From the Wandering Journo at Stories that Matter Studios this is The Streets of Your Town (SOYT) podcast.

The slice of Australian life podcast that takes you on an audio journey through theatre of the mind each episode.

In this special edition of SOYT - Stories of Survival - they go to the Sherwood Neighbourhood Centre, to meet Leigh Winsor.

It was only a few short years ago on January 11th 2011, that he found himself at the Sherwood Community Centre with little more than the shirt on his back. He was one of thousands of people caught in the floods that swept through Brisbane and Ipswich. This is his story of survival.

To mark Anti-Poverty Week (14 to 20 October 2018) listen to this podcast.

Transcript

Nance Haxton

From the Wandering Journo at Stories That Matter Studios, I'm Nance Haxton and this is the Streets of your town – the podcast that takes you on an audio journey through theatre of the mind, highlighting a different slice of Australian life each episode.

 

This is ‘Stories of Survival’, a special edition of Streets of your Town, brought to you in collaboration with community support group, The South West Wellness Collaborative.

 

It was only a few short years ago on January the 11th 2011 that Leigh Winsor found himself at the Sherwood Community Centre with little more than the shirt on his back. He was one of thousands of faces of the catastrophic floods that swept through Brisbane and Ipswich, inundating suburbs, and forcing thousands to flee their homes. Nothing was left of the Sherwood house he called home except for the walls, and for a while he wondered if he would ever be able to return to live there.

 

Today, under the veranda at the Sherwood Community Centre, which he called home for many months, he tells us how he pulled back from the brink, and now continues to help others at the centre by teaching computer skills.

 

So, Lee can you tell us a bit about yourself - how long have you lived in this part of Brisbane?

 

Leigh Winsor

I’ve lived at Sherwood since about 1975.

 

Nance Haxton

So that's a while. What brought you out here to start with?

 

Leigh Winsor

That's where we found a, you know, fairly inexpensive house. In those days there were areas of Sherwood which was quite inexpensive. As you know Sherwood there's a high side of the line and there's a low side, so if you're on the wrong side of the tracks you can afford to live.

 

Nance Haxton

Literally on the wrong side of the tracks.

 

Leigh Winsor

But in the last sort of twenty years or so things have gotten completely mixed up.

 

Nancy Haxton

Yes it’s a different sort of era now isn’t it? Have you lived in the same house all that time.

 

Leigh Winsor

Yes.

 

Nance Haxton

So looking back it must be incredible to see the changes that have happened all around you in that time.

 

Leigh Winsor

Yes, it was almost like a rural backwater. It was just a quiet little shopping centre and a locality and you know it has the history of the neighbourhood centre right back to the seventies too.

 

Nance Haxton

And you remember that as well?

 

Leigh Winsor

Oh yes, yes. It started off with volunteers you know, in little broken-down chemist shop where the post office is now – it was probably about as big as a matchbox, so it started off from those strange beginnings.

 

Nance Haxton

And now here we are back at the Sherwood Neighbourhood Centre where you do quite a bit of volunteer work.

 

Leigh Winsor

Yes I've been teaching computers since about 2001 2002.

 

Nance Haxton

So computers are your specialty; you quite enjoy that?

 

Leigh Winsor

The most interesting thing is in fact the process of engaging with people and seeing how they learn. That’s my background; one of the things, it was psychology, so I, suddenly I was always very sceptical - why people learn things. You see, people that are autodidacts they actually can't imagine how people learn things, but if you pay attention, it's actually quite a remarkable process.

 

Nance Haxton

Especially in such a diverse area as this. It sounds like you've really enjoyed getting to know some of these different cultures.

 

Leigh Winsor

Yeah well and it's not only that, but it's it's the range of people here who needs computers. It's changed over the years from the early days, but, there mainly lots of older women. We see the strategy is, we’re coming in here to learn this computer, but I can't tell my husband because I can’t tell him I'm better than him.

 

So there's always all these sort of things which you discover about about how people. Then over this time we've seen how computers have become an essential part of actually surviving in this society. If you haven't got an email address if you don't know how to internet bank, if you don't know this - then you're almost like a non-person, and it's getting harder and harder for people to survive.

 

Nance Haxton

So you're enjoying helping people out of that conundrum?

 

Leigh Winsor

Well, unless there is a resource of this kind, people simply fall through the net, yeah, and it's very unfair. Because you know, people that have lived their whole life as competent and aa abled people, suddenly they say I can't read the phone book anymore, it's in four point type. And they don't know how to find a tradesman without a computer – all those sorts of things. And it's quite astonishing just how dependent we’ve become on the thing – on our computerised world, and it may not be fair but it's just a reality.

 

Nance Haxton

And what about for you, you've also experienced the ups and downs, I think, of Sherwood life a bit. And having lived through the floods it sounds like that was certainly a very challenging time, most recently.

 

Leigh Winsor

Yes, that January, I think the 11th in 2011, and yes. Basically, my brother was in the process of dying. He was up in Central Queensland and I was going up to visit him, and I’d been up to visit him the week before. And I was coming back on the train, so the rain was closing in - it was chasing the train - so I didn't know whether I'd even get back to Brisbane. So that was two days before I got there, and my ute was bogged in the backyard. It was slipping on the on the grass and sunk down, so I just I spent the first half day digging it out.

 

Then the news was ‘well don't worry too much, ring up the Brisbane City Council and they'll explain exactly where the flood was going to be, and there's a lot of - a lot of kind of episodes of minor flooding, and it seemed to be that Brisbane was coping. And in some ways, I was a little bit complacent maybe, later, but the last two days I rang up the Brisbane City Council - they had an advisory thing - they had a recorded tape saying we expect; the expectation there's to be a flood in my area. But it was going to come up, and the estimation was it had come over the floor, but it wasn't going to come at a six-metre level.

 

So, I had sheds and the ceilings and things like that where I thought I could store things, so the house was absolutely packed with stuff of, you know, a lifetime. I had 20 thousand books, a whole lifetime collection of books. I started to spend the last day moving things up into the shed putting them up high, which was a complete waste of time, and because I'd been away, some of my neighbours had sort of actually started moving their furniture and appliances out - there was no possibility for that.

 

And so, on the morning, we looked out and it was a fine day, and we could just see the water coming up. It looked smooth and ripply, and it looked clean as anything. Just very ,very slowly it came up and up and up.

 

Nance Haxton

That must have been quite an eerie feeling.

 

Leigh Winsor

Yes and at that stage we still didn't have the information that it was going to be as, as dramatic. I was listening to the radio and I had the computer going - all that sort of thing, and by about mid-morning it had come up about a metre or a metre and a half. I realised that, you know, I had to get things out. I put my computers on a floating raft and tried to get them out, but they fell off so I lost my computer.

 

Nance Haxton

Oh no.

 

Leigh Winsor

I made a few trips to get just a few things – I couldn’t carry much because I was having to wade through waste and neck high water to get out.

 

Nance Haxton

It sounds like this all happened quite quickly really in the end once it started coming in.

 

Leigh Winsor

Yes, over a couple of hours and I really got virtually nothing but when I was standing up in. I managed to get up to my ute which I'd parked up on the top of the hill. So that was the morning.

 

Then I started to sort of inquire - I got a phone call from someone that said maybe stay here the afternoon, and offered you could come and stay with me. That's too complicated. Anyway I arranged that I'd go across to someone at Moorooka - a lady at Moorooka, for a couple of days, and I managed to get across there.

 

By that time the water had come up and there was no access - the roads were blocked. I then I was stuck there for a while, I think two or three weeks without being able to get back - there was no access.

 

Nance Haxton

For that whole time?

 

Leigh Winsor

Yes, so the great lake of water across from Rocklea was just blocking the road - there was no other way to get in through Oxley, and so forth. That's basically how the flood was, but the

great shock was just how high it came. Then by that time the neighbourhood centre started to reoperate - it was isolated because staff couldn't get there either, and I was offered to sleep.

 

There's a housing service here, and there was one of the units that had had fibro walls and

they were all broken. They said you can stay there until something's found and so I moved in there. I thought I’d locked up properly, I had a camera and a knapsack - I had been in the process of getting repairs done on the house – I had a wallet with $8,000 on it. So, I locked it in there, and by that time I think I could get across to Moorooka to see a friend.

 

And I came back and the money was gone.

 

Nance Haxton

Truly?

 

Leigh Winsor

So I never saw that again. Apparently, the people were trapped in the housing unit here when the flood was on - they were stuck here. They had seen someone coming around and prowling, trying to open doors and they had actually rung the police. They never got any response. And so that was my start of the flood.

 

Nance Haxton

Of recovery, that was quite a blow.

 

Leigh Winsor

Eventually when the water went down, it was dramatic. Mine was pretty low, it was in a hollow, and so the mud was probably several inches thick and absolutely vile smelling. There's dead fish all over the yard believe me. How am I going to actually recover anything from the house; what am I going to do?

 

Nance Haxton

How did you go about doing that?

 

Leigh Winsor

Well it was a process of cleaning up and sort of cleaning up the higher streets coming down, and it was taking ages. At one stage, I think it was someone in the army, he said “nah mate it's not gonna happen there for ages”. And so eventually, it must have been probably about three weeks after most of the clean-up was done, they actually arrived at my house. And I tried to arrange it, and the volunteers, it was quite remarkable really, the amount of community volunteers that were available. About a hundred people, or about a hundred and twenty people I think, turned up at the house - all different groups from different areas.

 

Nance Haxton

How beautiful - did you find that encouraging at the time?

 

Leigh Winsor

Well it was very dramatic. At this stage I was probably, you know, I took it all very calmly. In some ways it was probably a kind of dissociation where you sort of just live in the present and you don’t think about the consequences or the realities of anything.

 

Nance Haxton

It must have been such a shock, you know, this is the house you’ve lived in for so long.

 

Leigh Winsor

I seem to be the calmest person around actually, but it's a kind of calm which

works by dissociation. But then they turned up, and they were all different teams. There were some people that - some people sort of were carefully taking things out. Other people were smashing everything - the big trucks there was an end-loader. You know, people are throwing things out the window, they broke the doors off, so they could throw things out, and you know, everything in the house was basically thrown out.

 

There was people, and I was saying rescue - I've got no family photos. Someone was putting them away carefully. Then the other people are going through and throwing them onto the truck, then I was climbing on the truck trying to rescue things, and it was just kind of total chaos. And then part of that was a Western Australian football team - there's about 25 of them I think, and they came in, and they were very enthusiastic. But they were breaking windows out there so they could throw things out the window, breaking doors off things.

 

There was a caravan, they all got together, and broke the door off the caravan, and broke all the windows, so that was left as a shell. But everything virtually was thrown out. It was just huge amounts of stuff. Huge. So I was left with a house still caked in mud - everything was mud, mud, mud. And what am I going to do, where am I going to live?

 

Nance Haxton

How did you make that decision that would have been very confronting I imagine - at the time after losing everything?

 

Leigh Winsor

Yes, and step one was to actually try and get things cleaned up - see what was possible. Could the house be renovated - that took quite a while.

 

Nance Haxton

And were you able to stay in the house in the meantime or what were you doing?

 

Leigh Winsor

Totally it wasn’t liveable, you know everything was broken. It even, you know, the clean-up crews sort of broke the sinks out, stoves out, the fridge - there was nothing left except a shell. Just broken walls, broken windows everywhere. And that was it.

 

Nance Haxton

So where were you living?

 

Leigh Winsor

Well, I was trying to live in the emergency housing here - what I found is it was just very difficult for me to sleep there. And so, I was sort of moving between there and my friend's house, and she had lots of problems too which I didn’t realise. So that was kind of walking, walking on eggshells as well. But eventually, fortunately the computer room - my good computer was lost of course. But I had one of my own computers in the computer room, which I used for teaching, so that was available, and I was able to sort of start making things. Finding repairers that could put a sink and a stove back in the house; that I had a friend who sort of had a gurney, and we came and we actually washed huge amounts of mud off the house.

 

It took a couple of days just to hose the mud off the outside walls; cleaned up inside and I think I got, I can't remember exactly, but I think I must have got some help cleaning the inside walls. At this stage on top of that, after the 2007-2008 financial crisis, I had about 40,000 invested with ING and they'd frozen the money. And so I was ringing, and ringing - and they said, ‘oh you can't -  the money is frozen you won't be able to see it’. And I said this is an emergency appeal, and so I was putting in this thing to renegotiate. ‘Oh yes we’re going to release it’, then I’d talk to them on the phone, then they'd say no you can't have it.

 

I was struggling - how was I going to be able to afford to even to clean anything up. The small amounts of money to get the electricity connected again - then I found out – you know, at this stage I was a little bit of a luddite in some ways with computers. That I was suspicious of mobile phones. I said, you know, if I get a mobile phone that I'll - might not be able to escape from people, which is very true. Anyway, so I had to get a mobile phone and that was - Telstra was redirecting, and so suddenly I was getting these huge bills for redirected calls. I’d spend half a few hours ringing up Telstra trying to get through, they’d say ‘oh yes we'll help you, we understand this. We’ll fix all these things, then it wasn't fixed -so I was in constant battle with Telstra to actually even escape these hundreds and hundreds of dollar bills for phone calls that I've never even seen.

 

Then further down the track I started getting these huge bills from the from the electricity company and see what had happened was - basically after the flood the gas pipes in the street had broken and collapsed. So, there was there was gas going everywhere so they fixed them, they removed the gas meter and the electricity meter from the premises, and they were still sending me these bills which were based on estimates of what I would - if there was meters there. So I would ring them up and (they would say) ‘you've had your three minutes - hang up pay the bill’. Okay can I speak to your manager, you've had your three minutes, pay your bill, shut up. And anyway, fortunately with a computer and things like that, and access to a phone, I was able to ring my local member.

 

Eventually, probably about eight months down the track they acknowledged that the meters weren't put in. They were saying you'll have to pay them some fee - several hundred dollars - to come out and inspect that the meters are still not there. They've been taken away by you. No no, in order for us to verify that we’ve got to, you’ve got to pay a fee for them to look and see that the meters aren’t there. It was totally insane.

 

Eventually, that was AGL. Eventually quite a long time after that, I got a call from the manager and it was the most abusive call I've ever seen in my life. Saying yes, we waived the accounts and it was the most grudging discourteous policy. By and large most of the businesses were incredibly helpful, but there was just a few aggressive ones, and certainly I won't forget AGL in that regard, but that went through the first year.

 

So, there was stuff happening all that time.

 

Nance Haxton

A year of that happening, yeah.

 

Leigh Winsor

Yes, so it took all that time. And similar problems connecting the electricity and phone, because there was just lots of problems in that area. Low-lying area. Old copper, and so things would get connected that weren't working. The objective then is how am I going to sort of get out of this situation - and people were actually coming around there saying, ‘you poor thing, we’ll take this house off you - fifty thousand, fifty thousand. We’ll pay you out and you'll be most grateful to accept that’. So, there was people just offering, you know, a total pittance to try and buy flood-afflicted properties at that stage.

 

By that time, I had a friend who was an architect and he said we can start making some plans of how you're getting out of this. And at this stage it was the state government saying there'll be some Premier’s fund flood relief, so I will have enough money to actually do repairs and maybe find some way of actually recovering. There was a long process of going in to Woolloongabba and the, lots of negotiations with the State Government and with the Premier’s fund so there’d be money, and we went through the process of negotiation. And they said ‘okay we've got this company called Matrix which has come in and they’ll be the official flood rebuilder.

 

Fortunately, my architect said ‘okay we’ll but we’ll do that preliminary stages, we'll get the plans drawn up, we’ll get all the council permissions - thank God it happened. And then we'll hand it to you. So, this went on and on and on with them, so it wasn't until probably next year, 2012, probably about March-April or something like that, when we actually came to the stage where we could actually sign a contract.

 

Nance Haxton

How long is that from the original event?

 

Leigh Winsor

That's eighteen months.

 

Nance Haxton

That's a long time to wait while you're in emergency accommodation isn’t it?

 

Leigh Winsor

Yes, well at that stage I was actually living back in in one room. I'd sort of repaired one room and got a stove in, and put a fridge in. But the house was just still in shambles. But there was nothing there, I just cleaned out one room actually.

 

And the other thing is, that I probably haven't mentioned was just how valuable local groups were in the community. There were church groups and there were people that knew the localities, and knew the situation. They were probably more in touch than anybody else.

 

 

Nance Haxton

So that sense of community was so important at that time to get you through?

 

Leigh Winsor

Yeah well and so for example, just recalling the people that came and I’d washed all the walls and repaired as much as I could, but it was a Samoan Mormon Church came in - and there must have been thirty or forty of them, and they come in, and I had the big drums of paint. They sort of splashed the paint on the walls and ceiling, and they’d say ‘look at this room’, they’d put me in and I'd have paint all over me. That was that was kind of the things that were - I think.

 

Nance Haxton

How wonderful.

 

Leigh Winsor

The enthusiastic energy of different people.

 

Nance Haxton

When you've gone through such a difficult time, you must feel so low, to have that would make all the difference.

 

Leigh Winsor

Yeah well, things that were very, very helpful. And it was more than that, it was that, you know, just the ordinary people of the community. But as we saw with the volunteers that were people - nobody was telling them to do this, they were just doing this off their own bat because that was the kind of place Brisbane has been. It has got a wonderful sense of ordinary people doing things for their neighbours.

 

Nance Haxton

Well, this is a wonderful story of survival, that's quite incredible that you've come through it and you're smiling on the other side, Leigh.

 

Leigh Winsor

Well the other part is, when we went in to start the recovery phrase, I had to go through the nightmare of actually the contract and the build, because we said ‘okay, we set out all the plans. We've got our drawings, we've got things ready for the builder to come in.’

 

And so, in came a wire fence around the site. And see the plan was - I said if I'm going to live there again, I've got to have a safe floor that's above the flood level. And so that was it. So, my friend the architect, he said ‘okay we'll build a little tree house, and it will go up quickly, and it's three or four months or something like that, and then we can think about what to do with the old house’. Whether we can raise it, renovate it, and so forth.

 

So, the building began and the wire fence went up. And they marked out where the foundation piers were going - and we'd actually - all through the later part of that first year was getting soil tests, and they’d say our soil tests aren't good enough.

 

Once again we’d negotiate, negotiate. It went on for months and months. And eventually the only way we’re going to do this is to put screw piles down under the foundations for the tree house. Eventually that was done, I actually paid for that myself outside of the contract.

 

So eventually 2012, which interestingly enough, there was another flood in February 2012 – so I basically had to evacuate the house again then, and the water was about a meter and a half deep in the street. The kindness of communities… there was a couple of dear, dear, dear Anglican ladies.

 

I’d helped them with their computers before so I knew them, but they came and said ‘oh yes, you'll have to - so we will come and rescue you’. So I actually stayed with one of those for the three or four days when the yard was just full of water. Just that enormous kindness and care and knowledge of people is just so remarkable.

 

Nance Haxton

Was there times you thought maybe it would just be easier to pick up and move elsewhere I suppose?

 

Leigh Winsor

Well that was the thing, it would have been another option - a sensible option - to take what was left of my super, which wasn’t a lot, and the Premier's grant flood money - which was a very, very absolutely, wonderful gesture by this community. Sadly we just wouldn't see the same thing if there's ever – if a 2011 flood happened again unfortunately, that's how much we’ve changed in that period of time.

 

Nance Haxton

Why do you think that is?

 

Leigh Winsor

Well it's a kind of - well not so creeping flow towards neoliberal philosophies, where basically everything is monetized, and we're just seeing a different climate in the community. The old ordinary decency of ordinary people is still there, but it's being over-written by all these kinds of organisations - these corporatised, privatised organisations - and that's the reality I'm now dealing with, with my students. I'm seeing the actual real suffering that's being imposed on people trying to survive in this thing. So, I'm dealing with people on Newstart trying to put in 20 jobs a month, when they haven't got a computer - my god. And being penalised; being put at risk that they'll actually not be able to afford to pay their rent, and be kicked out. All that sort of stuff, and that's the reality - that's the new reality.

 

But as I said, the old Brisbane - it's still there among ordinary people.

 

Nance Haxton

You think? That's the encouraging part - it's still there underneath?

 

Leigh Winsor

It surprises me just how remarkable that is - the ordinary, you know, people you wouldn't expect. Just ordinary decency of the community is still there in just remarkable amounts.

 

Nance Haxton

So you're glad you stayed here at Sherwood and still can get a glimpse of that?

 

Leigh Winsor

Well you see, my little treehouse - I have a large rock, advanced, low-lying; there's two thirds of an acre there. I have all my birds, and before that I had an ecology of different birds - swamp pheasants and channel bill cookies, just a cubby and all this sort of things. Now I've got my magpies, my butcher birds. They, just at the moment, the butcher birds are nesting probably about a metre outside my window. They trust me so much, and you know just another encounter with something wild is just wonderful.

 

Nance Haxton

So it's good, after all you've been through, to have those moments of happiness - seeing the butcher birds outside your window, I think?

 

Leigh Winsor

Yes.

 

Nance Haxton

Thank you so much Leigh for sharing your story with us and just telling us the real story of someone who's lived through such a disaster - it really was for Brisbane at the time.

 

Leigh Winsor

The lucky part is, I got the house finished, so I was, was lucky to even get to the stage of completion, I think.

 

Nance Haxton

And listen now, all this construction around us - you wouldn't know would you, Sherwood’s changing as we speak.

 

Leigh Winsor

As we know I've seen the horrors of it, but we're getting just an extreme amount of units going up. Five stories; eight stories - there won't be the services, there won't be the community that will connect us. That's gotta be rebuilt and how that will happen? We don't know. As we see, just this one next door has been sold – so we’ll probably see an eight story building going up there probably. At this stage we don't know how many are vacant, empty. Speculators have got them with a dream that somehow that they'll keep rising in value, which is probably a total folly, but that’s the reality.

 

Nance Haxton

Well thank you so much for sharing your story with us today Leigh - the Story of Survival. They'll really appreciated for joining us on the Streets of your town.

 

That was Leigh Winsor speaking to us from the Sherwood Community Centre in Brisbane.

 

Streets of your town is produced by Nance Haxton, aka The Wandering Journo, with production assistance from Michael Adams. That's it for this episode, I'm Nance Haxton. Stay up to date with the latest episode of Streets of your town by subscribing to us on your podcast app, on iTunes, or SoundCloud. See you next time.

 

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