FIVE YEARS ON: An Australia Day none of us will forget
By Christina Ongley
IT'S often said that life's biggest turning points come when you least expect them.
In many ways, Australia Day 2013 started out like many other Queensland summer Saturdays - hot, wet and humid.
We knew to expect a lot of rain as ex-Tropical Cyclone Oswald made its way down the coast, but that wasn't unusual for that time of year.
And, besides, the weather system was just supposed to pass through Wide Bay on its way south.
But we didn't expect what the day would lead to - the worst natural disaster Bundaberg had ever experienced.
As the rain beat incessantly down on the tin roof of my Childers home, I received a call just after lunch from off-duty reporter Vanessa Marsh, who had filmed a mini-tornado off the coast of Bargara as she and her partner were driving out there.
We agreed she'd try to assess the damage on the ground while I tried to find out more information from official sources, and we'd collaborate to get something online.
We didn't know it then, but that would be the start of 10 relentless days of covering one of the biggest stories of our lives. I was 13 weeks pregnant.
That day, the story changed rapidly. We called photographer Max Fleet away from the job he was doing and sent him to Bargara, but he hadn't been there long when we found out there had been three more tornadoes to hit Burnett Heads and Coonarr.
As the rain kept falling, Max documented the drama with stills and video, and he and I stayed up until well past midnight working to edit the footage and get it online throughout the afternoon and evening.
NewsMail was the only media outlet to get footage of what had happened in Burnett Heads but, as it turned out, it hardly mattered. By the time the story and pictures had made it online the story had changed again.
Just before midnight, I got a phone call from Deputy Mayor David Batt telling me what I hoped wouldn't happen but feared would - the weather system that was supposed to have kept moving south hadn't budged, and a flood alert was about to be issued.
We grabbed a few hours rest, and early the next morning chief-of-staff Liz Carson and I called all our staff to see if they could come in to work. We couldn't get hold of everyone - some were unable to get in immediately because of road closures, others had lost power and hadn't been able to charge their phones. But we pulled together enough people on the ground to start working towards what would be a disaster-consumed Monday paper.
From a flood point of view, there's little I can say here that hasn't been or won't be said elsewhere. We know the river height officially reached 9.5m, we know about the destruction it caused, the community response in the clean-up, and the long and painful aftermath for many.
But there are a few things I want to say about some of the things our team of reporters and photographers did behind the scenes that stood out for me during that time.
Many of them were young and relatively inexperienced, and threw themselves into a very confronting situation not just with great gusto but also with great sensitivity. A number of us had previously covered the summer floods of 2010-11 and thought we knew what to expect. We were wrong.
The NewsMail office was quickly and catastrophically inundated, and while general manager Angus Irwin and a number of admin and advertising staff bravely ventured into a flooded building to salvage what they could, the editorial team tried to find a new home.
There was a TV news report at the time which has always made me proud (although ironically, I've never seen it for myself because I was too busy working at the time - plenty of people told me about it the next day).
Channel Seven had sent a team up from Brisbane to report on the disaster, and one of its reporters did a live cross from the top of the Auswide Bank building while the camera person panned around to show various parts of the city under water.
At one point they focused on the NewsMail building, whose signage was peeking out of the dirty brown water.
The reporter explained that this was the local newspaper's building, and that he had no idea how they were doing it, but a paper had come out every day since the disaster started.
So I'll tell you how we did it.
To begin with we had virtually no reliable communications except our phones, and very few working computers. Many of us worked from home laptops, and for those of us who weren't already set up to work from home, our IT team did what they could to get us remote access to the editorial system.
For the first few days our team was almost never in the one place at the one time.
Liz and I had regular phone briefings, and as she marshalled and directed our reporters and photographers, I worked to find us a proper base. After a couple of false starts, we eventually landed at a computer lab at CQUniversity, thanks to the generosity of campus head Professor Phillip Clift. The sound of helicopters flying overhead was a constant reminder for everyone of the seriousness of the disaster.
For the first three days I was stuck in Childers and cut off from my team, thanks to an impassable Gregory River bridge, but the saving grace of that was that I at least had reliable communications when virtually no one else did.
Our reporters and photographers would go out and gather stories and pictures during the day, feed me information for online updates as they could, and then in the afternoon they'd bring back their jumble of images, interviews and information.
Stories would be emailed to me for input into the system and editing, while pictures would be dumped into dropboxes for our Sunshine Coast colleagues to put into our picture archive. Communications inched along.
It was then up to me and sub-editor Jay Fielding, who was on the Sunshine Coast at that time, to sort through the mass of words and pictures and draw it together into a newspaper that told the key stories but whose content also flowed (pardon the pun).
Our daily print deadlines were about 8pm, but we were never going to make that. There were too many challenges up against us. For the first five days we didn't finish the paper before 11.30pm.
Our colleagues in distribution and delivery also managed amazing feats in ensuring the papers reached the community. Due to road closures all over the place, we flew in papers at the start and then returned to trucks when we were able.
We did bigger print runs. And although we struggled to deliver papers to a number of areas until the floodwaters started to recede, we got extras to newsagents and sold out just about every day.
Under the guidance of online editor Crystal Jones, supported by Sunshine Coast colleagues, we were updating our website and Facebook page constantly with pictures, road closure information, personal stories, tales of resilience and of shocking damage - including the collapse of part of the Tallon Bridge.
In one 24-hour period, we had more than a million hits on our website and our Facebook following grew by the thousands as the disaster wore on. Readers knew we were the one central place they could come to for just about all their flood-related information.
Everywhere we were faced with challenges, but our team refused to be bowed by them.
Max couldn't get home for three days and we put him up in a motel so he could at least get some sleep. Another photographer, Scottie Simmonds, couldn't get into town for days but he stayed on the north side of the river and captured some of the enduring photos of the disaster. He travelled by boat and also helped many people in need.
Mike Knott, who still works for the NewsMail, took some incredible photos of the clean-up that distilled both the humanity and the tragedy of the event in single images.
Vanessa's street was flooded and she had to evacuate her home before the flood peak. At one point, with no access to power, she would drive around in her car to charge her phone and laptop, do interviews and then file when she had more battery.
Crystal seemed to be everywhere online, whether she was at home or in the office.
After 10 days of working from about 6am through to midnight every night, as our coverage then moved to the clean-up and recovery phase and the seemingly endless flow of politician visits, the pregnant woman fell in a heap and needed to have a sleep-in.
I woke at 11am - bliss! - and headed back to the university, where we would be stationed for several weeks until our press site could be set up to accommodate us in a makeshift office. We remained in the press site for four months before we were able to return to our building.
Some of our staff struggled to adjust after the major disaster phase was over. The adrenaline had become addictive. Others ended up needing a bit of support once they realised the impact the event had actually had on them.
As the editorial team had been covering the mess outside, we'd been protected from the mess inside our own building because we'd had to work from elsewhere. But many admin and advertising staff put in the hard yards to clean up that filthy, mud-ridden office that saw 1.2m of water go through its top level.
Following months of repairs and renovations - and the loss of decades of history that will always make me sad - we eventually moved back in not long before I went on maternity leave. It was an emotional day for all of us.
These days, I'm no longer at the NewsMail.
But this newspaper - the place where I started my career nearly 20 years ago and oversaw the coverage of two natural disasters - will always hold a special place in my heart.
And that bump in my belly is now a rambunctious four-year-old boy - a chatterbox, a poser of many thoughtful questions. We talk about that time quite a lot and I've assured him our Kalkie home is absolutely safe from flooding.
My mind drifts often to that Channel 7 report and that NewsMail building swallowed up by a swollen river. We were under water, but we stood tall.
And we never, ever missed a paper.