Lockyer this year choppered into the Queensland town of Grantham, just after it had been devastated by an “inland tsunami” which swept away whole families trying to shelter in their houses. More than thirty people were initially thought to have died, a high figure for Australia where natural disasters might cause billions of dollars damage but result in relatively few deaths.
Paul Lockyer, 61, has been a journalist since 1969. A former foreign correspondent, he’s worked in Bangkok, Washington and Singapore. These days he works for 7.30, the ABC current affairs program, reporting on droughts and more recently, floods.
Lockyer had been in the ABC helicopter in central Queensland, covering the flood crisis , when he heard of a disaster, across the Great Dividing Range in the Lockyer valley. They set out at first light. The ABC pilot, Gary Ticehurst dodged the thunderstorms, found a hole in the clouds and landed on a patch of dry land near the smashed pub at .
“We couldn’t believe what we were seeing,” Lockyer said. “The lower parts of the town had been battered and devastated”. “We knew some people had got out but we just didn’t know how many. “There was no sign of life which was even more eery and frightening. “Suddenly one person came out of the flood waters to report what had happened and then another…Gary said to me we had better get ready to administer first aid, because if anyone one had survived, they would be injured.”
The village’s survivors had rallied at the local school on the hill where an off duty policeman was “trying to bring some order to the mayhem”, doing a roll call to identify the missing and dead. The ABC chopper had been the first to arrive.
The shock of seeing what the flood waters did to Grantham, I don’t think anything really prepares you for that. …An old mate rang me later in the day and said, “You don’t look yourself”…. Obviously you haven’t been through it but you are confronted by stories images you have not seen before. Your brain takes time to compute it…With experience, you can steel yourself though and I think that’s what gets you through.
How do journalists guard against intruding on people’s grief?
We were … the only media in this town for twenty four hours. So perhaps we had the luxury of standing back… You have got to be acutely sensitive, not just in disaster situations. The best foreign correspondents survive because they are sensitive to their surroundings and sensitive to the people around them. You almost need to have a sixth sense to tell you what people are feeling to survive in war zones. The worst thing you can do in a disaster is to come rushing in[to report ].
Journalists needed to hold back to take in the situation.
You always know in a situation like that there will be some people who just are absolutely grief stricken or shocked beyond belief. They might be just sitting alone staring off into the wilderness. Others will be just cradling each other in their arms. But there is always a group who , and this part of shock, will want to talk about what has happened. And this is in the full flush with the adrenalin still pumping. But you have got to stand back and work out who they are and don’t go in boots and all, with cameras rolling.
Reporters needed to be able spend time to select people “best able to tell the story”. This took “a bit of discipline”. People would respect this and there was less chance of being seen as intrusive.
In our case, we had to spend twenty four hours with these people, sleep with them in the school house. You don’t want to be their enemy. You want to be their friend. They considered us, after that twenty fours hours, their ally, so much so that they were keen for us to a month later to hear their stories and tell us how they progressed.
- Bligh, Gillard visit devastated Grantham (news.theage.com.au)
- Grantham residents go home (news.theage.com.au)
- Flood: Stories and images from the ABC of survival, loss and courage during the Queensland floods (booktopia.com.au)