Brisbane – in the aftermath of nature’s fury

It goes without saying that the city of Brisbane in Queensland, the third largest in Australia, has a huge task ahead in the aftermath of the devastation from floods that infiltrated the city, its surrounding suburbs and the C.B.D. (Central Business District) While chaotic in nature the city did have a day or two to prepare, although many it seems suspended belief in what would happen.

Brisbane, said a creative colleague once, is the only city in Australia that, from its colonial period onward, built houses suitable to the climate and conditions. Housing was constructed with plenty of shaded areas and good ventilation. Spaces beneath them were meant to deter snakes and protect houses from flooding. It is only as a by product they became secret cubby houses for generations of Australian children.

Floods are bad enough but with warning, lives can be saved. However a flash flood like that at Toowoomba is entirely unpredictable. No one can imagine how terrible it was when it combined with this other huge flooding event in the making. For the residents it must have been the stuff nightmares are made of. So many lives lost in what must have been a night of sheer terror as an eight metre wall of water bore down on the beautiful hilltown and then ripped through the lovely Lockyer valley below causing mass destruction.

The Premier of Queensland and Lord Mayor of Brisbane gained a great deal of world wide acclamation and great kudos for doing their jobs well during the horror of the flood crisis. The Premier was on television every few hours updating everyone and the Lord Mayor was out and about being very visible while his bulletins were delivered by email daily. Surely that is what is to be expected from our politicians, it is after all their jobs and what we pay them to do.  But, was it enough? Have the governments past and present done enough to keep us safe? After all security is at the heart of any civilization.

Brisbane going under, Riparian Plaza is the tall building on the left

In the coming days as the euphoria surrounding this event ends and the city of Brisbane and the townships of Queensland re-emerge from the mud there will be an inevitable let down. The adrenalin pumping that carried many through the days of crisis and clean up will end as volunteer helpers leave to recommence their own lives. Following that the days of reckoning will begin. This is when those who have lost the most will begin to ask. Why me?

The city, big enough to get lost in and small enough to feel like home, was a true jewel in the crown of Australia – the lucky country, at least before this disaster. But has its luck and even Australia’s begun to run out? While we have been busy growing our cities in the past decades since World War II have we failed to keep citizens safe because of a lowering of standards in city and town planning?

Someone will ask hard questions about this I am sure. And council, government and developers will need to have an answer and be accountable to those already struggling with a mortgage who are now forced to rebuild without the benefits of a large insurance payout.

Why in flood prone or low lying areas have developers been allowed to build houses on the ground? Was not the wisdom of their ancestors in plain sight for all to see? Did arrogance triumph? Was it sheer bloody mindedness or what?

Also why were permissions given to fill in under houses in flood prone areas in times of drought.

Everyone who grows up in Australia knows that drought is always followed by flood, it has happened since records began. Such information was certainly passed down in the memory of my family who had lived in both bush and town. And, as I understand it, weather forecasters were saying this event would happen some months ago. Why was it that no one was listening?

Why were new high rise buildings in the city allowed to install power grids below the level of the 1974 floods? If they have been then this needs to be investigated. During my time living in Brisbane from 1999 – 2010 marks on walls all over the city informed flood heights of 1974. It was extraordinary how many there were.

My son and his partner's first house, going under

When I first arrived to teach and live in the city heart at St Johns Cathedral precinct I became well acquainted with the stories of heroism that came out of that previous large event. It only aided my own memory because I was around when it was originally happening way back then. My children were all small at the time and we were living in Sydney where we were glued to our black and white television for news as the drama unfolded.

In Melbourne I followed this latest event in graphic full colour detail all day. Much like the rest of the nation, I watched as street after street containing houses, including those of people I know and love were submerged. It was a traumatizing event for all and I was a thousand miles away in Melbourne both safe and dry.

Honey suddenly had a great big swimming hole to play in. But was it safe? Even she looks confused

I have always been one to ask questions and push the edges. So I will ask why, when a record of the 1974 floods were still available in living memory as well as set in words in archives, were not the CBD areas of the city the river snakes around secured?

At least four or five times a week in the years I was living at Brisbane I used to walk around the river city. My journey took me past city centre, through the gardens, across the river, around kangaroo point and back over the Story Bridge into the city. During that time high rise and luxury buildings were going up everywhere along the river. Also homes were being built along the river in places like Graceville on land always flooded when the river came up.

When Harry Seidler’s Riparian Plaza was being built on Eagle Street in the heart of the CBD walkers had to circumnavigate the works via Eagle Street in the CBD precinct and back to the riverwalk when work was halted for some time. I was told planners were reassessing the layout. I am not sure what ensued but the entrance to the car park was designed to be in the basement (below water level). When I visited friends and entered the car park I used to wonder what would happen if the entrance flooded because it was also a main hub for the building, which contained many restaurants and retail outlets that overlooked the river.

Coronation Drive, one of the cities main thoroughfares, was a road I knew well and drove along often. It was revamped at least twice while I was there. As an ‘old designer’ it was always a mystery to me why they were not building some sort of levee or dyke to secure it from flooding before they put in additional bridges being planned. Today I read it is in danger of ‘falling off’ into the river. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen…what an absolute disaster if it does.

Bikes on Dykes

In Europe tiny countries, including Holland, have dealt with river and the sea invasion for centuries. Driving outside Amsterdam alongside a great dyke holding back the sea as a boat floats by above your head is an awesome experience, and one can only marvel at man’s continuing capacity to cope with nature, its fury and power.

Over that time they have become masters of engineering because of it. Sea and river water is kept out by natural sand dunes and man-made dykes. ‘These are formidable barriers so there is no reason to panic’ says the government’s Directorate-General for Water Management who keeps a close watch on the country’s ground levels. All dykes are checked once every five years.

A spokesman for the directorate said, “We’ve had subsidence for a thousand years, and so far we’ve managed quite well to keep dry feet in The Netherlands.”

So why is it we don’t learn from their example? A sea, a river, they are both great bodies of water.

In Brisbane the national headquarters of Green Cross Australia provides award winning environmental education. Not to be alarmist, but it would be great if more people around Australia would take note of some of what they have to say about the future of our cities and houses situated by water. When I speak to people about it they don’t seem to have heard of it. Try and log onto Green Cross Australia today.

Kevin Rudd helping with the clean up, a daunting task for any resident

Over the past days I have been staying with a friend at Anglesea on the Great Ocean Road. That community is well acquainted with bushfires. Residents all have a ‘fire box’ at the ready. It contains a flashlight, batteries, and an old battery driven radio because they have been informed this is the way the authorities will contact them in times of emergency.

It seems to make some sort of common sense, although they will have to be vigilant to ensure batteries are always operational and that it is kept to hand and not out in a garage or shed, which may be hard to reach in times of an emergency.

Here in Australia we have to get over this ‘it’ll be alright mate’, or ‘it won’t happen to me mate‘ attitude to ensure that in the future government bodies set and maintain high standards when dealing with people and their lives. Especially in places where flooding and fire devastation have a living history.

My youngest son didn’t seem to know at first much about what was happening in Brisbane. With the power off TV and Email were out of the question and its hard to recharge your Mobile phone when there is no power. And when you drop it in the water when fleeing, well that is another problem.

Hon Kevin Rudd with Craig and Sue, January 2011

His brother flew, with a few hour’s notice to Brisbane to help sandbag his house. He found he and his partner in some sort of suspended reality unable to believe the nearby creek (off the Brisbane river) would come up so high.

As they have been renovating the inside themselves for just over a year now the prospect of losing it all was just too much to contemplate. They had only just started outside with hundreds of new plants, which are now all lost as well as many of their stored posessions locked under the house while they were completing above.

It was not until Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Kevin Rudd popped in to confirm that they must leave that some sort of sanity finally prevailed. They were lucky, neighbours came to their aid and allowed them to pile their property in car port and garages higher up the hill, where they camped out while all the drama ensued. They reported the community spirit and help they received was incredible and that they twere humbled by the generosity of others.

Good on you Kev, thank you very much for helping keep my boy and his girl safe. Wonder just how many other sons and daughters you helped save? And, it is my hope Kev, that now you have seen the results first hand for yourself,  it might be you asking some of the hard questions in the aftermath of nature’s fury.

Carolyn McDowall, January 2011

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