Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A Storm

I’d say everyone in Perth would remember where they were during the thunderstorm of March 22, 2010.

It was the most demonic in living memory.

The brutal weather marched into the city from the north, pelting the suburbs with giant hail stones, dumping around sixty millimetres of rain in half an hour, and ripping through the streets with winds that could have stripped paint from cars. The suddenness and violence of the storm, the drumbeat eruptions of thunder and the sight of the natural world in a mania had the inhabitants of the isolated city cowering.

I know that I remember, and I have a feeling the Ntumba-Mata family in Thornleigh will remember. They had only been in Australia for a couple of weeks and were in their Government-supplied temporary accommodation watching the dark arrive at four in the afternoon. After spending a dozen years in a refugee camp in Kenya you’d think it would be hard to shock the Congolese family with anything. But the deep purple cloud advancing on the skyline and the eerie dull glow of the afternoon light had them transfixed at the window. Something biblical was afoot and they knew it.

The diabolical rain and the wind and the hail descended upon their street, and the family were tense and anxious. Jojo, the four year old, whimpered. Obed ,ten, stared out silently at the scene and Annie said “Stevie, what this? No good, no good.”

The power went out and the safety we felt from being secure inside was eroded. The rain was heaving down with such force that it felt as though the roof may collapse, and then it looked like it did. From around the window and door frames, water came into the house. First it seeped down the wall, but in seconds it was gushing uninhibited like a waterfall following its natural course. It poured downwards and pooled, spreading wider and wider across the bare living room floor. Annie called out to Obed and he ran out of the room, returning in a second with a small towel – just a bathmat really. With this flimsy cloth he tried to stem the tide.
I tried asking Annie about more towels or a mop, but the language barrier and the shock that both she and I were feeling, made communication difficult. She had a dismayed, defeated air to her. She had dragged her family from the seat of misery and desperation in Africa, leaving her dead husband behind, to begin a life of light and hope in Australia. She was here with her teenage kids, her young boy Obed and grandson Jojo, they all relied on her. She thought she had turned a corner. But what was this, this violence sent from the devil himself to crush her and sweep her family away once more?

Without power there was nothing to eat. The only food in the cupboard was the maize flour and relish which needed to be cooked in boiling water. Jojo was crying and the house was in darkness, there was water everywhere.

The two older kids still weren’t home so I took Obed with me and went in search of some food.  The worst of the storm had passed but the streets were underwater, many impassable. Cars with windscreens smashed and panels dimpled by hail were ploughing through puddles of uncertain depth, others turning around where they could. Trees were fallen, power lines lay tangled and roofs were smashed. I found a way through to the shops but there was no power anywhere, nothing was open.

I felt shaken and couldn’t think straight. I could feel the chaos in the air, people driving on the wrong side of the road, some wandering out of their houses to stare at the damage. Without much of a plan, but knowing I wasn’t much help there, I dropped Obed back and drove down the Leach Highway towards home. I hoped that Guelor, Annie’s nineteen year old son would come home soon and take charge. He’d at least be able to communicate with her, which I couldn’t. I had only recently signed up as a volunteer to help the Ntumba-Matas learn English, and settle in to their new life in Australia. I wasn’t equipped to deal with this, and well I guess I freaked out and needed some space to think.

As I got near Fremantle the shops were lit up again, and when I got home I found the power on. I had a quick cup of tea, gathered my wits and grabbed a mop and bucket, some candles and drove the thirty minutes back down the Leach Highway. With these supplies and an armful of greasy fast food I arrived at the Thornleigh home to find that Guelor had arrived and had brought some reassurance. The storm had passed and they’d be alright, of course they would.

On a happier day with Jojo and Obed

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