Reporting from the wet front line of the 2011 Brisbane floods
Very sketchy initial notes from the last day or so, sent from a suburb of Brisbane as the Queensland floods hit. (Ed. this piece was first published at cityofsound.com on January 13, 2011). As I write, in the broader Queensland floods, there are 13 confirmed dead, and dozens more missing. With that in mind, we are incredibly fortunate here, and our experiences pale by comparison to those horrors. We’re safe, and quite comfortable. But power is out, networks are fragile, and it’s already quite an experience, shall we say, with tonight’s ‘king tide’ still to come. It’s late, so please excuse the scratchy nature of these notes, and the lack of links, images and an edit. You can follow the news via the ABC or equivalent. My Twitter feed will serve as notes for the last 2 days, and may cover updates, power permitting.
I wrote this last night, until about 0130, and then the power gave out as I was transferring from laptop to iPad, a tricky process at the best of times. So I posted this the following morning.
I’m writing this by candlelight as the power at home went some 12 hours ago now. The irony of using an iPad by candlelight is not lost on me. The iPad is in Flight mode to conserve power. Though Fight mode might be better description, as we’re staying put rather than heading out of town. Fight or flight mode, perhaps.
This house sits fairly high above Moggill Road in Chapel Hill, one of Brisbane’s western suburbs, and should be high and dry. The floods hit in the last 24 hours essentially, and the big high tide — the ‘king tide’ — will hit around 4am tonight. There’ll be another at 4pm, or thereabouts, and the flood water won’t really subside until Saturday or Sunday. So this is the middle of it.
It’s all happened remarkably quickly. Not quite with the severity of the ‘inland tsunami’ that hit poor Toowoomba a couple of days ago — here the Brisbane river is seeping slowly across the city, as opposed to the raging torrent that tossed four wheel drives around so effortlessly in several Queensland towns yesterday.
And yet only yesterday morning we were blissfully unaware of what was about to happen. It had been raining for days, weeks, but I think it’s fair to say that there was broadly no thought of a flood on this scale about to hit Australia’s third largest city. There was absolutely no talk of all this. We were going about our days as usual — we’re on holiday up here, somewhat hilariously — until about midday yesterday.
At that point, I was doing some work down at the State Library of Queensland. It was raining heavily, as it had been since we got here, and dark, and then suddenly it was time to get out of the CBD.
C rang, I checked the Brisbane Times, and headed for the bus almost immediately. At this point it was clear that something extraordinary was about to occur. Partly due to the weather — Brisbane at midday in summer is usually characterised by intense sun. Shadows evaporate in an almost over-exposed white heat, with blinding sun directly overhead.
Yesterday though it was as dark as Helsinki in autumn, with heavy rain.
Although it wasn’t cold — and the rain was almost warm, not at all like northern Europe. The youngsters on the bus were dressed in the typical Queensland uniform — shorts, strappy tops or vests, flip flops (or thongs as they’re confusingly called here), and ubiquitous shades — which added a note of ordinary to extraordinary.
The bus from the Cultural Centre was full. All buses were full. Almost everyone on board was on their phone; texting, talking or on Facebook etc., all talking about the flood, the rain, the buses, the fact that Coronation Drive was almost under.
The roads also quickly congealed into solid lines of metal, as it became clear that a kind of exodus from the CBD was occurring. There were rumours that public transport was closing down at 2pm (which it wasn’t) which will have unhelpfully added a little urgency.
When I’d left, the boardwalk near the Library was well underwater, and the soupy brown river was beginning to creep up the bank towards the Library and its sister building, The Edge, which has been one of my major projects over the last two years.
(Later, the river is apparently full of debris, with huge chunks of floating boardwalk, wharf and cycleway all wrenched away by the water. A 300m piece of the boardwalk has broken free. Fridges float past. The Moggill Ferry might have to be scuttled; likewise a huge floating nightclub, ‘The Island’. Most bridges are subsequently closed, as these blocks of infrastructure slide insidiously towards them. The flood of 1974, which hit when big ships that were still being constructed on the river, had given officials an understanding of what happens when the river toys with giant unmoored hulks, ramming them into fixed infrastructure.)
As I was sending those tweets, the clouds were truly unloading. All around, drains were filling up with stormwater, cars were aquaplaning spectacularly through gushing water on Moggill Road. Once back at the little house on the hill at Chapel Hill, we watch the grim footage coming in from Toowoomba.
The dams supplying Toowoomba were only 7% full as recently as 2009, as Queensland, like most of Australia, had had years of drought (The Big Dry), and the town had to draw water from the Great Artesian Basin. And just a year or so later, the town is flooded, virtually underwater (The Big Wet.) In less than four years here, I’ve become aware, in a very visceral sense, that Australia suffers extreme weather so regularly that it doesn’t really make sense to talk of it as extreme. When extreme becomes regular is it still extreme?
Storms in Queensland are particularly startling, surpassing anything I’d previously seen (including my previous personal best, in Budapest in 1990.) John Birmingham describes this extremely well, in an excellent article written just before the floods (which also begins to outline the broader issues around the link between floods and development in Queensland. Birmingham will be the one to watch here.)
“There was never supposed to be another ’74. The dams got built up. We have a water grid now. A previous city council was so confident of these of other mitigation schemes that large areas of flood plain, completely inundated when I was ten years old, were eventually opened up to developers, some of whom built some very expensive water front properties down there … And yes, metro Brisbane, despite being waterlogged and suffering some localised flooding, remains comparatively free of a general inundation because of the work done on the Wivenhoe Dam in particular after ’74. The terrible scenes in Toowoomba and the Lockyer yesterday wouldn’t be repeated here, would they? In truth, I don’t know. There’s probably some hydrographic peculiarity about Toowoomba’s CBD that contributed to yesterday’s lethal flash flooding. But there’s nothing unique about Brisbane that will protect it when the dam’s reach their actual capacity.” (John Birmingham, Brisbane Times)
There’s a sense of the sublime, of awestruck fear, in our reactions to the sheer power of natural forces on display here. You can hear it in the the voice of one of the most viewed YouTube videos of the last few days, as the flood moving through Toowoomba effortlessly removed cars from their car park. “Oh! … Oh my goodness!” It’s as if ‘OMG’ was invented for just this eventuality.
As you can see, I’m using the notes I shared on Twitter over the last few days, as a kind of narrative structure. My friend Matt Jones generously described it as a 140-character version of The Road. Ha! Now, McCarthy’s book is one of the most affecting things I’ve ever read and in rather a different league of course, but equally, the situation here in Brisbane is more surreal than the neutered post-apolocalyptic landscape of The Road, where the natural environment itself was essentially dying. Here, the natural environment is in full voice, almost a crescendo of life.
And everyday human life continues around us in many ways, whilst whole swathes of the city are sinking. It’s a peculiar juxtaposition.
Speaking of Twitter, it was bizarre to read various dispatches from snow-bound New York. As Andrew Blum noted at the time, as he was shovelling snow from Brooklyn sidewalks and reading my dispatches from Brisbane, “it’s a big small world”.
It’s so humid that the iPhone camera fogs up, wrecking the output from an already crap component. Please forgive the image quality (equally, I was too busy to use a proper camera.)
I spot a large advert for chocolate milk adorning a building. “Dive into chocolately fun”, it says. It seems newly relevant as we see the river, looking exactly like a vast, smooth soup of milk chocolate. The Brisbane River is famously brown at the best of times, being an extremely silty bit of river, but is now browner than ever.
The landscape round here is distinctly suburban. Not quite the manicured suburban of rich Los Angeles suburbs, or even ‘Erinsborough’, but the slightly more raggedy Australian version, with cars parked on lawns, rampant foliage growing in and around the low, angled roofs, set against straggly gum trees and paperbarks, a most unruly genus. But it’s distinctly suburban nonetheless, which adds to the surreal aspect of views like Witton Road, where that chocolately fun engulfs a training shoe, some wheelie bins, and a box of breakfast cereal, and most of the street.
There is a slightly ‘end of days’ feel to the whole thing, despite the beautiful day Wednesday brings and genuinely jocular or stoical mood of most people I encounter.
This is the one time that the four wheel drives that plague the city round here feel appropriate. They confidently head into the large pools of water that collect in dips in the road. Finally they have their day!
It’s all about scale, magnitude. There’s a torrent of data accompanying the flow of water. What is the Brisbane city gauge showing? How much above or below the 1974 floods will it be? Or the 1893? How many people are losing their homes? How many homes are without electricity? How much will it all cost to rebuild?
Part of all this is just Queensland. It comes with the territory, as they say. Comes with the terrain might be a better way of putting it, as Brisbane is basically built in a flood plain. You can’t help but consider the folly of building Australia’s third largest city in a flood plain, but then Melbourne is built on a big old swamp too, so that’s two of them. And Sydney will hardly be immune to rising sea levels.
Brisbane is characterised, like perhaps no other city on earth, by a particular kind of domestic architecture: the Queenslander (a set of images here).
This is typically a wooden house with a pitched tin roof overhanging a wrap-around veranda, a cruciform internal layout to enable air flow, and elevated high on stilts to catch the breeze and avoid the bugs. Designed to create good air flows under and through the building, and originally enable people to sleep outside, you see them everywhere across the city. It’s uniquely identified with the city. Over time, they’ve become both coveted and replaced, with good examples being preserved and becoming expensive renovation opportunities, and yet many demolished in favour of new builds done in the cheaper ‘slab on ground’ model of building, which is the easiest way of doing it. But guess which is most appropriate for these conditions? Those wooden houses on stilts are often sitting pretty above the rising water at the moment.
Speaking of which, it’s times like this that reinforce the rationale for nomadism, as practiced by most Aboriginal Australians historically. Australia’s weather is so fierce it makes perfect sense. Just move on when the going gets too tough. Why indeed would you settle in a lands which flood like this? Or, at the other end of the country, say southern Victoria or South Australia, which are often bone dry and/or prone to devastating bushfires (wildfires)? Paul Memmott’s wonderful book on aboriginal patterns of habitation will be worth another look when I get back to Sydney.
One of the more interesting proposals to emerge from the slowly disappearing seafront around Noosa, Queensland in recent years was called ‘planned retreat’, in which any new structures had to be designed to be plonked on a truck and driven away with 24 hour notice. The design possibilities, from miniature Archigram Walking Cities to Thom Mayne’s boat-houses for New Orleans, seem endless. And again, those Queenslander houses are often seen being transported around on the back of trucks (something I’d never seen before). Again, hard to match to a pattern of settlement that now builds the biggest, fattest houses in the world, but what new building possibilities might emerge from all this?
Meanwhile, parks become swamps, streets become creeks, roads become river.
Supermarkets are out of bread, milk and others incredibly quickly. I helped put a radio show together in Brisbane a few months ago — with ABC Radio National’s By Design — where we discussed food security and food resilience amongst other things. Our guest Shane Heaton described how western cities like Brisbane are only a few days away from disaster in terms of food stocks. It does indeed feel like there are a few days’ worth of food in the larder and fridge (and the fridge here will be next to useless — as a fridge — in the next few hours) and there is only a days’ worth of food in the supermarkets, perhaps; at least at times like this. There is little or no distributed pattern of food production (just as more solar power would’ve been handy today, and yet is not installed much, in this sunniest of places.) Again, a chance to rethink? It feels incredibly fragile. And no collective memory for producing such things from within any communities.
The emptiness of the CBD on Wednesday morning is eery, and also eerily familiar, to me anyway, of London after the 7/7 bombings. There, the streets were not so much empty as full, but of pedestrians, turning the traditional road hierarchy of places like Tottenham Court Road upside-down. Here, Brisbane’s roads are so full of traffic so often that to see them quiet almost feels post-apocalyptic, as if a neutron bomb had gone off and removed people though not structures. These wide roads feel deliciously empty at this point, albeit under an atmosphere of impending disaster. Perhaps its more like The Day the Earth Caught Fire or more accurately, the classic New Zealand sci-fi flick The Quiet Earth.
Also from the ‘Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining’ department, Queensland’s mining industry has been hit heavily by these floods, hampering coal and coke exports and thus forcibly reducing Queensland’s otherwise horrendous levels of carbon dioxide exports.
And from the ‘Never Waste A Good Crisis’ department, there is huge opportunity for rethinking patterns of settlement, not simply in terms of population centres built in the wrong place, but also in terms of the infrastructure underpinning the car-dependent patterns of activity of Australia’s low density sprawls.
There is, for me, a very clear connection between the fragility exposed so clearly at the moment by this natural pattern and the artificial patterns of development chosen by Australian cities.
I got the Sydney-based architect and teacher Adrian Lahoud in to Arup recently, to give a talk describing some of his work at UTS around what he calls ‘post-traumatic urbanism’. Usually this applies to the likes of Berlin or Beirut, but we’ve been talking about how it applies to Australian cities (though had been thinking of a gridlocked Sydney than a flooded Brisbane.) In Beirut, due to the variability of its fabric, everyday needs have to be met locally, as you’re never sure whether a road will be there or not. As a result, there is what you might call ‘network redundancy’ i.e. every few streets has a grocers, bakers, coffee shop, ironmongers, tailors etc. etc. This, as opposed to the centralised and consolidated model of western cities, most obviously visible in the out-of-town mall accessed by car, with all the apparent economies of scale that entails. Yet the former model is actually more resilient, for sure. The heightened conditions of post-traumatic urbanism may have something to offer Brisbane for the rebuilding, if we can derive the humility to look at cities like Beirut and learn.
(Humility seems a key word today. What arrogance to have built motorways and electricity substations below a safe level in the first place, never mind housing?)
Today, certainly, I would have liked everyday needs to have been met locally (and actually everyday in the suburbs I feel that way). It would have been better to have been in a place with a walkscore of something approaching 100 (see walkscore.com.) But there is nothing around us, barely pavements, and now the connecting infrastructure of roads is so easily compromised. ‘Network redundancy’ is not a particularly motivating term for wider propagation, but it will be an increasingly important idea for Australian cities, whether they like it or not. The flood makes that much clear.
Whether the floods can be pinned on climate change is another matter. I heard an interview a couple of weeks ago from, I think, a CSIRO scientist who said these weather patterns are just “natural variation”; that average temperatures are obviously rising generally, due to climate change, but that this masks considerable variation within that range. SBS report otherwise, some scientists are making the connection.
This weather may be a canary in a coalmine or just coincidence. Yet we know climate change will entail increased and considerable variation. Whether this is a shot across the bows from climate change or not, we should treat it as if it is, as a chance to practice our response, and to rethink out approach. The Victorian bushfires were another such chance to rethink, another shot across the bows, but development stubbornly continues in those places.
“Considerable variation”. Australia is a land of considerable variation most of the time it seems to me, and certainly, with the La Niña weather system (a facet of the broader El Niño Southern Oscillation) moving through, this is to be expected. John Birmingham, in his considerably variable yet hugely entertaining and insightful book Leviathan, has a wonderful description of El Niño — and its occasionally malevolent sister La Niña — indicating just what an extraordinary thing it is. An intercontinental system which connects South America with Australia, via Africa and the subcontinent, and directs much of the world’s weather (and thus grain production, food prices, migration patterns etc.). It’s essential to understanding Australia’s general pattern of weather — though little understood — and yet even this quotidian extremity will become more variable due to climate change.
The 1974 floods form a kind of mythic event in Brisbane’s history. Residents here are marked by those that were here then, and those that have arrived since. It’s up there with Joh, the Go-Betweens, Expo 88, Clem Jones and the Saints. I’ve read around the city a lot, and about the ’74 floods several times, but still I didn’t have a sense of what it was really like, having not been here and having never experienced a major flood anyway. Until now, however, where this flood is being measured in terms of ’74 all the time.
The high tide this morning was thought to be destined to be above it — the biggest since the 1893 floods in fact — and is now (midnight) thought to be just below it, which is described as a “slight reprieve” by the Premier Anna Bligh (who is performing brilliantly, it must be said, and this may be the making of her.)
Videos of the 1974 flood can be glimpsed on YouTube, and it’s worth having a look (not least for the entirely surreal choice of library music accompaniment.)
It’s almost the same in many respects — that same swollen milk chocolate-coloured river just squatting over streets and buildings. However, the city now is completely different, with thrusting skyscrapers in the CBD most obviously, but building everywhere else, in all the cracks in-between. The city’s population is twice the size and growing rapidly. The popular line, trotted out many times by residents on ABC’s talkback radio tonight, is that Brisbane was then “a big country town”. Brisbane City Council’s new tagline is ‘Australia’s new world city’ by way of comparison.
Other myths of the Queensland include their toughness — the ‘they breed them tough north of the border’ sentiment that many are clinging to. Yet there is toughness on display here. A grittiness and camaraderie instantly familiar to me from times such as 7/7, but also drawing on older narratives. It’s a potent brew, and will be useful as the rebuilding — which may be tougher than the actual flood itself.
Today, Wednesday, in cruel contrast to yesterday’s leaden skies and thunder, was a beautiful day. Clear blue skies, hot sun, humid air. It’s almost mocking, in comparison to the inexorable creep of the snaking river. The creep is mostly not visible to us today, but understood through listening to the radio — a litany of road closures and warnings, mainly, but also in the many reports of suburbs being slowly inundated — Rosalie, Fairfield, New Farm, South Brisbane, West End, Taringa, Milton. You don’t want to be living in a road with ‘creek’ in the title, that’s for sure.
Though we do actually see the creep of the river very close later, with the water visible as soon as we’re at the bottom of the drive leading from our street, essentially. A park adjacent to Moggill Road was suddenly completely underwater, almost an arcadian scene, save for the top of a playground’s sun shade floating on the water.
Walking further on, under the now blazing sun, a side-road, Witton Road, disappears into the still, sludgy water after a few metres. People stand around just looking at it, or inadvisedly paddle in it, as if defying it to come further.
Others pose in front of it, having their picture taken. It’s an odd instinct to be posing in front of a deceptively still expanse of brown river water perhaps, but understandable when you think about it. Part of it is marking the occasion, the desire to record everything, as if it didn’t actually happen if it’s not on Facebook.
But I think part of it is a way of dealing with it too, of coping, of making sense. It’s perhaps a way of understanding the flood, of brazenly ‘taming the flood’ in some way. To be posing in front of it, as if conquering it, an imperial hunter posing with his foot up on a felled elephant’s head.
I spend most of this morning, with the brother-in-law, helping my friend the architect James Russell, who built a wonderful house in central Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley a while back — I wrote about it here once — and then a cracking little small office, which was placed in the recent Think Brick competition I seem to recall.
We help sandbag both. I didn’t expect to be sellotaping binbags to breezeblocks this morning but there you go. The binbags are wrapped around the sandbags, helping to preserve expensive air conditioning units, to block doorways, and isolate to areas that can be later be pumped out. It feels good to be vaguely useful, even if it’s again surreal, with the courtyard dry and hot. As roads close around us, however, it becomes clear the river could be drawing near. I’m not sure how Jamie’s place got on — fingers crossed.
We’ve run out of sandbags — and amazingly, a few were stolen from one corner (can you believe that?) — so we have to drive out to Kedron to pick up as many as we can load in the boot of the car. Plotting routes in and around the city is relatively complex, as you’re listening for road closures on the radio, looking for the blue wriggle of creeks and rivers on the map, and trying to remember the topography of the city, all those swoops of valleys.
At the Kedron Special Emergency Service (SES) station, the queues of ‘utes’ are relatively small, and we’re in and out pretty quickly. It’s a peculiar procession of vehicles, from the mother-in-law’s Lexus to knackered old vans, a kind of inland Dunkirk of all possible craft. Volunteers are everywhere, which is hugely impressive in a natural, quiet and stoical way, helping out fill cars with sandbags, including an entire local rugby team in full kit. Our car is loaded as much as the wheelbase can take it, and we’re off again. Back at the Valley, and after several hours of hard work, miraculously, J’s wife T. shows up with freshly baked banana bread, flat whites, cold water. Bliss.
Back to the Western Suburbs. There are rumours of a riot at a Coles supermarket in the suburb of Kenmore. There is panic buying going on all over the place, and the unconscious urge to join in is almost irresistible. There’s more than enough food in the larder, but again, you’re aware that the vegetables, bread and dairy products will last no more than a couple of days.
We visit a local hardware shop, to try to track down gas for a lamp (but no gas anywhere) or any other light sources (some LED lamps acquired, but no ‘D’ batteries anywhere.) With impressively opportunistic chutzpah, the shop has constructed a small ‘flood goods’ display by the counter. Wellies and gloves, various cleaning products for the imminent Great Clean Up of 2011, ‘eski’ coolers, and optimistically, a ‘boogie board’ sawn-off surfboard.
Some of these deserted shopping centres now feel almost exactly like Dawn of the Dead (perhaps with those rumours of incipient civil unrest in mind too). The heat bounces off the tarmac, a few shopping trolleys discarded in the car parks. Brisbane is very hilly, and these places are high and dry, well above the water line, but the impact of the flood is visible in their unusual use today, with a few people scurrying around looking only for ‘D’ batteries and tea lights.
There’s a mild sense of the ‘disaster junkie’ at play here, particularly in the rolling news coverage on television, which endlessly loops footage of the destruction. Channel 7’s coverage has been particularly risible and unhelpful, which is par for the course. But it almost seems that there’s a tinge of regret that the flood levels won’t surpass ‘74’s, as if this was a chance to define a new narrative for a new generation, to quieten those who have perhaps dwelt on the 1974 flood for too long (without taking on its lessons, it would seem.)
Apparently there are 27 helicopters up there in the sky now, possibly more than Australia has deployed in Afghanistan. It’s certainly all I can hear outside at 0100 tonight. Usually there’s the dull roar of the highway a few hundred metres away, but that’s largely quiet tonight. Which is nice. However, a house alarm has just started a couple of streets away (too early to be set off by water?)
But the Brisbane night is naturally noisy, as usual, with the wall of sound of cicadas and other insects, chirping frogs and toads, shrieks of bats, and suddenly punctuated by the cheeky lip-smack of geckos somewhere in this very room. The flora and fauna are in rude health, and the vividness of that Australian flora and fauna hit you over the head at the best of times.
When I first got a look at Brisbane, it immediately reminded me of both the film Silent Running and JG Ballard’s The Drowned World, funnily enough. This entry explains why. I’ll re-read that in a bit. There will be some choice passages in Ballard’s book, for sure.
The Ballardian overtones are also clear in the sense that social breakdown doesn’t seem far away. Despite the casual stoicism with which most people are addressing the flood, this ‘natural disaster’, the sense that food, water, electricity and connectivity is so fragile does give pause for thought. How far away is this form of civilisation from something deeply uncivilised? Does a culture hoisted up on the twin pillars of property development and ‘lifestyle’ create the right conditions for civilised resilience in such circumstances? These are empty words at the moment, as the vast majority of Queenslanders are performing everyday heroics, but the murmurs of spot acts of looting are already circling, the first sign of a society breaking ranks.
“Natural disaster” seems the wrong terminology, actually. As far as I can see, nature is having a fine old time. Ducks, toads, insects, snakes, cockroaches, turtles, mosquitos — all are thriving. The water, so foreign to this terrain in recent years, is gulped greedily by the undergrowth. I’ve never seen Brisbane so green, so tropical. So it’s slightly solipsistic of us to describe it in terms like ‘natural disaster’. It’s only our inflexible, non-adaptive infrastructure that can’t cope with this.
And the infrastructure is failing for sure. Everything feels very contingent, very fragile. I spend a fair amount of time helping design various flavours of “resilient urbanism” in cities around the place, and it’s clear that this is not at all resilient.
Not least the mobile data connection I’m trying to use to upload these words. It’s fluctuating from No Service to GPRS to 3G, with never more than 2 bars on any, but generally not there at all. The Telstra landline is coming and going too, which is even more worrying.
130,000 homes are without power tonight. Many will be back on again soon in theory, but Energex say it could be a week (“weeks even”, I just hear on the radio) before some are on again. This house could be in that category, given that L. heard the local substation blow with a large bang, as the water reached it. (You might well ask why the substation was built at such a low-lying position, such that it is one of the first things to go.)
Interesting that the ABC’s radio infrastructure seems a little flaky too, noting they might have to switch their waveband to Classic FM’s if one of their transmitters goes under and their AM signal disappears. At the BBC, I was involved in keeping the websites up and running during 9/11 and 7/7, but was also aware that BBC radio would be the last signal of life to go in the event of catastrophe like nuclear war.
It was by far the most resilient system I’ve ever seen, more so than than a distributed internet model, actually. This doesn’t feel the same, though radio does come into its own at times like this, forming a thin connective tissue of civilisation over the state, with people calling in from everywhere, and the radio issuing official localised disaster warnings. Along with the landlines, radio is the absolute core of our communications infrastructure, as well as a companion through the night.
I haven’t been without power for this length of time before. The hand still instinctively moves towards useless light switches on entering a dark room, even hours later. But now all rooms are dark, and not getting any lighter, until dawn at 0430. If I’m honest, there are aspects of all this that are slightly appealing to those also brought up on myths of British stoicism (just as there is a marginal appetite for austerity in British culture (within reason) which is being tested currently.)
And the lack of power is not unappealing, at least in the short term. Australian television is so bad it is not missed, although the lack of access to images of downtown Brisbane — while the rest of the world can see them — is a little frustrating. It’s odd to think that many Brisbane residents won’t see the footage that others are seeing tonight. Perhaps not for days. But it doesn’t feel like a bad thing, once the kids have been convinced that, despite the absence of Playschool, everything is in fact OK.
Water supplies are currently fine, though we’ve been filling a few large buckets and coolers in case it doesn’t remain like that. Lord Mayor Campbell Newman just said that there are some issues with the infrastructure, from silty river water damaging purification plants through to raw sewage entering flood water. Australia’s issues with mishandling water are well-known — not least its ongoing refusal to recycle water, which is increasingly ludicrous, as well as its generally inefficient use of stormwater — and Queensland is no exception.
The Queensland state is the backdrop to the unedifying inter-state squabble over the Murray-Darling basin, over those recycling debates, over the mishandling of biodiversity in the Mary River, over the cost of desal plants, over whether to build more dams as flood mitigation, and so on. This last point is particularly germane right now, and many MPs, including the more unhinged Queensland variants, have decided that this is the right time to have those debates. With the current situation still unfolding, I don’t think it quite the right time for those debates. (Never mind Tony Abbot’s idiotic attempt to bring the costs of the national broadband network into all this.)
There will be much finger-pointing after this, from insurance companies refusing to pay up due to the releases from dams not technically being floods (what on earth else are they then? Someone leaving the tap on?); from those who point out that, as memory of the ’74 floods faded, developers were allowed to build in flood plains earmarked for further flood mitigating dams; from those pointing out that the floods are a result of climate change (and even if these ones aren’t, future ones will be); from those pointing out that the entire fragile mode of suburban development of Australian cities is particularly unsuited to the resilience required of the near-future; that development should not have been allowed on the riversides, and so on.
There will be a time for discussing how to achieve more resilient patterns of settlement in Australia. I’m not at all convinced that there is an appetite for genuinely addressing this, despite the floods. People are apparently incapable of thinking about the future on the scale required for investment in things like urban resilience, even accepting it needs to be better communicated. I’m not sure people see the connection between devastating flooding and a culture where property developers call the shots, where cost reduction drives aspiration in building and infrastructure, and where a car-based fabric of dispersed tarmaced low-density communities is virtually the Australian dream.
But if it’s not events like this, I’m not sure what else it would take to make this clear and force the issue.
As I stop writing, the predicted high tide at 4am is going to be just under that 1974 mark, which is less than was being predicted this morning. Very good news. It’ll still destroy a fair chunk of city, however, and the flood water will remain there for days. We’re not sure when power will return, but otherwise all is well here, and my thoughts are with those in a worse situation. I’ll use @cityofsound at Twitter when I get the chance.
Two days later, and back in Sydney; safe, sound, dry etc. There’s still no power in the house in Brisbane — we went for three days without. My mother-in-law L, whose house it is, is still in Brisbane, helping clean out her mother’s garage in St. Lucia, two levels of which went completely under, and is part of a riverside apartment block which won’t be habitable for at least a month. Although it’s very good to be home in Sydney, I feel like I’m almost betraying Brisbane by not helping with the clean-up, which is going to be horrendous.
In the end, the Brisbane River did peak below 1974, resulting in no loss of life so far but material and physical devastation causing untold emotional distress and estimated to cost billions of dollars. J and T’s brick house survived. Brisbane Times has good coverage of what happened.
Elsewhere in Queensland, the death toll is still rising. If you are looking for a way to contribute in some way, you can donate to the Queensland Government’s Flood Relief Appeal.
Originally published at cityofsound.com on January 13, 2011
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