In Part 1 of Storm in the Hunter in yesterday’s Crikey, we followed some Newcastle residents, through their genuine experiences on Friday, 8 June, 2007. Now, the story concludes.
“It takes a real storm in the average person’s life to make him realise how much worrying he has done over the squalls.” — Bruce Fairchild Barton, American copywriter.
When we last heard from Justin, he’d just completed a full day of training at James Fletcher Psychiatric Hospital. He planned to drive across town, to pick up a hire-vehicle in Mayfield, then continue to Wollongong. Justin took Trish, a workmate with him, so she could take his car home. Of course, that was “Plan A”. Justin heads towards King Street, one of Newcastle’s main thoroughfares. As he reaches the intersection, a huge cast-iron manhole floats by. This is going to be much harder than he thought.
Weaving in and out of rapidly flooding streets, Justin makes it to the car-hire firm. Unfortunately, Maitland Road Mayfield is now a growing creek, with several feet of water between Justin and the hire cars. They wouldn’t be doing business with him today. He calls to cancel the booking, which was polite, but perhaps unnecessary. Justin abandons his plans to see friends in Wollongong, and heads to Waratah railway station. He drops Trish off, watching her wade through waist-high water, and board a Maitland-bound train … heading home.
Just a few blocks later, Justin realises he has no way to get home. Every street to his suburb is impassable. He finds a safe place to park, up a hill, out of danger. Justin turns on the radio, and calls his elderly parents. They’re OK, and glad to hear from him.
While Justin sits and waits, his workmate Anna is travelling down Memorial Drive, with a menacing sea out her left-hand window. Her headlights fight to penetrate the rain … and as she reaches Dixon Park Surf Club, the massive ocean waves mix seawater, rainwater and sand on the road ahead.
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Struggling through the water, Anna hears the radio announcer say that Frederick Street is to be avoided. She quickly abandons her normal route, takes a detour, then rejoins the top of Frederick Street.
Preparing to turn left, she glances “right” to check for oncoming traffic. Instead, Anna sees a river running downhill. Headlights bob up and down, as cars float into the distance. If she hadn’t heard the announcement, she’d be one of them.
Having survived the worst of it, Anna makes her way to Charlestown, picks up her husband, and goes home without any further drama.
Just three suburbs from Anna’s home, Pete’s teenage daughters (D1, D2 & D3) are calling his mobile. Pete excuses himself from the sales meeting, and answers it. The eldest (D1) tells him they’ve had to stop, and they’re about to abandon the car. This doesn’t makes any sense to Pete. He knows it’s wet, but there’s no reason why they shouldn’t just slowly make their way home. No one in the higher suburbs at this time has any idea of the scale of the flooding.
D1 answers, as only an eldest daughter could.
“Dad, which f***ing part of DISASTER don’t you understand?!? We’re sitting in the car, and the water is up to our BR-ASTS. We’re — getting — out — now.”
So they push their doors open, and like Dorothy’s companions in Oz, they each lose something to the water. Shoes, a handbag and a phone. Gone. They girls huddle together, and start wading towards safety. D3 wishes she hadn’t lost her shoes. You’ve got no idea what you’re standing on, under the surface.
Lauren hasn’t had faced quite as much water in her car, but she’s come pretty close.
As she heads south, her normal 30 minute journey down the Pacific Highway has already tripled in duration. Belmont is flash-flooding as she arrives at the Floraville turnoff. Fortunately, Lauren’s waved through by the police. She’s in the last group of 20 cars, before they close the road completely.
In the next half hour she navigates the flooded highway at Belmont South, where the lake’s covering the road. She dodges two large trees blocking her street, and eventually gets home safely. She dries off, curls up on the lounge, and turns on the heater, then the TV. Thelma & Louise is showing.
Lauren watches Brad Pitt’s first big scene begin …
Then the power fails. Darkness.
Around the same time, Pete has finally been able to leave work. Mobile coverage is starting to deteriorate, but he’s heard his girls are safe. Pete can’t drive anywhere near them, but he could get back to the house, if he avoided low-lying streets. As he gets to one intersection, Pete has a moment that sums up his afternoon perfectly. A car floats towards him. It looks like… no it IS the girls’ car… and it floats by. At that point, Pete wouldn’t be too surprised if he saw the cow from Twister fly past. He tries to memories where the car might end up, then makes his way home.
Justin has spent the last two hours in his car, in a safe spot near the Genetics Institute in Waratah.
He can’t get home, but he can listen to the radio. He’s just heard that the suburb of Lambton is flooding. That’s where his parents live. He calls, and thankfully mobile coverage is deteriorating, but not gone completely. Justin hears that younger members of the family are using boogie boards, to help neighbours in trouble. But his parents are a bit more concerned. Water’s heading steadily towards their doorstep. Soon, it enters their home, and they move to the 2nd storey of a neighbour’s property.
With his parents out of danger, and no clear streets to drive home,
Justin can only stay put … listening to the radio, the wind and the rain.
In the past three hours, Newcastle, and most of the Hunter had been transformed completely. Cars trapped in a brown, watery ooze in shopping centre car parks at Kotara, The Junction and other suburbs. At Marketown, a huge drain near the RTA overflows, unleashing a torrent that pushes parked cars together like folds in an accordion. It merges with the water on King Street, pushing in shop windows. On it travels, seeking Hunter Street, then the harbour. More shop windows are pushed in, and in some cases, where nature has already caused enough misery, looters step in to cause even more.
The winds are picking up, and more homes are without power. And still it rains. In 12 hours Hunter residents have probably seen more rain than people in capital cities have seen in five years. And it’s still bucketing down.
While Justin’s workmates have all been home for a few hours, he’s spent five hours now in the car, going nowhere. Then the woman on the radio announces that evacuation centres are opening in three clubs around Newcastle. One is at Wests Leagues, five minutes away. Justin crosses his fingers, and turns the key.
You may have an image of clubs as those “small places”, like in Mick Molloy films, where there’s 10 poker machines, and an old bloke propping up the bar. But Wests is nothing like that. It’s more like a small city. As Justin arrives, he’s given a feed, a mattress and a blanket. And despite the immense scale of the building, Justin and the other evacuees spend most of the night, listening to the roof almost blowing away.
Midnight Friday/Saturday morning
The wind is really howling now. People who’ve finally gotten to sleep are woken up, and start praying that their roof stays in one piece. With this volume of rain, and the near-cyclonic winds, even a single piece of iron, or handful of roofing tiles going missing could be disastrous. In the next few hours, more trees are felled, including some incredibly large specimens. This leads to more blackouts. Hundreds of thousands of people will wake up with no power. And most of them won’t get it back for 48 hours.
In most areas of the Hunter, the rage of the storm has passed, and a gentle rain trickles down. People who can sleep, do so. In four hours, the early risers will wake up to a city they don’t recognise.
All over the Hunter, neighbours and complete strangers greet each other with the same question.
“So — how’d you go?” — or words to that effect. Hands shake unfamiliar hands for the first time. Ropes, ladders and chainsaws are loaned without a thought. And again, pilgrims make their way to Nobby’s Beach. I doubt there’d be more people visiting if the Statue of Liberty washed up on the sand.
Anna and Justin visit the “Pasha” at different times that morning, not realising the other has gone back into town. Justin vows to bring his parents back to see the sight.
Pete drives with a friend to track down his daughter’s car. Soon they find it, and as they approach, they notice it’s leaning to the left. As they walk around the vehicle, they can see various pieces of debris wedged under one side. The debris has held the car up, as the person who placed it there, stole two of the wheels.
Justin has convinced his parents to come into town, to see a “once in a lifetime” event. His elderly parents aren’t too enthused, but at least it’s a trip out of their water-logged house. The roads leading to Nobby’s Beach are all blocked off, and like hundreds of other sightseers, they continue on foot.
As Justin and his parents round the headland near Newcastle’s ocean baths, the awesome site of a 250-metre-long carrier appears in front of them.
Justin’s mother, Margaret, aged 76, looks to the crowd … the beach … and the ship.
Then she turns to Justin, and says …. “That poor bugger”.
“Who?” he replied
“The lifeguard — who was on duty on Friday morning …
He must have looked up and sh-t himself!”