The Indomitable Human Spirit

Lucky me. I live on the Gold Coast, in South East Queensland, Australia. It is a beautiful place to live, not big enough to be a city but not too small to be a town. 40 km of beautiful beaches. Fabulous weather, outdoor lifestyle, 1 hour to the nearest city, Brisbane, and 1 hour by plane to Sydney.

It is also currently `life as usual` while all around us the most horrific destruction is in the process of being cleaned up. Unless you have been under a rock, you will know that Australia, particularly Queensland, has been hit by devastating floods, and an inland ‘tsunami’. This time last week, as the rain kept coming down, an event of biblical proportions was in its warm-up phase. Monday afternoon the inland tsunami hit Toowoomba, a peaceful little town at the top of a range overlooking the capital city,  Brisbane. The water proceeded to flow down the range into the valley below. The first warning in one community that there was serious trouble was when a house literally flowed onto the local pub. These communities did not have any warning of the sudden and unforgiving act of nature that has devastated their lives. On Wednesday morning Brisbane city went under. 36,000 homes have been affected. The Brisbane CBD shut down for 5 days. 20 people are confirmed dead, with at least 10 more expected. A visit to my local supermarket today shows rows of empty shelves, hardly any fresh produce.

Queensland has been considered by the southern states of Australia, particularly New South Wales (the state that is home to Sydney), and Victoria (capital, Melbourne) to be a bit of a cultural backwash. The rivalry between Queensland and New South Wales around a football code is of epic proportions. Each year there is a 3 match, “State of Origin”, a true clash of the titans. Yet South East Queensland is the fastest growing area in Australia. Why? Because it is a ‘bloody great place to live’, as us Aussies would say. Weather, lifestyle, affordability.

And now we are on the map not only for the major disaster, but for the response to the disaster, which has left anyone either involved or observing with a deep sense of pride and awe at the nature of the human spirit when pushed to the wall.

By Friday last week the clean up was in full swing. On Saturday and Sunday thousands of people volunteered to spend the day is stinking mud and the ruins of people’s lives, lending a hand. Total strangers cleaned out the destroyed homes of thousands of people. The Twittersphere was the nerve centre for requests for water, food, volunteers, and the place that allowed an army of mum’s and kids to bake food for the people who had lost everything, and the people that came to their aid to salvage something.

By Monday most of the hard clean up work was done. Now it was up to the trade workers, builders, electricians, and plumbers to come in. 3 days to get rid of the personal effects of so many households. And to get this rubbish pile off the streets. And to open streets, and restore electricity to as many homes as possible. 3 days the ‘mud army’ pitched in.

It was the most remarkable experience of human generosity and contribution many of us have ever witnessed. And it still goes on.

With out a doubt, part of this incredible effort was supported by a group of leaders in public office who rose to the extreme challenge of leadership in the midst of disaster. 75% of the State of Queensland had already been affected by flooding post New Year. The South East Queensland floods were round two. A few towns went under twice within two weeks.

The State premier, Anna Bligh, rose, like a phoenix out of the ashes. Prior to this event, she was an unpopular Premier. But few could fault her leadership through this disaster. From Tuesday morning she was on air every two hours, with clear and comprehensive information, spoken with a very human touch. There was a steady and reliable flow of information, and a real sense that the logistics of disaster management where well in hand. We, the public, got to experience an Anna that was a resident of Brisbane first, and Premier second.

Several years ago, when some of my large corporate clients announced that they were cutting staff by 2000 in the next six months, they handled the human aspect of this very poorly. Imagine going to work each day not knowing if you would find out you did not have a job. And having that status continue for 6 months! Very little communication, very little update. I told the leaders I was working with that no matter if they did not have any more information, they still needed to report each day, and speak to the concerns and fears of their people. Speaking of no news is far better than being silent. In times of crisis, people need more news, or even more communication that there is no new news. They want to know that someone is there for them. And they want to be reassured that their leaders are thinking of them, and intent on keeping them informed, especially when there is nothing to inform them of. Silence allows our minds to make things up. A report of no news, delivered in a compassionate way, helps our thoughts from running amuck.

Anna Bligh did an exceptional job of keeping people informed. Not just with information, but with human spirit and heart. We felt she was there for us. Not in an official capacity, but as an inspirational leader.

Social networking tools played their part. #qldfloods provided a constant stream of information. Facebook pages were set up for news, for volunteers, for the care of animals. Many initiatives were generated on the ground by people with no public office. The whole impulse was very simple, “What can I do to help?”

While mother nature had unleashed her vengeance, human nature transcended. People took what they had in abundance, their time, their energy, their ability, their leadership, their creativity, their skills, and simply offered them where needed the most.

As an avid reader of politics, economics, geopolitics, it is hard to avoid the comparison of the Queensland response to the one in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. While I was not on the ground in New Orleans, I did, like most of the world, stay tuned to its unfolding drama. Comparatively, I would say that the response in New Orleans was of the nature of a very poor developing country without strong and able leadership. This makes me very sad. America was once a great nation.

Now as we go about the rebuild, we have the opportunity to speak into the future of what we rebuild and how. Continuing to surf the amazing human spirit that responded to this disaster, Queensland can rebuild in a way that affirms everything that most of us know is possible. Spaces and places and infrastructure that invites the best of us, the best of mother nature. We have the opportunity in this moment to rebuild a state that models all that the future is demanding of us and invites the best of human design and know how.

Let Queensland be a Phoenix in every sense of the word.

If you want to view an amazing site that shows exactly how the floods affected each area in Brisbane, then check this out.

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