FLOOD | Brisbane, January 2011

Posted on 16/01/2011


My family arrived in Brisbane for the second time in 1974, when I was 10 years old, just as the floods were subsiding. On the journey from Melbourne we – two adults, three children aged from 8 to 14, a car towing a trailer load full of possessions, a ute laden with the same, and a cat – navigated blocked roads and were stranded in Warwick where we holed up for a few days. We eventually arrived at a weatherboard house on Zillmere Road in Aspley, about one kilometre north from where I have lived for the past few years. In the 1970s, this was a featureless and sparse environment with little in the way of character or community, one of the post-war suburbs that mushroomed around the margins of the city on the cheap land availed by farms, market gardens and bushland. My mother said that the house was bought for $15,000 and sold for $38,000 in a period of less than three years. The 1974 flood was triggered by a cyclone and underneath that house was inundated by the local creek system to a height of a metre or so; the smell was still detectable in the air and the timber. While I still recall the dampness and the smell, the flood at the Brisbane scale was unknown as I wondered whether water streamed along the main road into what was then the far reaches of the city, or whether it bubbled up from the creeks and consumed all in its path. At age 10, such imaginings were the stuff of life and it took some years before I could piece it together.

Little Cabbage Tree Creek, 11 January 2011

Having lived significantly in Brisbane since 1974, it seemed surprising this week that the city was struck by major flooding along the reaches of its bending brown river, despite the construction of a dam in response to that earlier disaster and other mitigation measures. It was the type of surprise that made me feel a bit naive, even foolish. There had been forewarnings about a wet summer with heavy rains. My local creeks, which are not part of the Brisbane River system, used to flood regularly and remain susceptible to flash flooding during times of stormy and rapid downpour, swamping main roads in torrents that wash parked cars away. All the rivers and creeks are full of water. In 2011 my local creeks didn’t inundate the sodden flats around them and, while swollen, those waterways seemed to cope with the constant rain which endured for several weeks. I do wonder why – perhaps it’s because the mangroves, waterways and Boondall wetlands and other natural drainage areas have attracted some rehabilitation efforts. Despite this rehabilitation, South East Queensland’s waterways are unhealthy and the marine environment is struggling. I included that in a report once and I was told to rewrite it to say that the waterways were, at worst, ‘stressed’. In so many ways this flood is freakish – an unanticipated convergence of atypical monsoon-like rain, catchment overflow, dam letting and river/creek system capacity. It wasn’t until Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley were struck by an unprecedented and, by many accounts improbable, raging torrent that everyday people in their everyday lives twigged that disaster loomed closer to home. We don’t know how all these water systems connect – all we knew was that there was an awful lot of water everywhere. At thatpoint, the rain and clouds that filtered the usual bleaching light assumed a more ominous cast.

Brisbane is situated on a flood plain. Many believed that the dam would prevent flood events of this scale, but that’s more a myth than a reality. The Wivenhoe Dam, built in response to the 1974 flood as a mitigation measure, has an important role to play. Even Premier Anna Bligh looked stunned at the realisation that the flood could exceed 1974 levels, an event that was never supposed to be repeated or repeatable. Until the flood peaked, everyone believed we were facing a flood level higher than those of 1974. Regional plans and other plans outline other water and flood management measures. At best, integrated and sustainable planning can only offer a partial and incremental approach. I can’t help but wonder how bad it could have been.  The general consensus seems to identify El Niña as the catalyst so we’re likely to hear more about the cycles of drought and flood across the southern hemisphere. There are other factors here as those in authority acknowledge that land uses have changed dramatically since 1974 with more settlement and development in South East Queensland, particularly along waterfronts and particularly low density in form, inadequate infrastructure provision, overreliance on one-stop technological or infrastructure based solutions. Simple things, like enclosing the stilted underneath of Queenslander style houses has changed exposure to risk. The littoral environment, too, has been significantly altered with rehabilitation in some areas and riverfront development in others. The population has increased significantly and population growth has proven a vexing cultural and social topic for the broader region and its communities. Questions emerge about the built environment and how patterns of development might make us more vulnerable to these ‘natural disasters’ which tax our technologically driven attempts to subdue them. We seem to put a lot of energy into systems that don’t respond to change and take much to maintain. Somewhere in this my mind turns to the workshops I’ve done with Tony Fry and his sinister warnings about environmental disasters – a need for readiness and preventative measures, a need for a different kind of society. Climate change is a shadowy subtext in this narrative, a scarcely acknowledged interloper lurking in small talk about the weather. There is much readiness to place the responsibility for this event squarely at the feet of climate change and the carbon chain with the mining industry being singled out. Surely we want to know if this event is attributable, in any part, to climate change.

I didn’t want to reflect on this flood event as it was happening – others have done that, finding angles, offering blow by blow accounts, considering future scenarios and opportunities – preferring instead to watch its unfolding as media, politicians, communities and emergency services grappled with this disaster, facing it squarely. After all I have not been directly affected by this event. As it stands, I’ve lost nothing, nothing I deeply love was at risk, except perhaps the city itself. I wasn’t sent home from work in the unrelenting rain amid a flood of information that preceded the rising waters, only to confront staggering queues for public transport as people raced to secure their homes and families, and then in supermarkets as they vied for the dwindling food stocks and necessities just in case. Even in my local supermarket, some 10 kilometres from Brisbane’s flood affected area, the shelves emptied of some basic necessities – what does that say about our food distribution networks? Those living in flood prone areas were advised to seek shelter on ‘higher ground’, although a Caboolture man interviewed for a news report as he and his young family waded through water said he wasn’t sure what ‘higher ground’ actually meant. Caboolture and Strathpine, further north along the Bruce Highway, were also affected by flooding and, in the hinterland, Dayboro copped it too.

Working from home, my partner and I watched the news intently, fixated in fear and floundering in incredulity. Grabbing at information as it channelled through our social media networks, switching between computer, television, radio and iPod, uncertain about what was real and what was not. As contradictory information circulated through the networks – misinformation about public transport, city lock down, flooding incidence at the airport, and even the dam wall breaking – we turned to more direct and official channels as the most trustworthy. We were also caught up in the spread of misinformation retweeting unsubstantiated posts only to feed panic about the city. After sheepishly realising this, we’re more considered in how we engage with Twitter. Different stories also seemed to weave and mash through the social networks – compassion, spirit, humour. Other stories – pets, livestock and wildlife stranded and abandoned, others asking for help or advice. Our network of artists and arts organisations offer updates about saved studios, artworks and collections. People are spontaneously organising fundraising events like auctions and concerts. By necessity energy companies cut off the electricity in the worst affected areas and as each suburb was cut off, the frenetic social networking slowed – precious battery power must be preserved. As power is restored, those stranded steadily return to their networks with comforting messages and offers of help.

Aspley Hypermarket

So many stories. I remained networked – television, facebook, email, twitter – to stay abreast of what was going on, who was in need, how the city was faring. As parts of the city were eventually engulfed, I was searching the screen for news or vision of my favourite haunts, friends’ faces, places I knew. A steady stream of photographs and video are shared and retweeted. Local scenes of houses, streets, parks and landmarks submerged. Some were watching to see how far the water will rise against the Richard Tipping sculpture at the Brisbane Powerhouse marking the level of the 1974 flood. Another image showed residents promenading, as waters permitted, along Coronation Drive. For me, even now, the flood remains an abstract and mediated event but nevertheless one that has evoked myriad responses as I grapple with the implications of this disaster and as I read or hear firsthand accounts. Like so many thousands across the city, I have been at the ready to add my efforts to the volunteer response, initially sandbagging and then by cleaning and whatever else is necessary. Our volunteering attempts though, missed the mark initially. On the first sunny day we’ve had for what seemed like weeks, we called the Council and were directed to one of the nearby depots where sandbags were being filled only to be turned away because they had enough people. The suburban streets adjoining the depot were thick with parked cars and congestion. Returning home, we called again and were directed to another depot where we were also not required. Here, a somewhat harried man in a fluorescent safety vest stopped us as we left and explained the situation and the issues faced by the depot team. While he apologised profusely, I garnered a hint that too many people were a hindrance rather than a help. We didn’t need the apology, reassuringly offering the perspective that it’s better to have too much help than not enough. Nodding, he said it’s been ‘overwhelming’, a word that stays with me from the mouth of someone who is working at full throttle. He told us that volunteer coordination centres would be opening by the weekend and offer a more structured way of ‘helping’. We thank him and then thank him again as one of the many workers at this time who is saying that he is just doing his job, just doing what needs to be done.

Brisbane River at Hamilton, prior to peak

Brisbane River at Hamilton, prior to peak

Acutely aware that the authorities had requested that people refrain from unnecessary travel, we furtively stop by the banks of the river at a Hamilton park. Here, the river is bloated and distorted, a rapidly swirling mass of brown. While the river flows rapidly, having steadily risen over many days, it inches towards another king tide and the culmination of the flood. There are hours to wait before the flood is expected to peak at levels higher than those of 1974, an event that was never supposed to happen again, an almost mythic event that occupies our minds as the greatest devastation our city has known in recent history. There are times when I am frustrated with the references to 1974, especially as images of that event begin to circulate as a warning of what is coming. Such images don’t make much sense against the backdrop of the city as it stands now.We’ve been building this city – purposely transitioning from a ‘big country town’, cultivating what Saskia Sassen might describe as ‘cityness’. When we pause at Hamilton, the river banks are lined with onlookers, who become known as ‘rubber neckers’ and ‘gawkers’ as the days roll on and who also become irritants as they hinder evacuation, response and clean up efforts. Large chunks of pontoons and other debris are carried swiftly towards the bay, a small boat has broken its mooring. Photographing the big brown river, the morning before it was due to peak, we note the higher tide mark on the banks, covered in detritus that children pick over and kick back into the river. There is a hint of that muddy stink. The following day, after the river peaked lower than anticipated, relief rippled through the community anxious to start on the clean up. From the height of Kangaroo Point cliffs, news crews interview more ‘rubber neckers’ who describe the scene and express their sorrow or their wonder with the roar of the river at full bore in the background.

Brisbane River at Hamilton, prior to peak

I’m thinking deeply about this word ‘help’ and my thoughts drift to some ideas about social capital and how something called ‘community spirit’ bubbles through neighbourhoods. Something doesn’t add up here. The theory says that highly suburbanised communities do not have strong social capital – it is weak and fragmented – I can see this in my daily life in my own neighbourhood with political representatives sometimes exploiting the rifts and differences in communities. What we might lack at a local level perhaps isn’t indicative of ‘capacity’ or ‘intensity’. Or perhaps it’s just that loose networks are mutable, adapting to changing conditions and needs. However, as I watch news reports, I am struck that many of the volunteers come from far afield – Deception Bay, Logan City, Gold Coast – to contribute to the clean up effort. At the local hardware superstore, there’s a sausage sizzle in aid of the flood appeal and residents are buying up equipment so that they can join the clean up effort. Like me, they want to help. They want to help the city. They want to help others. It’s reported that as soon as communities and individuals had appraised their situations, they self-organised, commencing cooperative clean up activity and sharing scarce resources until other assistance can reach them. Journalists and other commentators offer their experiences and observations of the massive ‘community spirit’ – perhaps it is because Bligh had so poignantly rallied the community throughout her regular press conferences, reminding us to check up on neighbours, turning our attention to recovery. In this role, as Bligh presented to the media, she is obviously the ‘Commander in Chief’, flanked by those who appreciate the nuanced dimensions of ‘duty’, like the Queensland Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson and the Flood Recovery Coordinator Major General Mick Slater. Earlier, though, she seemed defeated as she addressed the state about the events in and around Rockhampton and friends commented on facebook that she seemed to have given up. Since then, she has found a second, third, fourth wind. Some speculate this will give her another chance at retaining government for Labor. Unburdened by the grind of daily politics and spin, she seems to find her stride, liberated from the machinery of the Labor Party and State Government. In this role, she seems to win the hearts and trust of Queenslanders again. I couldn’t help but smirk during her ‘we’re Queenslanders’ rallying speech after the flood peaked, observing that these are the same people who hiss her name as ‘Anna Blight’, who will fight her over liquid natural gas and who are resentful about privatisation. Bitter politics are likely to rise from the toxic river sludge. In the interim, we can pause to speculate about the cultural dimensions of this camaraderie: possibly founded in a frontier past, only 150 years gone by, or other more negotiable flows of values, identity, place and belonging.

We, as a community (whatever that might mean), can seize an opportunity to consider the gamut of impacts and implications of this disaster – our elected representatives have already promised this – so as to formulate other modes of mitigation and adaptation, hopefully rethinking our approach to environmental design and rehearsing other ideas about to land use and settlement. At some point, I wonder if there are implications of the disaster on the State Government’s regionalisation policy which underpins its population management strategy. With 28,000 houses in Brisbane pegged for demolition there are considerations of housing affordability and availability. Most of us have a sense that the state is in serious trouble, with its floundering economic performance, having taken a hit during the global financial crisis. The Australian Financial Review’s (15-16 January 2011) banner headline this weekend poses the problem of how to rebuild the state’s economy. Queensland is, as Bligh asserted earlier on in the flood, a large tropical state. Emergency management experts offer advice in television interviews and I take particular note of Andrew McLeod, a former UN disaster response expert, interviewed intermittently on the ABC. He stressed the importance of talking and walking the community through a transition from response to recovery – he offers the mantra of ‘build back better’ which I interpret to mean undertaking a full situation appraisal, a broad engagement of ideas and new thinking, and rebuilding in adaptive and sustainable ways. In another interview, a scientist from the University of New South Wales advises that it is important to not dismiss the role of global warming in this disaster. Having  listened intently to scientists calmly and rationally beg for comprehension about greenhouse and climate change over so many years, it was dismaying to watch an unproductive debate rage in this country about carbon and, then, hopes dashed as Copenhagen ground to a crushing standstill. While these considerations remain somewhat marginalised in our comprehension of our climate, both of these experts say that these kinds of disasters are here to stay. This means communities will/may come to expect comprehensive mitigation and adaptation. Our ideas about ‘wellbeing’, ‘safety’ and ‘vulnerability’, as a community, may increasingly emphasise safety from and vulnerability to extreme and unseasonal natural events. I’m not alone in thinking that our summer storms are much more severe than they used to be.

With the response switching into recovery mode, I feel a need to pitch in, to gather my own resources of optimism and resilience. We wait for the right time, taking note of the official’s advice to stay off the roads unless you have a plan or destination. We let our friends know we can help if and when they need it, waiting for a call out from any coordinated volunteer efforts. With the flood peak having passed, Bligh proclaims the flooding as a ‘people disaster’ requiring a post-war rebuilding effort. It is a human emergency – people have been evacuated, stranded, lost, killed. Unspeakable tragedy and loss abounds in this event declared as Australia’s worst disaster ever. Prime Minister Julia Gillard is on hand to offer strategic support, articulate the Federal Government response and deploy defence force resources. McLeod advised that at present many would be running on adrenalin and that as their adrenalin levels dropped and they came to face the reality of their situations, their depression and anxiety would rise. It is necessary, he said, to ensure that social networks and supports are maintained for some time after the event as many people may remain in transitional housing or circumstances for possibly years. It was frustrating, though, to hear the Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott assert the priority of returning the budget to surplus in the face of relief measures. Abbott’s perspective is particularly irksome. He had earlier in the flooding event proclaimed that we need to get over our ‘damphobia’ (an obvious reference to the opposition to the Traverston Dam proposal for the Mary River, a proposal that was found to be unviable due to environmental impacts). Amid congratulatory comments directed at volunteers and community organisations, he makes it clear that he intends to scrutinise relief funding by opposing ‘unreasonable’ government spending and snap at the heels of government service delivery. At some point, there needs to be bipartisan agreement about this disaster effort – lives are in the balance here and it is unacceptable for those lives to be trapped in the locked jaws of predatory politics.

Epic. The flooding spreads into New South Wales due to wash throughout river networks into the Murray Darling Basin. Flooding is also occurring in Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales. With the 75% of Queensland declared a disaster zone, the soaking becomes known as ‘the big wet’ (just as the prolonged drought was called ‘the big dry’), a phrase that rings with all the laconic beauty of Australian understatement. A big state in a big country experiencing the big wet after the big dry. The gamut of natural resource management – land use, water management – converge, evoking concerns about ongoing food security. Despite the magnitude of Brisbane’s floods since white settlement, we continue to cling to and build on the waterfront; only recently, North Bank, a development over the river in the CBD was under serious consideration by government. Waterfront properties attract a premium, but the Australian Financial Review this weekend reports many of those properties just became harder to sell and insure (assuming any had ever been insurable). Parks punctuate the topography in gullies, along banks and across flats, remnants serving a hydrological imperative.

Sandgate, 16 January 2011

Earlier in this flooding event, which commenced in northern Queensland some weeks ago, the issue of topsoil washing into and destroying the Great Barrier Reef was highlighted. While this is not a new problem, farmers and environmentalists have continued to press the issue of lost topsoil across the country’s most productive agricultural lands and the implications for food security. With the clean up operations well underway, destroyed household goods and other items are being piled in the streets destined for landfill. Detritus and waste swept into the river and bay is now washing up on banks and shores. Sandgate and Redcliffe, for example, are awash with rubbish. State Member for Sandgate and surrounds, Vicky Darling, posts regular updates on facebook about the clean up effort in a community that stewards marine environment health. While driving through Sandgate, admittedly gawking again, we catch sight of domestic water tanks bobbing in the brown waters. Detritus is collected and piled on the shore. Toxins from the rubbish now embedded in the mud and other substances will leach into soils and marine/riparian ecosystems. News about infections and health risks are already spreading as people throw themselves into the task of cleaning the mud and muck. Throughout the reporting during the flood, I hear many references to ‘mother nature’ – her fury, her cruelty and her destructiveness. This sort of poetic subterfuge is discomforting, hiding the reality of human and environmental catastrophe, as the marine environments are choked by soil. If the Brisbane River is the symbol of this city, then perhaps we need a better understanding of living with the riverine and riparian. What does ‘build back better’ mean to us as a river city? In asking that question we might also consider its cultural dimensions as we survey this disaster in its complexity and at all scales: respond effectively to the cumulative impacts of our environmental management practices and the variability of our climate, especially in relation to the interplay of water systems, land management and settlement.

Sandgate, 16 January 2011

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