The news has been full of images of Hurricane Sandy. Like many people, I've been glued to the news, the twitter feeds, the live blogs. There is something about this real time reporting of events by ordinary people that just captures me. When reading the live blog on the Thought Catalog I came across this description of what it felt like to be walking through an area that had been damaged by the storm:
"Walking through Alphabet City, feel mostly emotional and sad. Think most
people do, storm tourists included. Mood is weirdly subdued and excited
at the same time, and makes me feel emotional for humanity in a way
that feels good but also sad. Not sure how else to describe it." (link)
I absolutely know what the author is feeling because I've felt it, in the aftermath of the Canberra bushfires. After the adrenaline surge of a terrifying event that you have survived, realising the damage and how much must be done to fix it, feeling scared and elated at the same time. It is a strange state, but one that for me gave way to an amazing gratitude for the community I live in and its ability to care for its members and heal over time.
On January 18 2003 Canberra was hit by a firestorm. For us, instead of the wind driving rain, it drove fire in giant balls or just in the form of smouldering leaves dropping from the sky. Over 500 homes were destroyed, 4 people died, many others were injured. The city and the bush around were left scared and nearly 10 years on if you know where the scars are still visible.
There are so many things I remember about that day. The vision of hell that was the scene when I was driving home, with the hill my family lives on silhouetted by fire. The thick smoke causing a darkness so intense it was like you could hold the dark in your hands. The moment when the darkness switched to bright orange and we knew the fire was coming. Watching the mountain across the valley burn in a matter of minutes. People ask if it was scary, we were too busy to be scared. During the firestorm we reacted on instinct, worked hard and fast. It was later, after the fire front had passed and we sat in the quiet listening to the radio that the significance began to sink in. Our neighbourhood had banded together and no houses in our street burned but we were also lucky that we were not in the area hit by fireballs.
I ventured out the day after the fire to see if the newspaper had been printed. There was no power, the hills around the city were black and smouldering and the air was still hazy with smoke. By the sides of the road were numerous damaged cars from crashes that occurred due to the thick smoke and lack of power for traffic lights. The atmosphere was quiet, I imagine like that of people emerging from the ruins of a bombed city after a battle. But by the end of the week the atmosphere had changed. There was an amazing sense of a community drawing together to support each other, to heal and an energised momentum to get things done.
If you haven't been through such an event it is hard to even imagine the way a community can work like that. Canberra is often accused of being soulless, aloof. But within what seemed like moments homes were found for those that needed them, some in unlikely places like a school's groundskeepers cottage, or the staff accommodation at Government House (home of the governor general). Shops donated clothes, I remember Cue gave any woman who came in who had lost everything two whole outfits for free. And every workplace, government department, sporting group etc held fundraisers.
Sometimes it does take the worst in life to bring out the best. I know that my community felt closer and warmer after the firestorm. I felt close to everyone in the city, that we shared a connection only those who have been through a traumatic event together can feel. My feelings on this city will forever be affected by those weeks in 2003 when people from everywhere worked to help those who needed us. This isn't a city to me, it is a community.
A massive disaster is not something I would wish on any community, but the feeling of belonging, being in the arms of a community of strangers who care, that made the heartache all worthwhile.