26 March, 2021.
The disasters keep coming. We keep telling ourselves in Australia that we are the lucky country. Covid-19 has not devastated our country; the numbers of dead are low – 909 with under 30,000 confirmed cases. Our lives have been little affected when compared with others. And vaccinations are now underway.
Yet Australia remains a country of extremes. At the beginning of 2020 we suffered the worst bushfire season in living memory. That summer is now called the ‘Black Summer’. Over 18 million hectares were burnt, almost 10,000 homes lost, and 479 died (including smoke inhalation). The toll on our wildlife is hard to comprehend. Billions of creatures died. In terms of cost the fires are estimated to have cost Australia 103 billion AUD. This is our ‘costliest natural disaster to date’ (Wikipedia). No one can count the cost of the CO2 emissions.
No sooner had the fires abated than Covid-19 arrived.
And now we have another disaster: floods. This is the result of the La Niña (little girl) weather pattern. Until recently this was OK – cooler summers and more rainfall, nothing extraordinary. And then a week ago, a weather system came down the east coast, settled and intensified – from Sydney up to Queensland.
A severe weather warning was put out for the entire NSW coast. Dams could not contain the inflows and rivers overflowed onto floodplains that for over 100 years had been thought to be flood-free. (Some 134,000 people had settled on these flood plains over the decades.) The rain came with high winds and high tides along the coast. The Defence Force were called out to help evacuate thousands of people. Animals were swept into the swollen rivers. Some farmers lost their entire dairy herds to the flood. Facebook was used to post images of rescued horses and cattle as well as dead animals washed up on beaches. One iconic video showed an intact house floating down the Manning river near Taree: the owners were due to get married that day.
The quantity of rain is hard to comprehend. Rivers rose up to 16 metres.
‘Rainfall totals in excess of 400 mm were reported along the coastal areas and Central Tablelands in New South Wales, and a number of locations in Queensland’s central and south-east coast districts. Locations in the Hunter and Mid North Coast districts in New South Wales received over 600 mm of rainfall, including the highest weekly total of 991 mm at Bellwood in the Mid North Coast, which has exceeded the long-term autumn rainfall average less than one month into the season.’
Our annual rainfall for Adelaide is an average of 520mm and Sydney is 920mm a year.
The Australian insurance council has declared a ‘catastrophe’ for NSW as over 11,00 claims have been filed. However, I heard that many people could not afford the expensive flood insurance.
And now for the mouse plague. The generous La Niña rains allowed grain farmers to have a bumper year. And with this came an explosion in mice numbers in inland NSW and Queensland and the plague is moving south. Female mice can breed every 6 weeks and can give birth to 50 pups a year. The images are confronting: mice streaming across the fields at night in their tens of thousands. People are trapping 500 mice a night. Hay reserves held in barns are being destroyed. Locals describe the swarming mice as being in ‘biblical proportions’.
Images from our ABC are confronting. The ABC reports that hospital patients have been bitten by the rodents. Those of us who dislike the idea of ONE mouse in the house would freak out!
Apparently, mouse control is an expensive business and winter crops are threatened.
Meanwhile, I have been reading a couple of books that have darkened my view of the world. The first is the Booker prize winner, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. (Why has McCarthy not been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature?) I first read The Road soon after it was published in 2006 and I remember I spent a month affected by its story. His vision of the post-apocalyptical world is devastating to say the least. I re-read it this month to give a presentation to my reading group. And the re-read is worth doing as I was prepared for the horror and could appreciate the beauty of the relationship between the man and his son. And what poetry is in his language! But still, it is a depiction of the end of times and the loss of civilisation. How thin a veneer is our behaviour in this society?
The other book is Plague by Wendy Orent (2004 Free Press). Orent covers the 1,500 years of plagues across our world and wrote of the dangers that lay in wait for us (prescient!). Her presentation of historical accounts of plagues is mind-blowing. This is history that was not taught to us. How slow it was for humans to realise that the fleas on rats were the vectors of the plague. Alexandre Yersin in 1894 and Jean-Paul Simon in 1898 made the breakthroughs. It was not until 1947 and streptomycin that a cure was available. For centuries people believed miasmas (bad or night air) caused the plague. All this is not long ago and we might have made medical advances but it seems that we quickly became complacent.
We forgot to be afraid.