.

My arthritic knees rendered me almost helpless with the physical business of lugging, carting, sweeping, vaccing, up and down stairs. I had to keep sitting down. I felt useless, I felt like a burden. People kept asking me what to do. I didn't know where to start. There was just so much..... All we could do was tackle it one box, one shelf, one shoe, one drawer, one CD, one photo album, one curtain, one fork at a time.

A mountain of ruined goods soon piled up on the nature-strip, almost obscuring a view of the house. Similar mountains appeared outside every house in our street and every street in the neighbourhood: a Great Grey Range of Rubbish. It looked like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It would take months to clear.

A friend we barely knew, Howard, offered the use of his rental flat in Kingsville – the tenants were away until November. I slept there for 56 nights but returned to the wreck of the house every day to eat, keep working and piece together my life both personal and working.

Paul would not allow himself to leave the house unguarded – there were looters on the prowl and the swollen doors did not completely shut. He slept upstairs on the couch for the duration, while maintaining a brutal schedule of nightly gigs and dawn-to-dusk, backbreaking flood recovery.

Various authorities – Melbourne Water, insurance companies, council officers and media hounds put in sporadic appearances over the next few days but were of little practical use. Merely box-ticking, covering their litigation arses. Organisations like the Flood Angels, coming round with snacks and useful equipment were absolutely fantastic. A supply of anti-mold spray came from somewhere… There were miracles and there was neglect.

Floods and fires happen. No one can stop them. But someone has to take responsibility for warning residents of a worst case scenario and no one seems to be prepared to do that.

They prefer the Blame Game - the council blames Melbourne Water, Melbourne Water blames the SES, the SES blames the BOMB, etc. etc. But, at the end of the day, the bottom line IS the BOMB. That’s their job: weather warnings. It’s what it says on the tin.

Everybody else’s job is to get that information out to people ON THE GROUND, the rapidly filling-up-with-water ground. To get that information out to people who, maybe, don’t use/have phones or the internet. Old people. People for whom English is not their first language.

Some official body has to take full responsibility for early, accurate warnings of impending disaster. Even if that disaster doesn’t happen!

Isn’t it better to be completely prepared for the worst than to suffer the worst?

Anecdotally, I’m reliably informed, that’s how they did things back in 1993, back when work on the catchment areas hadn’t even begun. Authorities were ready. Residents were informed. The SES had trucks and rescue boats standing by.

This notion of a ‘once in a 100 year event’ is a totally outmoded concept. There will be more floods and more often. We need to have a community-based plan of action and official bodies need to adopt a more responsible attitude.

I don’t believe the selfish Racecourse Wall made any difference to the damage where we are situated, but it has a lot to answer for as regards properties downstream.

Personally? I will never attend another Spring Racing Carnival event or even have an annual flutter on the Cup.

Flood waters of the Blood River leave a bitter taste.

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