Day we discovered who our friends were

January 20, 2011

The beautiful parkland opposite my house had disappeared. I watched as the swings and slides of the playground vanished beneath murky brown waves. The rooftops of houses on the other side of the park soon vanished too. Within hours it was difficult to see where they had been.

A torrent of rusty-coloured water was right on my doorstep. Pieces of furniture, children's bicycles, rubbish bins and the occasional car floated past my front lawn.

A helicopter winched what looked like an entire family to safety not more than half a mile away. There was even a report on the radio that a bull shark had been spotted swimming down a suburban street.

By late afternoon, the power had failed and water began to enter my own house. My daughter had already seen all the snakes and cane toads swimming up to the house; now they were about to come inside. I had sandbagged all the entry points, sealed as much as I could with huge sheets of council-provided plastic and liquid sealant. Together with the previous owners' plan to build above the 1974 flood levels, this proved to be my saving grace: what little water entered the house during the night was easily expelled later on.

But, as darkness fell, I had feared the worse. I set up a mattress and mosquito net, made instant noodles with a tiny camping stove and got ready for a few hours sleep.

But, just as I was about to lie down, a voice shouted from the front. "All right up there mate? Fancy a cold beer?" A man I have never seen before – or since – sat in his canoe, floating in my front garden. He threw up the can of beer, I said my thanks and off he sailed.

Later, I had more visitors. Friends and complete strangers had climbed over neighbouring roofs to reach my own. Armed with industrial generators, fans and huge pumps, they had seen my torchlight and come to the rescue.

I was inundated with text messages and calls from family and friends, from the UK, US, Israel and Denmark. There were offers of support from the local Board of Deputies – and a promise of kosher food from Chabad.

By early morning – although still surrounded by murky brown waves – the inside of my house was dry and relatively clean. I was one of the lucky ones.

Many of my neighbours suffered badly. Walking along my own street when the waters finally retreated was like stepping into a disaster zone.

Within hours, however, the desperation had been replaced by a sense of gratitude. Strangers came from far and wide to offer their assistance and their sympathy. Men, women and children were walking up and down the street in wellingtons and gardening gloves, stopping at each house to offer help, hot food or drinking water.

Slowly, the echo of laughter replaced the sound of muffled sobs.

A local Chabad emissary sent out an email to inform us that "mateship" is both a very Jewish and a very Australian response. He reckons the original Australian word for mate – cobber – originates from the Hebrew chaver. I'm not sure about the etymology, but when help was needed most, there was no shortage of people willing to put up their hand.

Rob Minshull

Last updated: 10:51am, January 20 2011