Saturday morning I travelled to Mount Coot-tha to join the army of volunteers helping restore flood-affected parts of Brisbane. We were bussed out to St Lucia, home of the University of Queensland and not too far from where I live in Chapel Hill. The site and sights were devastating and amazing.

St Lucia is a low-lying suburb that juts along the Brisbane River forming its own peninsula as the river snakes along the Brisbane metropolitan area to Moreton Bay. It is a pleasant, leafy, yet medium-density suburb full of townhouses, apartments and houses, occupied largely by students, many of which are international students, and professionals. Given its low elevation, it would have been one of the last areas to see the Brisbane River finally subside and by Saturday it was still a muddy mess.

The scenes were just like those you see from stock standard CNN or BBC or ABC footage of a calamity overseas, and you could have easily mistaken the scenes for Dhaka, Port-au-Prince or New Orleans, with discarded furniture, toys, appliances and plasterboard dumped on the nature strip between properties and streets.

As I got off the bus, a friendly guy about my age let my take use of one of his several cleaning tools he brought along — a rake, brooms and window cleaner. We headed towards the block with the most devastation left and in most need of some help. The mud was a foot deep in places, and several inches in others. It was a slippery, sticky, watery, awful mess. One saving grace, if you can call it that, was that as the mud had only been exposed 18 hours at most, it was still to develop a wholly pungent, disgusting aroma. I took some comfort in that it was only mildly disgusting for the most part, and not as bad as I had envisioned. (See map of Brisbane during the peak of the flood on Thursday, 13th January, 2011)

We set upon a block on Macquarie Street, which runs parallel to the Brisbane River 50 metres away. We arrived at about 11am and there were already at least 200 people on the scene, cleaning, discarding, removing, sweeping, shovelling and hosing. I went up to one particularly muddied apartment block and got to work sweeping away muck.

Luckily, the weather was on our side, being mild and humid yet overcast without rain. The overcast conditions helped in not making it too hot and causing the mud to start sticking while the rain thankfully held out, not jeopardising cleaning efforts already made.

Hours went by and the numbers swelled. Soon there were bobcats, electricity representatives, water representatives, State Emergency Services workers and volunteers, police, fire fighters, and army soldiers all doing their part to help clean the place, aided by several hundred volunteers, residents, students, neighbours and friends from all backgrounds and walks of life. It was a surreal but heartening scene, seeing all these people work together for the common goal.

After several hours of continuous work, I decided to take a break and look for some food and drink. The local shops had also been flooded, and they did truly reek of a mixture of rotten vegetables and perishable items. Thankfully, just up the road the Lions Club of Pine Rivers — located just 50 kilometres from Brisbane — had set up a stall by the road serving sausages and drinks. As I reached for my wallet, the bloke manning the booth said, “You won’t be needing that, mate!” with a wry smile. Back on the streets there were also scores of children, teens and adults serving drinks, pizza, sandwiches, biscuits and beer to workers, including a family of Middle Eastern children handing out apples. The community spirit in this time of need was something you don’t often encounter.

Five and a half hours after I started my shift at the site, we were bussed back to Mount Coot-tha, and I was absolutely buggered. I could barely walk, talk or move after a hard day’s labour shovelling, sweeping and raking mud. All day yesterday it hurt to move, and today I still have twinges in my legs and arms. Though, there’s still a lot of work to do and they still need volunteer help.

I’ve put my name down on the volunteer register and if I don’t hear back from them within the next few days, I’ll probably head back down to an affected site and put in a few more hours for the cleaning cause.

The local shops in my suburb, though not directly affected by waters, are still closed. Presumably because houses behind on the same block were inundated and it’s too early to turn on the power. The roads are still blocked and public transport is returning back to normal for the most part and free for the remainder of the week as a means to entice more people off the roads.

Brisbane’s still got a long way to go until it’s fully recovered. But, it has made some mighty strides already in the past five days.