Sunday, January 16, 2011

Life During Wartime: Queensland floods 2010-2011

It’s no wonder Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said her state was like a war zone. What Queensland has endured in the last three weeks was war with constantly changing battlegrounds. Nature did battle with life across a warzone of a million square kilometres. Around 70 towns and about a quarter of a million people have been directly affected and millions more indirectly. (photo from Toowoomba flood:Wikipedia)

As of Saturday night 16 people were confirmed dead and 15 more are missing, likely to have been washed away by nature’s heavy artillery. Among the dead were Donna Rice, 43 and her 13-year-old son Jordan who were swept off the roof of the car in Toowoomba. Jordan Rice has become an on-line hero for insisting his younger brother be rescued ahead of him. Meanwhile three members of one family died when Fire Truck 51 of the Rural Fire Brigade became inundated on the Gatton-Helidon Rd. Two others on the truck escaped.

The others who died were in Grantham, Murphy’s Creek, Marburg, Dalby and Durack as the Lockyer Valley took the brunt of the savage attack. All that water ended up in the Bremer River causing further havoc in Ipswich before heading on to Brisbane where it caused mayhem in the riverside suburbs and associated creeks on Wednesday and Thursday.

Normal routines were obliterated as the city shut down and emergency workers took over. No-one batted an eye-lid as Ipswich Mayor Paul Pisasale threatened vigilante justice by turning supposed looters into “flood markers”. There may have been some small-scale looting but it was likely over-sold by media just as they exaggerated the natural response of people wanting to see what happened as “rubbernecking”. A more profound reaction was shown today with reports of over 7,000 volunteers showing up to help with the clean-up.

One of the saddest sights for me in the Brisbane floods was the footage of the floating pontoon sailing down the river. It felt and looked like a funeral. A barge was there to act as cortege as it moved slowly and sombrely down towards the sea. The pontoon is certainly a structure I will remember with fondness. I used to often ride along its path which linked New Farm with the Howard Smith Wharves under the northern side of the Story Bridge (a site where a planned hotel might no longer be so attractive an option).

There were shorter ways of cycling from Wooloowin to the city but none so attractive as the paths that hugged the river. The pontoon at the end of Merthyr Road was the best part as it went right out on the river. It was exhilarating to be on a bikepath in the Brisbane River’s thalweg. You were part of the water traffic and if you were foolish enough, you could attempt to race against the Citycats as they glided past elegantly over 20 knots an hour.

On Thursday morning it was the pontoon itself that was dashing past at 25 knots. It broke clear of its moorings in the height of the flood around 4am. The Brisbane River was peaking at 4.46 metres. The combination of all the water coming down from the ranges and into the river system, plus the necessary spill-offs to save Wivenhoe Dam and finally a king tide pushing water in from the coast, put too much strain on the design. Off it went towards Moreton Bay. The flood was high enough to do great damage but a metre below the 1974 record peak the experts thought it was going to break.

With a ground floor unit in a street that floodmaps say got some water in 1974, that news was a personal relief. Elsewhere the destruction was intense. Mayor Campbell Newman said the river transport infrastructure was "substantially destroyed" and 20,000 homes flooded. It was the city's sixth biggest flood in its 170 year history. Those who lived through the last big one in 1974 like John Birmingham have it branded in their memories as the "warning from the west”.

Wivenhoe Dam was one answer to the 1974 western warning. It gave Brisbane massive support during the 2011 flood. Its engineers had to open sluice gates that contributed to the inundation but it does not bear thinking about what might have happened to Brisbane this week if Wivenhoe was not there. Its role re-opened the debate over dams. An awkward alliance of Marxist left and centre-right libertarians will struggle to sell confident environmentalists there is any good in dams.

Standing in the centre, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has been praised for her disaster response. Her role became that of communicator-in-chief and the bearer of bad news. Flanked by silent politicians, police chiefs and a signer for the deaf, she did what she does best: she mastered the detail.

The media ate it up. The floods are a great news story in an otherwise flat time of year. The commercial TV stations tried as usual to shamelessly turn themselves into the story but it was old-fashioned radio that stole the show. ABC Local Radio was consistently the best outlet for latest news on the floods across the state. Unlike the 24-hour television stations it didn’t need pictures to sell the stories. It was able to use its wide network of reporters to link in well with the goodwill it has from its listeners and providers of content. Newer media showed their uses too. The Queensland Police Service Facebook page became a vital and well-updated cog in the delivery of important information, and just as important, the quashing of rumours. Many of those rumours emerged on Twitter which was its usual chaotic self. The #qldfloods hashtag was a goldmine of some astonishing images from the flood regions.

Also on Twitter was the self-serving and mostly useless “prayforaustralia” campaign (Brisbane is a sprawling city but NOT the size of France and Germany) which trended across the world during the “war”. Other than making those praying feel good about themselves, it didn’t achieve much. Far better would have been to contribute to a flood appeal. Not necessarily a Queensland one (or Australian – the warzone spread to NSW and Victoria) but also to the more needy who have suffered in less reported but even more devastating floods in Brazil or Sri Lanka. As in any war, the poorest always suffer the worst.


observer said...

hi derek

i really enjoyed reading this. it summed up a lot of things very nicely

are you originally from Queensland? i really liked Anna Bligh being so "present" during this whole disaster. i think peter Beattie would have done the same. i even think Kristina Keneally would do the same. that such people can do such things doesn't necessarily make them the right people to govern us.

re: her comments about queenslanders ... it's as if people are made of different stuff just because you are born north of the Tweed River and people in Murwillimbah, Tweed Heads, Kyogle and Moree don't have the same steel in their spine. i enjoy the rivalries in cricket and football etc, but i'm Australian first when it comes to disasters like this and it makes me think less of her for making the reference to her state rather national character.

i don't regard Paul Tully's comment as nasty-type vigilante justice. i found it diverting, and a great example of relieving stress and anger through black humour.

thanks for your post

Derek Barry said...


thanks - I'm originally from Ireland but have lived in Qld for 13 years.