Sunday, March 26, 2006


Townsville Bulletin reporter Vicki Campion spent last week inside Innisfail, and surrounding communities, and has written a heartbreaking portrait of the people she met and the horrific scenes she witnessed. Go here for the full report, it was well worth reading in full.

Below are just a few of her observations :

"No one was spared in the North Queensland communities. If the family home made it through, the family car did not. Dogs went missing, at least one elderly man died of a heart attack and pregnant mothers had premature births.

"Those left with nobody sat in the ruins of their home, the relentless rain dripping in like some sort of Chinese water torture.

"Monday morning was eerie, the rainforest a decapitated skeleton of what was once known as the Great Green Way. It was a wind-whipped landscape. Trees were left leafless and uprooted.
Billboards were smashed. Panels of wooden fencing ripped apart. Banana trees snapped mid-trunk, their suckers flattened by the wind. Hectares of sugarcane left to rot in the mud.

"The first family we met was hysterical, the elderly woman of the house wearing her blue gumboots on the wrong feet, as she walked the circumference of what remained of her home, again and again. All she had left was her dead husband's orchids. The walls of her Queenslander could not be found, the iron of her roof morphed into a twisted grin on her front lawn. She hugged me. And cried.

"Further along in Mourilyan, the newly renovated century-old hotel is shattered. The roof has been partially flung off and the balcony collapsed. Men, hotel guests, were drinking a beer on that veranda. Here, they smiled and said they were lucky, they knew they would get through it.

INSIDE INNISFAIL : "Survivors stunned after spending the morning huddled with their family, under the bathroom sink, gripping the toilet, hours of hearing smashes as light fittings burst, as glass windows exploded, as the floorboards cracked from underneath their feet and their children screamed in fear.

"The town was void of life on Monday, save scrounging reporters and teenage boys with an appetite for destruction. But even they were scared, they just wouldn't admit it.

"Nearly 24 hours later the alarms of the TAFE college and Coles supermarket are still ringing, the gutters are piled with twisted rooftops, broken pipes and tree debris. The windows are still taped up and people are beginning to leave their houses.

"The only phones that work are pay phones and there is a half hour queue for those. Tensions are mounting and women scream at each other. 'I have no f...... house, no f...... power, no f...... any f...... thing. I have nothing.'

"Hungry children mill with their parents on Edith St at Hope's Kitchen, an accidental charity which began when a cafe owner cooked up the contents of his fridges for SES volunteers.Then his neighbour borrowed a drill and in return gave him three crates of bread. Hope's Kitchen was all that fed those children and their mothers. The volunteers have an astronomical mess of their own to clean up.

"'But what can we do with these kids? They have not eaten in days - turn them away?'

"Babies are wrapped in plastic to keep what little clothes they have left dry, four-year-old girls play on planter boxed trees that have fallen over. Firefighters are running into collapsed buildings and searching for bodies."


Vicki Campion paints a very different scene of what happened last Wednesday when Prime Minister John Howard and State Premier Peter Beattie entered the town. She writes of how they came in dry clothes, surrounded by media, hauling their own generators, good and water supplies. Many locals called out angrily to the politicians and media, many more simply turned their backs on the Prime Minister and Premier Beattie when they visited the queues of people who had lined up for days in the rain for the most meagre kind of help and aid. A press conference saw promises of aid on the way, but the politicians' advisors were already aware that hundreds of tons of aid, food and equipment were stuck in the back of trucks trapped on the far side of the flooded Bruce Highway. This information was kept from the media and the locals until the Photo Opportunity Tour was well and truly over.


More from Vicki : "Evacuation centres were an ugly shell housing the most desperate. One classroom had three families - a total of six children and four adults sharing four thin single mattresses and a two-day-old loaf of bread. I play with a five-year-old there named Fritz with a spider man action doll. He said got it for Christmas. This year, he told me, all he wanted was a bed with sheets, shoes and something yummy.

"'And for mummy to stop crying,' he said. 'I'm going to be good for Santa.'


It wasn't just the commercial networks that censored and downplayed the true scope of the suffering of the people of Innisfail, SBS and ABC also played their part in keeping the full story from the eyes and ears of all Australians as well. It is not simply that they censored the honest reactions of Australians booing the Prime Minister when he breezed into town, it is that they failed to report the full story.

Was it decided that it was all too much for Australians to see? Too heavy? Too monumental?

Well that is not for the media to decide, they were there to tell the full story, to report what they saw and heard, without filtering and shaving off the bitter, sharp edges.

Vicki Campion's staggering portrait of a town plunged into the pits of heartbreak and despair was one of only a handful of stories that treated the people of Innisfail with the honesty and dignity they deserved.

Prime Minister John Howard, and State Premier Peter Beattie, must have been very pleased with how the Australian media who travelled with them to Innisfail toed the line and reported pretty much only what the spin masters wanted Australians to see and to know.

The full story creeps out, only now, as the recovery and rebuilding begins.