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Miserable New Year

Nick Bryant | 02:09 UK time, Tuesday, 4 January 2011

I want to wish you all a Happy New Year, but that doesn't quite fit the mood here in flood-stricken Queensland. As you know, the state is dealing with the most widespread flooding in its history, making a mockery of Queensland's famous boast: that it is beautiful one day and perfect the next.

With its aquamarine seas, inviting beaches and tropical feel, the Sunshine State so often provides the stock footage of tourism advertisements. Picture postcard Australia, if you like. Proof of the country's status as a lifestyle superpower. But the most striking images these past few days have been of muddy brown waters covering vast expanses of land - "Germany and France combined" is the yardstick de jour.

 Partly-submerged signs in Bundaberg, Queensland

From flooded homes to ruined crops, from mines swamped by water to families separated from their loved ones by flood plains, this has been the most miserable of starts to 2011.

We have been here for the past few days, and have shared, in a very minor way, some of the frustrations. The closed roads. The intense heat and humidity. The mosquitos. The threat from venomous snakes. The uncertainty of not knowing where you are going to spend the next night, or whether we will get to power the gear we need to broadcast. Needless to say, these inconveniencies do not even merit the slightest quiver on the gauge of human suffering compared to what Queenslanders have been confronting.

A colleague once described reporters as being like the storm-troopers of globalisation, descending, like a flash mob, on people caught in the clutch of awful circumstance, and then leaving the scene as quickly as the story slipped from the headlines. Largely because of the advances in satellite technology and the internet, news organizations have become adept at providing real-time coverage of these kinds of disasters. What we are not particularly good at conveying, quite frankly, is showing the extent to which these events blight peoples' lives for months, and often years to come.

Interest will probably peak with the floodwaters. So farmers rueing the loss of their crops or people with inadequate insurance trying to figure out how to rebuild will probably do so out of the global glare.

There will be ramifications across Australia, of course, way beyond the flood zone. It will mean increased grocery prices at supermarkets and lost revenues from the mining sector - estimated at A$100 million a day - which will have knock-on effect of the state and federal coffers.

In this face of this disaster, various national character traits have come to fore. After all, clichés often start out as truisms. There has been the grittiness and self-sufficiency one would expect. The love of home, which partly explains the reluctance of residents to leave. A strong community spirit, especially in the bush. The acute understanding, long-held in this part of the world, that nature can be furious and overwhelming. Then, of course, there is the gallows humour.

I write from a boat trying to make it as close to Rockhampton as we can get. You will forgive me my wry chuckle when, amidst families loaded with must-have luggage, a young bloke came on board clutching a box of Castlemaine 4X.


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