FLOOD | Brisbane, January 2013

Posted on 29/01/2013


This morning communities along Queensland’s coastline are waking to a mostly clear blue sky after several days of heavy rains and winds. When Cyclone Oswald weakened and was downgraded to a tropical low a few days ago, it started its long and slow crawl down the coast wreaking havoc, continuing into New South Wales. It was a sobering reminder of the major flood event in 2010/2011, which saw 75% of the state overwhelmed by rising waters and declared a disaster zone.

A now familiar train of events played out with the media turning its attention to disaster reporting and information dissemination, evacuation and emergency centres opening, and the launch of a Flood Appeal. Some of the floods reached record breaking heights, acknowledging that one-in-one-hundred-year type events seem to occur more often than we might reasonably anticipate, triggering a range of temporary, voluntary and informal responses. There is an unnerving feeling now that such events are no longer a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’. In the face of these changing dynamics I can’t help but wonder about the value of temporary, voluntary and informal as community facilities, like schools and halls, are transformed into makeshift accommodation or mission control for emergency and relief crews. This idea of the temporary is increasingly important for me as a planning and architectural idea. Notably, Jill Stoner’s work on minor architecture identifies alternative and ephemeral uses as a kind of minor architecture and perhaps this extends to the appropriation of spaces for disaster response (like the orderly tent village I saw at Dunalley, Tasmania in the midst of fire devastation) and protest (like the well organised community hubs in Tahir Square and Zuccotti Park in the face of police, corporate or military might), not just the artist studios, galleries and microbusinesses in vacant buildings.

With the past year pockmarked by state public sector sackings (including emergency workers), I am assuming not only fewer resources to allocate to a disaster situation, but a loss of organisational know-how and fragmentation of experienced disaster response teams. I anticipate that this time around in Queensland, rebuilding efforts will be akin to Berlusconi’s disaster capitalism assault of L’Aquila as the bottom line bites. That seems to be the trajectory that this state government is pursuing – privatisation, withdrawal from public service, defunding community supports and eroding education, environment and health. I note the facebook and twitter feeds from emergency and energy worker unions stating that response teams just didn’t have the resources and were doing their best. Our area does not flood, but we were in blackout for 24 hours of the deluge and sparingly used our mobile devices to save battery life and briefly stay abreast of news reports and social media flows. I noted a distinct sense of frustration and crankiness as phone services were disrupted, Energex website and phone info were unreliable and the BOM radar was unavailable. News programs reported that residents of flood affected areas like Lockyer Valley, Ipswich and Goodna did not receive sufficient notice to evacuate. At times, it felt like the media was managing the information better than the state, which kept directing us to websites (generally unavailable in a blackout without battery power).

This, Mr Premier, is what happens when governments fail to recognise that economies are best supported by strong and resilient social and ecosystem services – without that, people suffer, people are endangered, people die. So Mr Premier’s assurances that those impacted by the flood won’t be forgotten and will be taken care of sound hollow as they fall in the shadow of the state government’s mass sackings and funding withdrawals, and removal of environmental protections (dismissed as ‘green tape’) and social supports. A strong public service, environmental protections and social supports are the stuff of taking care of communities and enabling intergenerational equity (rather than accrued social and environmental debt). Arguably, such political decisions result in retarded, dangerous and more difficult disaster response. To those emergency workers who endured the erosion of their response capacity and to those who continue to provide such proficient expertise voluntarily, you are champions. Later, however, I learn that Ergon Energy announced redundancies, calling workers away from the frontline to brief them.

Described as a ‘monsoonal low’ in one weather report, ex-tropical Cyclone Oswald prompted speculation about the changing nature of our weather systems and adequacy, or not, of our infrastructure, resource management and disaster response. Our sub-tropical climate seems more tropical these days and our stormwater systems seem overburdened by the demands of tropical climate events. While the coast is hammered by rain and wind, the state’s interior is on fire alert. For much of the previous few weeks, the eastern states were consumed by raging bushfires. I wonder if it makes sense to continue to rely on volunteers for disaster response given the frequency and ferocity – another summer, another assault of disasters.

There’s a strange kind of complacency about extreme weather in this country – I couldn’t count the number of times people quoted the Dorothea McKellar poem, My Country, during the 2010/2011 floods, as if to say ‘that’s just the way it is’. It’s not – not really. Yes, there are climate cycles and yes there are extremes but when do we pause to consider that the kinds of extremes we experience now are not what they used to be? When do we take seriously the threat of climate change through our politics, policy, planning, culture and community? If we really accept that the country is one of climatic extremes, as McKellar’s poem declares, then that seems all the more reason to manage natural resources and moderate social and environmental impact. It just means that Australia’s specific geographic, settlement and atmospheric conditions make it particularly vulnerable and susceptable. The Green Cross Project, Harden Up, has more detailed information about this.

I also hear many people say ‘it didn’t used to be like this’. And so these refrains seem to sit in contradiction – ‘that’s just the way it is’ vs ‘it didn’t used to be like this’. I like the way memes and aphorisms capture tense political and personal moments. Some might just say such statements are just platitudes but I think they are more potent than that. So this juxtaposition of common refrains is resonant. It’s important, as Green Cross explains, to understand the difference between weather and climate: “No single extreme weather event can be attributed to climate change. However there is an emerging pattern of more frequent and more intense extreme weather conditions, and scientists predict that this will continue as a result of rising greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.” It could be that we’ve just experienced an extraordinary run of strange weather completely in keeping with the country’s climate cycles and geography. It could be some kind of variation within acceptable climate patterns or it could really be climate change, clocking up massive losses, including human life, which we shrug off with a line from a poem written about a century ago. Yet, on that weekend, news circulated around social networks stating that the state government will censor the school curriculum to remove references to climate change and environmental science, claiming such scientific facts are environmental propaganda. Yet, recent reports from various scientific groups, including the IPCC, are stating climate change acceleration has been vastly underestimated. The extent of the scientific consensus on this is, by Green Cross’ description, unprecedented.

My sense of place is changing with these various weather events – it started, I think, with the nasty storm that ripped through the Gap and Ashgrove a few years ago. It was at that point that I recognised an intensity never before seen in my lifetime and realised the need for adaptation, readiness and resilience. I heard a reporter yesterday talking about one of the flooding rivers in northern NSW, he commented that the community had endured many and more frequent flood events in the past decade. At some point, he said, that community and others like it will need to make some decisions about how they live with the river. It’s a point that applies to all of us; at some point we, as communities and a nation, need to make some decisions about how we live with these droughts, fires, storms and floods rather than just flare into ever growing emergency cycles. This disaster cycle is giving rise to a skewed awareness of ‘unsettlement’, a term I am borrowing from Tony Fry, to indicate a growing awareness of the need to be ready to move on, to retreat from these climate impacts in the absence of adequate adaptation. It’s one thing to seek temporary refuge following a weather event, but quite another to be caught by successive weather events, like those interviewed by the media who have only just ‘found their feet’ after 2o10/2011 flooding. The poetic irony, if it is really necessary to point it out, is that this event occurred on the Australia Day long weekend as symbolic of what this country is becoming – perhaps not yet tipping a threshold but a place of increasingly volatile and extreme weather events, increasingly vulnerable to the worst of climate change.

PS The conservatives really do show their true colours during a crisis. I noted Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s default to the ‘drought and flooding rains’ reference in an ABC News 24 interview today. He was asked about extreme weather and climate change, responding with a disbelieving smirk across his face.

PPS Later today, on ABC News 24, a journalist asked NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell a question about the relationship between climate change and the current disaster conditions in NSW. O’Farrell retorted angrily saying “Give me a break” followed by an accusation of political correctness. Maybe he needs to understand that climate change will demand ever more disaster response resources from governments and ever flexible governance unless it is dealt with, so give us a break from conservative premiers and opposition leaders living in the denial and repudiation bubble. Calling it political correctness doesn’t make it go away, it just exposes the lack of preparedness to take the threat seriously.

Posted in: disaster