BEST OF 2023: When life becomes one disaster after another, isn't it time to act?

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ash in hand

Ash falls from the sky in Nowra, December 21, 2019. Photo: Zoe Cartwright.

Year in Review: Region is revisiting some of the best Opinion articles of 2023. Here’s what got you talking, got you angry and got you thinking this year. Today, Zoe Cartwright urges us to take action – now.

It’s November 2019 and I’m driving down the highway, toward the point where the clear blue sky changes to black and my stomach has that strange churning feeling that could be excitement or could be anxiety.

I’ve been a journalist for two years and I’ve never covered a disaster before.

At the impromptu evacuation camp near Ulladulla, the atmosphere is high, undefinable.

You couldn’t say anyone is happy to be here, but there’s a buzz in the air.

People hug, share stories, share resources, and try to keep themselves entertained.

I run into someone I know and now I’m part of the hugging, part of the ”What’s it look like at your place?”, ”Where’s your husband?”, ”Where are the horses?”

I record the stories of people who want to share. I don’t push the ones who are reluctant, quiet. I leave, relieved.

I’ve faced the hard task, I’ve recorded a piece of our history, and as a community journalist, when will I ever have to do something like this again?

A couple of weeks later, in our Nowra office, the light suddenly dims.

We walk outside and watch as the black stretches up from the south, across the clear blue sky, and slowly chokes the sun. It’s the last time we’ll see the sky for months.

It’s 2 pm. It’s my birthday, December.

I get the text message: “It’s too late to leave. Shelter in place.”

I walk outside and watch chunks of ash the size of my hand drift lazily from the hazy orange sky.

I hose down the house. It’s dry again by the time I’m done. There are leaves everywhere, and a petrol station is across the road. I live in a tinderbox. I live alone.

I call my mum and tell her I love her. I order a Chinese takeaway and pack the car in case a miracle happens and the road opens. I wait.

It’s New Year’s Eve. The highway is closed, again.

Tonight is meant to be bad – not for me, but for my family down the coast.

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I stay up on the phone to a friend, waiting, hoping.

The images that come out in the morning are terrifying. I get a quick call from mum – they fled home at 6 am.

She woke up in the night and saw the line of fire creeping down the hill towards them, hours earlier than anticipated. They’re sheltering on the beach.

Power goes, phone lines are down, the internet goes down.

The only link I have to home is the emergency services radio. I listen in the office, between phone calls, while I write.

I listen and hear the addresses of people I know, hear the panic in firefighters’ voices.

They never panic. I hear them say they can’t go in, there are no more trucks, there’s no more water. I cry.

My boss asks why I’m crying. I don’t know what to say.

I wake up at 5 am every day and start the calls, to emergency services, to crisis accommodation, to workmates.

I listen to the radio. I write. I cry. I call the people I love, if I can call, if they can answer.

bushfire damage

The Black Summer bushfires hit close to home for Zoe, with family members losing their homes. Photo: Kim Treasure.

I hope the information I’m sharing helps someone, anyone.

Sometimes I evacuate, sometimes I stay home.

The car is always packed, although sometimes I change my mind about what can stay, what could burn, and what I need to bring. About 10 pm I have a wine and if I’m lucky I snatch some sleep.

It’s 3 am and I lie in bed and listen to the now-familiar sound of gas cylinders popping as homes burn not too far away. It sounds like pebbles being thrown at a window.

I run into a friend from home in the carpark, on one of the days the highway is open.

“Come back,” she says, “it’s better to be together.”

I shake my head. I can’t, I think. I have to get information out. I have to let people know what’s happening, what’s coming. How could I help from home? I’d just be another mouth to feed, when the shops are closed and the only water is bottled.

I still don’t know whether I made the right decision.

After the fires are out, work gets us a morning tea.

I’m asked if I can order the food, please. And pick it up.

The newsroom stands in a shell-shocked line as some of the bosses from corporate tell us we’re not as appreciative as staff were in other offices. I go back to work.

I interview men from the fire front, experienced firefighters, army men, and sometimes both.

Most of them cry. All of the ones who do tell me I’m not allowed to put that in the story, and I promise not to. I keep the promise.

It’s too early, we are told, to talk about climate change. People have lost their homes, people are hurting, now is not the time.

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“I’ve never seen anything like this,” my 80-year-old gran says to me in a small, bewildered voice. She is not usually a small or bewildered person.

But now is not the time to talk about climate change. Thirty-three people died; more than 3000 homes were lost. It’s not the time.

It’s March 2020. I’m visiting a friend when the rain starts coming down, again. It’s been flooding for weeks. The roads home are closed, again.

I call work, say I’ll work remotely, start the calls again – Fire and Rescue, RFS, ambulance, police, council.

I have a small panic attack about my pets at home. I picture them drowning without me. I get back to work.

It’s February 2022. The rain has begun to pour again and my editor wants me to go and interview people in flood zones.

This doesn’t feel like a big one to me, but I go, knock on doors, and talk to more people about whether they’re prepared for what’s coming.

They’re mostly cheerful, mostly confident.

A week later, I’m talking to business owners who have lost everything. It wasn’t a big one – no one died – but it was big enough.

It’s July and I’m working in another country, at another organisation, this time on national and international news.

I watch as wildfires rip across America, Spain, Greece. I cut the audio. I cry. I watch as floods devastate Pakistan, Vietnam, I cut audio, I cry.

There’s some talk about climate reparations for poor countries. There’s more talk about how the 1.5C target is lost to us.

It’s November 2022. Floods are ripping through the Central West. My grandparents are flooded in; my aunt and cousin are volunteering at an evacuation centre. More people are dead, more displaced, more homeless.

It’s January 2023. It’s midnight and I’m scrolling Reddit, watching the floodwaters rise in Auckland.

I try to calm the anxiety in the pit of my stomach. I’m not in Auckland, I’m safe; my family is not in Auckland, they are safe. But other people are in Auckland, other families.

I try not to think about the waters rising, try not to think about the many, many ways you can be trapped.

I know I need to sleep, I know tomorrow I’ll get the call, because a day off isn’t a day off if there’s a disaster. The call comes at 8 am, I dress, I go to work. New country, new disaster, same phone calls.

Now’s not the time to talk about climate change; now’s not the time to talk about emissions, people are losing their homes.

I don’t know when it will be time. I don’t know how many disasters we need before we agree that climate change is here, that we need to change, that we must urgently adapt if we are to survive.

I don’t know what more, as one person, I can do.

I’ve covered disasters, I’ve written about climate change, I’ve interviewed people far smarter than me about what we can do, what we need to do.

I’ve given up meat, my car, single-use plastics (they still find their way into the house).

I don’t want to contribute to the sense of overwhelming, of despair, that leads to apathy.

I think we can do more, I know we can do more – if nothing else, COVID showed us the enormous, worldwide changes we are capable of making, almost overnight.

But when?

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cannedbeeria12:14 pm 03 Jan 24

Thank you Zoe, and I am sorry you had to learn the hard way.
Most journos have the benefit of easing into the bad stuff over years.

As to the right time – it was the right time many many years ago. The big issue facing us is compete with the billions of dollars being spent by those making huge profits out of destroying our planet. And of course, to those that are yet to be convinced by the hard facts and evidence that our climate IS chaging. It has been for decades, and WE are the cause.

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