Theodore has a population of only 450 or so. But in the story of its people are some important lessons on how to survive disaster that will resonant in Christchurch and northern Honshu, all of them centred on individuals being able to rely on others. The themes are universal but it's what Australians like to call mateship.
|The Dawson: A river bites back|
The experience was traumatic for the whole community and only now are many people being hit by an acute sense of despondency, as the extent of their loss sinks in. Tears are not far from the surface and each cloud cover and rain drop brings a renewed sense of dread. "I just can't sleep if I hear rain on the roof", one resident tells us. "I have terrible nightmares of the water raging around me again and being covered in mud", says another. In some cases, the pain is exacerbated by disputes with insurance companies over the extent of flood coverage. "I'm developing a real hatred for my own insurer", says Liz, the owner of the local bus company. "I faithfully handed over my premiums for years expecting them to come to my aid in a crisis. Now we're at war".
But the story of Theodore is also one of survival and inspiration and especially the capacity for ordinary people to provide extraordinary service to their fellow citizens. Theodore takes it name from a former Queensland Premier,"Red Ted" Theodore, and is one of the few small towns in Australia to have been designed by the great Canadian architect Walter Burley Griffin, who designed Canberra, the national capital. "Theodorians" - as the local people call themselves - are immensely proud of their home and the sense of community it inspires. They continually refer to the "spirit of Theodore", as if the place itself is imbued with the optimism and pioneering "can do" attitude of its residents. That spirit is embodied in the local doctor, Associate Professor Bruce Chater ( yes, who says rural Queensland doesn't get top medical attention?) who's been a Theodore resident for 30 years.
|Duty of Care: Associate Professor Bruce Chater|
The only remaining dry land in town was a strip of roadway between the community-owned pub (pictured) and the Returned Services League clubhouse opposite. With the residents now crammed into the RSL after abandoning their flooded homes, a fleet of helicopters - private as well as military Blackhawks - began ferrying them to high ground in the adjacent mining town of Moura. The home video pictures of this evacuation on December 28th are startling, huddled groups sprinting towards the choppers in driving rain and four craft at a time gingerly taking off from an ever dwindling island in the middle of town. 351 people were moved in this way without incident in a matters of hours, a commendable feat under any circumstances but especially in such atrocious conditions. As one resident puts it - "God was smiling on Theodore that day. It was a bloody miracle".
|Warm welcome on dry land: The Moura mine|
The random acts of kindness continued when Theodore residents returned home to begin the heartbreaking task of assessing their losses and rebuilding. Sharyn, who owns the local bakery and cafe, tells a typical story. " I was just standing in the shop overwhelmed by everything, the mud, the water, everything. Suddenly a complete stranger appeared at the door and said 'I think you need some help' and immediately set to work removing the debris and cleaning up. This bloke stayed for three days. I only ever knew him as Barry the boilermaker from Biloela (a nearby town). But bless him. I'll never forget what he did for me".
It's this spirit that continues to be celebrated in Theodore as the town slowly recovers. It can't be prescribed, legislated for or enforced. It comes from the heart of people of goodwill. It is the essence of human kindness. And we can only hope that the same spirit prevails in the areas of devastation in northern Japan that fill our screens now, far from Theodore and the equally unforgiving Australian bush.